Where are you from?” This question is common enough for people who travel outside their native lands. As an Indian immigrant to the US, it was easy for me to answer this question with “I am originally from India”. There are enough immigrants in the US from enough countries that the explanation goes down okay. But now that we are stationed in China, things are more complicated. My first answer to this question is, “I am from the US”. This is met with a confused look and a glinting, questioning stare. On cue, I immediately follow up with, “But I am originally from India.” This is when the questioner’s face relaxes and a comforted smile breaks out.
Of course, “from the US” is more acceptable. I wouldn’t dare say, “I am American.” In China, Americans are white people with American accents. Or maybe some Black or Hispanic people with American accents. Certainly not Asians like me, Indian-looking people with Indian accents. We must stay in our respective Asian boxes, or we are seen as hiding the truth behind an American flag. So the follow-up explanation is a must. And once declared, THAT’S the box we belong in.
In China, I am Indian once again.
“You must put up an Indian table for International Day!”, a German friend tells me.
“Sure…”, I say thoughtfully, “I suppose I could.”
I am torn. The International Day being discussed is an event at my daughter’s school. This school in Beijing has a student body from more than 50 countries. We are at a Parent Association meeting and I don’t see any other Indians in the room. I suppose I am as close to an Indian we’ve got, and I could do the honors. But would that be fair to my daughter, considering this is her school? America is the only home she’s ever known. Sometimes when she is upset, she says, “Let’s go home, mama” and that home to her is Virginia, USA.
Would it be confusing for her if her mother identified as an Indian at her school’s International Day? And, more so, if I identified HER as an Indian at the International Day? I must confess, I already bought a dress for her during my trip to India for this day — a pretty Indian dress in her favorite color, purple, with matching Punjabi shoes in purple and gold. In an American school, that would have been fun — to introduce her classmates to a cultural heritage that she is clearly a part of. But was that lazy thinking on my part? As an American among foreigners that already disregard her rightful claim to her homeland, I can’t help but wonder if I am making a mistake by putting her in the wrong box. Maybe I should tie a bandana on her head using an American flag as an accessory to that Indian dress! Or maybe, I really should forget about her heritage and dress her up as an American — a cheerleader or a track athlete in US colors perhaps.
What is the best approach to keep my daughter secure in her identity, I wonder. I am not sure I know the answer. Living among fellow-expats, I see situations that are more complicated than ours. There are kids being brought up in China by spouses from two different countries. Many kids were born here and have never lived in either parent’s country. Then there kids who have been adopted from China that are now living in China as foreigners! Their parents probably struggle with similar questions. What is the best way to give these children a sense of national identity, a sense of where home is? Or, are we raising a group of Babies Without Borders?
This post first appeared in the author’s blog Footwalker.
The author Smita Chandra Thomas is a wanderer and wonderer seeking truth, and magic. Her lens gravitates to the enriching, the bemusing, art and architecture, efficiency, and natural beauty. Her day job brings much of this together in sustainability projects that save energy in buildings and reduce impact on the environment. She is also the delighted and distracted mother of a 3-year-old.