When people ask me, “Where are you from?” I find myself perplexed. I’m not sure what they want to know. Do you want to know which countries’ passports I have? Where I grew up? What do I identify as? Where I have residency or where I live now? Where my family lives? Where I call home?
I feel like a tree that has had other pieces grafted onto it over the years. I’m a whole tree, but with odd color blossoms, and various kinds of fruit.
Saying I’m American is my default answer, and my default source of national identification. I was born there and lived there for the first four years of my life. I have a passport from the United States and this is the way I talk. I watched American cartoons and always loved to read. I consciously maintain my accent.
Being “American” is what prevents me from falling into a full-blown identity crisis. I hold onto it like an anchor and let myself drift away from it as far as I want, but only as long as I have something to come back to, at least in name.
I’m used to the America-bashing common in academic or dinner party settings in Europe. Often I agree with what is being said. But I confess that my sensitivity to the issue at hand depends on how I’m feeling at that moment in general.
Over the years, going to the US has elicited different emotional reactions. It’s always been a mixture of love and hate. Recently, after going back for the first time in six years, I felt a comfort I never had there before. I didn’t have to explain myself. I hadn’t relaxed like that into a place for such a long time.
“Are you half-Asian?” I get asked this a lot. I’m told I don’t look like my three younger brothers. My mother says it’s because we have Taíno ancestry, an indigenous group from the Caribbean.
She was born and raised in New York City, but is ethnically Puerto Rican. If she can get the ingredients, she cooks Puerto Rican food like rice and black beans, chicken that’s orange from Adobo and Sazón spices, and platanos, when we’re in the US. Her mother spoke in Spanish to her; her father, in English. She likes salsa dancing and I only recently realized what a good dancer she is.
I still have yet to visit Puerto Rico. But when I visit NYC I feel like I’m visiting some sort of sacred ancestral land. Watching my mom in her hometown is my favorite thing.
Someone called me white for the first time when I was nineteen, and it was strange. Am I white? I don’t know. I still tick “Other” in the odd boxes that ask what race you are.
When I was four, my family moved to Russia. It was a few months after the official collapse of communism, and although I don’t remember it, my parents say that occasionally tanks would roll by under our windows.
My mom said that at the beginning sometimes it was difficult to get things like toilet paper or canned tuna. Once she made a whole chicken, but it was mostly skin and bone. We, the children, started crying because we were hungry. She wanted to cry, too.
When my first brother and I would see a group of older boys or some drunk man, we would talk to each other in Russian or not at all. We lived in a building with lots of Koreans and went to school with them, too, and heard stories of skinheads beating kids up.
But I had a happy childhood. My second brother was born there. The Russian countryside and Russian poetry makes my heart weep with nostalgia. We lived there for eight years.
My family moved to South Korea when I was twelve. I studied Korean for a year and half before going to a private arts school. At first I had my American friends with me and once they left, I slept through all of my classes because I hated school. I would get up only to go to lunch and go to the bathroom. I never dreamed I would be doing that, but the Korean kids were doing it, so I did, too.
After ten years, I was ready to leave. When I’m homesick or feeling sad, I eat Korean food.
I don’t feel Korean. Korea has a way of reminding that if you look different, you can only belong so much. But at one point I stopped being annoyed when strangers would say, “Welcome to Korea,” or would talk about me in Korean in front of my face.
This is the homeland of my heart. My family still lives there. I once contemplated where I would be buried when I died. I knew it would be Korea.
My dad is Dutch. We would go to the Netherlands during summer holidays when I was a child to visit my relatives. Since then I always associated the country with vacations and good feelings.
I went to university in the Netherlands for three years. I studied in English, but tried to learn the language. Dutch people are too good at English, so I don’t speak much, but understand some. The first time I understood my dad speak in Dutch it was as if doors opened to a part of my dad I never knew.
Using my free weekend travel card, I traveled around the country either alone or with my Dutch relatives. I once went on a weekend trip to visit a friend who lived in Aalkmar. He took me to a museum that showed the history of the region of the ‘Empire of A Thousand Lakes,’ where thousands of little agricultural islands were dredged up with simple tools. My respect for the Dutch increased ten-fold.
My dad grew up sailing with his father and siblings. This explains my ever present desire to be a pirate, though a nice one, which is a contradiction in terms. Every time I feel sad I seek out a body of water and I feel restored.
My husband is German. A friend once remarked, “You’re going to have German babies.” I had never thought about it before, and it was an odd thing to consider.
I feel comfortable with Germans in a way that I haven’t felt with other people. I feel like I’m on a similar wavelength. Have I found my people?
When I told my husband that I often felt homeless, he told me, “Your home is where we are together.” At our courthouse wedding, the official said, “Coming from different countries, home is where you are together.” I barely held back my tears.
We’re going to live in Germany for a while. But I know I can’t stay in one place forever.
Towards the end of my study in the Netherlands, I knew I was going to be moving again soon. I had dreams of being kicked out of my house and being kicked out of my city. In my dream, I sat on a bed in a cramped dorm-style room, crying on one of the grey-sheeted beds.
Now I’m doing my Masters in the UK at a university that is highly international. Because of its regional focus, I’ve never felt more pressure to pick a side. How ironic. I sometimes sit in class and when someone asks, “How do they do it in your country?” I’m not sure what to say.
Do I long for a country? Right now I want my roots to have the chance to settle deeper into some soil. But I know the time will come when new branches will be grafted on to the ever growing tree.[fruitful_sep]
Renée Meijer Heil is half-Dutch and half-American, but having grown up mostly in Russia and South Korea, she’s not sure where she’s from. Her main interests are storytelling, representation, and figuring out the best way to listen to and tell stories. She also loves watching dystopian sci-fi with her German husband. She’s doing her MA in Critical Media at SOAS.