On Migration, Identity and Colorful Earthlings

If you have moved abroad, the following scenario might sound familiar: you are at a social gathering, sipping your drink and having a pleasant time. You meet a bunch of new people and engage in small talk. You talk about the weather, food or common interests. They seem friendly. Everything is going well.

But the locals notice that something is off. Maybe it’s your appearance, maybe they sense an accent, maybe your body language deviates from the norm. They establish that you are not one of them and, in an attempt to make sense of your otherness, the inevitable question arises:

Illustration showing the protagonist and a blonde woman. The woman asks "Where are you from?".

You realize that the question is somehow flawed. They ask “where are you from”, and I wonder if this is what they picture in their minds:

Venn diagram

But you are not a tourist from country X in country Y. You are not even a long-term guest. In fact, you’ve been away for so long, that right now you are much closer to Y than X. You are at a loss for words.

Illustration showing the protagonist and the woman. The protagonist says "Err...".

In addition, your birthplace, the cultural background of your parents, the place where you were born or the country where you grew up might be totally separate variables. For the sake of simplification, let’s say all those elements can be stacked up in one pile. It still feels wrong to say I’m X. Instead, I picture something like this:

Venn diagram

You are in that green area, fluctuating between two worlds, really belonging to neither. Too foreign here, too alien for home.

Illustration showing the protagonist and the blonde woman. She asks "So?".

The conversational partner seems to be getting impatient. Maybe I could say that I’m both X and Y, and call it a day. It wouldn’t be a lie either, for I am a dual citizen.

I slightly lean back and take a look around. I spot my partner, who happens to be Z, talking to a middle-aged man, fighting the language barrier in order to explain what he does for a living. I know the struggle. We have all been Z at some point. He also puts his cultural luggage on the table, making our household an XYZ home.

Venn diagram

But there’s even more to this equation than just X, Y, Z. There’s also A, B, C, D, E, and all those places where I have lived, all those people that I have met, all those different world views that I have collected over the years.

Venn diagram

The mental diagram keeps growing. With every new added circle, the “me” intersection becomes tinier and darker. So tiny that it feels restrictive. You want to break free, yet don’t know how to put all the pieces together. You are a patchwork of traits, a book where every chapter outlines a different reality. You are part of everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Illustration showing the protagonist and the blonde woman. She is frowning while the protagonist looks at the reader.

Then the sudden realization strikes. It’s the question that was wrong all along.

You may be from somewhere, yet feel part of something else. Your identity is a fluid construct, a colorful coalescence. You are all the pieces of the puzzle, and those that are yet to come. You don’t have to settle for X when you can be the whole damn alphabet.

Venn diagram

So, next time someone asks where you are from, think big.

Illustration showing the protagonist and the blonde woman. The protagonist says "Planet Earth!".

Dedicated to anyone who has ever felt out of place.

***

I have a lot of thoughts on migration, identity and the arduous path towards a transcultural society, so stay tuned for more illustrated articles. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your views.


How the Journey Began

How did the journey begin? When high-school graduation rolled in, the spell had been cast: the boys got together with their female classmates. The first went off to work for their family business, and the later embraced their traditional housewife roles. I had neither a prospective job nor romantic affairs, but the growing notion that I had been sitting in the proverbial cave, watching shadows come and go. I didn’t know what was out there, but staying was not an option.

Something kept pushing forward, something that demanded to be lived out.

15 Years Living Abroad

Today 15 years ago I boarded a plane to Berlin with a one-way ticket. What started as an expat fling turned into a long-term journey starring the glory and the horrors of life abroad. It’s been 15 years unravelling foreignness across twenty countries, and I can truly say that I’m home abroad. It’s been a wild ride and, despite the hardship, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

So, in order to celebrate this milestone, I’d like to share with you some corny words from the illustrated book that I intend to publish someday:

“Moving abroad means moving past everything you deemed as normalcy. It means leaving one world behind and stepping into a disorienting universe of novelty, a challenging puzzle of strangeness waiting to be understood, and that’s precisely the beauty of it. It is then, on your own, amidst the unfamiliar and the uncertain, that you get the one in a million chance to reinvent yourself. You can start anew, unfold your powers, and be whoever you would like to be.”

Cheers!