Personal Statement: Invisible Identity

Monday, January 25, 2016 - 9:18pm

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Illustration by Shane Achenbach

 

Everyone knows what the dreaded first day of class is like — usually in a small discussion room, surrounded by 20 people you don’t know. We all stare at the clock, passing awkward smiles at our neighbors and waiting for the minute hand to hit 10 and for the professor to start talking. Unfortunately, the class almost always begins with this: Let’s go around the room and say your name and an interesting fact about yourself.

For some reason, it’s really hard to look at yourself and imagine something interesting. That’s not intended to sound self-deprecating, as we’re all interesting people in some way, shape or form! But it is hard to look into yourself, and choose a fact that both you and the crowd will find intriguing. You also ride the fine line of being boastful or being uninteresting, with neither option appealing in this situation. I usually end up going for, “I ride for the equestrian team,” or “I am a writer for The Michigan Daily.”

It never occurs to me to tell my peers probably the most interesting and defining fact about myself: I’m an international.

I began the privilege of travelling and seeing different parts of the world at a very young age.

I spent my first six years living in Brussels, the capital of Belgium. I grew up surrounded by good food, different types of people and the ability to travel whenever a holiday came around. I spoke French at school and when playing with my sister but English with my parents. We visited most of Western Europe in my childhood, and I grew up with a passion for language and culture.

When I was six, my family moved to Ireland for my dad’s job. I remember the excitement and anticipation that filled my small body after my parents sat my sister and I down to tell us the big news.

“We’re moving to a town called Cork, in a country called Ireland,” my mother said to us, gauging our reactions with hope. “There’ll be a big garden and the school is just down the road, so you won’t have to take the bus anymore.”

When we moved to Cork, not much changed. As is apropos for a six-year-old, I was dismayed with the idea of a Catholic private school uniform. But I adjusted quickly and made friends in no time. I even developed an Irish accent and hid my foreign status almost immediately.

After roughly 18 months in Cork, my family relocated once more to the United States. I lived in Midland, Michigan from the ages of eight to 18.

Despite living in all these different countries and having these different cultural experiences, I am not from any of the places I know so well. I am not Belgian. Or Irish. Or American. I’m English. As you can imagine, this is confusing to me. How could I be from a place that I’ve never lived, a place that is only connected to me through my family?

My parents are both British and met after university in Birmingham, England. They moved to Belgium, got married and had me there. We visited both sets of grandparents in England on a regular basis when living in Europe. Now that we’re in the States, we make the leap across the pond once a year to do the rounds. However, as often as I visited the UK, I could never imagine it as my home. After all, I’d never even lived there. It was a place where I went to kiss my grandparents, be told how tall I’d gotten and spend far too much time in a tiny rental car on the crowded M25.

I’d spent my whole life blending into places that I didn’t really belong. I changed my accent, the clothes I wore, the games I played to fit in and become a part of the surrounding way of life. It boggles my mind a little to believe that, although I spent so much energy relating to these foreign cultures, they can be no part of my formal identity. I am restricted to one nationality, one passport.

As I’ve gotten older and my trips to Europe continue, I’ve started receiving a series of strange questions. Since I rarely bring it up, and surely not during the interesting fact exercise, my peers at school are often shocked to learn that I’m not American.

“Why don’t you get citizenship?” I’m often asked. My answer is I don’t know, because I don’t feel American. After traveling around so often when I was younger, the possibility of relocating again, this time for a job of my own, is highly plausible.

Similar to the former question, I also get a, “Do you feel more English or American?” when visiting my family.

These complex questions have racked my brain for a majority of my adult life (which, to be fair, isn’t that long). But recently, I’ve come to a solution — I feel that I represent a small part of every place I’ve lived and visited. I feel equally connected to my British heritage as I do to my American upbringing. I am as Belgian as I am Irish. The words on a passport, a green card or visa don’t define your personal nationality; you do.

The conclusion to this long-winding search of identity comes down to the person you want to be, and the identity you want to have. I want to take small pieces from each of my experiences and credit them to the person I am today. Without the time I spent in each of those places, and without the connections I made with those people, my life would be completely different.

So, when people ask me, “Where are you from?”, I’ll probably still crack a smile, laugh and answer, “Well, that’s complicated.”