Goddamn my American accent.
“You’re from Singapore?” the girl sneered in her all-too-real Singaporean accent. “Born and bred?”
I was out with my new Boston roommates, who were introducing me as their “friend from Singapore.” I had no problem with it until I realized one of their friends was Singaporean.
“Hi, I’m Steph” was all it took for my undeniable American twang to tip her off. She scrutinized me like I was a 12-year-old handing her a fake ID, trying to get into some exclusive club.
Oh Lin, I wanted to say to my roommate, why did you not let me introduce myself? Why did you not let me tell my usual white lies?
Over the years I’ve developed a fail-safe pattern that avoids awkward social situations such as this.
When in Hong Kong (birthplace), say I’m from Singapore.
When in Singapore (hometown), say I’m from Hong Kong.
When in Boston (where I’m living now), say I’m from Singapore.
And if I’m Boston and happen to be talking to someone from Singapore, I say I’m from Chicago (where I went to college).
I know I’m not the only one who does a “little dance of white lies” when asked where I’m from. So I decided to quickly survey some former classmates from the Singapore American School. What do they say when asked, “Where are you from?”
Daniel Thämbïräj’s first response: “Ummm.”
“Ummmm well…” says Tommy Phillips, “I’m ‘originally’ from New York, but I grew up my entire life overseas.” He pauses. “It’s a hard question to answer.”
“I say I’m from Singapore,” Kahini Iyer said. “But then that is usually followed by, ‘Oh, I thought you were Indian.”
“I deal with this so much,” Rivkah Alvy said. “It depends on how much I want the person to know about me, and if I care that they know. If I don’t care, I say ‘I grew up overseas’ or ‘It’s a long story.’ If I do care, I say my mom is from Montana, my dad is from New York, but I was born in Israel, grew up in India and Singapore, and now live in Seattle.”
Within the Third Culture Kid (TCK) community, distaste for the “Where are you from?” strikes a common chord. It’s indicative of the confused identity that comes innately with a TCK status. According to The Washington Post, TCKs make an average of eight major moves before graduating from high school. It’s what separates us from immigrants or casual travelers, because instead of developing our identity and worldview in one locale and then leaving, we develop these characteristics while in constant transit. This is why, according to Pollock and Van Reken’s “Third Culture Kids”, people can be former expats or former foreign service officers, but never a former Third Culture Kid. We take our world with us wherever we go.
But not everyone else understands this. And this is why we do a “little dance” every time we’re asked about our identity. It’s not only because we’re unsure ourselves, but also because we’re unsure of the reactions we’ll get.
Amy Nguyen, who is ethnically Vietnamese but spent part of her life in Singapore and Japan, moved to the U.S. for college. The first day of class, she and her classmates introduced themselves. The guy sitting next to her was Singaporean but she had no idea. So Nguyen just introduced herself as Amy from Singapore.
“He looked at me funny,” she said. “And it was his turn to go next, and he was like, ‘I’m from Singapore too,’… with the accent and all.”
“The class couldn’t tell the difference,” Nguyen said. “To them, if you’re Asian, you’re Asian. But the guy and I talked after, and it was pretty funny. I explained that I went to an American school.”
But perhaps the most painful “Where are you from?” question comes from an immigration officer. When I tried to explain my ownership of Canadian citizenship despite never having lived there, the U.S. immigration official eyed me suspiciously, and then promptly sent me back to the “questioning room.”
One of my favorite stories comes from the 2002 first-person account by Annie-Sophie Bolon, published in the International Herald Tribune. The immigration officer told her: “Let me get this straight… French passport, which was issued in Indonesia, you were born in Australia, and your J-11 visa for entry into the United States of America was delivered in Venezuela. Is that right?”
Yes it was. He then noted her American accent, acquired from American international schools.
“Your English is amazing, how much time have you spent in the United States?” the officer asked.
“Approximately 18 minutes,” she replied. “This is my first time.”
Facing these incredulous responses to my American accent is something I’ve also grown used to. As soon as I say that I’m from Singapore, the next comment is almost always: “Wow, your English is perfect!” I believe this has something to do with my ethnicity (Asian).
“I usually tend to say ‘Canadian’ if someone asks me where I’m from,” says Daniel Thämbïräj. “But when they ask me a second time, I know it’s because my tanned skin is irregular for the ‘typical’ Canadian.”
Then he proceeds to stun his conversation partner with the following answer:
“Born in England, then in Ireland, then Wales, then Malaysia and Singapore with a permanent residency in New Zealand, then Canada.” Then to explain his ethnicity: “I was never in India, except on vacations to see family.”
While my own “story” is not half as long as Daniel’s, sometimes I resort to saying, “Oh, it doesn’t matter,” which is a flat-out lie. Withdrawal from social situations, and an inability to fit in are all common to TCKs, overwhelmed by their lack of national identity. Then there are people like Nguyen, who just have fun with it.
“After a while you just get tired of repeating the same thing,” Nguyen said. “Sometimes I say I’m from a country I’ve never lived in, and see if they can call me out. I even lie about my ethnicity too. It almost becomes like a fun game. People have no clue that I’m Vietnamese most of the time, because I tell them I’ve lived in Japan and Singapore. They assume I’m Japanese. Or Chinese.”
Establishing a solid answer to “Where are you from” may take an entire lifetime. A San Diego State University study by Ann Baker Cottrell, as reported on by the Christian Science Monitor, found that 90 percent of TCKs reported felt “out of sync” with their US peers, even into their 20s and 30s.
“I still don’t have an answer that just works,” Rivkah Alvy said. “I think people assume that I am uppity or like to brag about myself when it was just the truth. Other times, it’s a good conversation starter.”
Illustration for Denizen by David Habben