January 2020 seems a long time ago. Back then, I was frustrated by the new-at-the-time HSBC ad.
I hate being asked where I am from, and I hate thinking about it.
Of course we all ask each other various questions designed to understand the parameters of the person we are talking to, for no particularly good reason; in our heads, we size up what they are wearing, and how they talk. Then we ask them what work they do, where they live, whether they have a family, and finally, depending on the turn the conversation takes, we ask them where they are from. It’s a question I avoid asking people, mainly because I don’t really have an answer. But of course, if someone’s accent doesn’t match the language they are speaking, I want to know what their native language is. Ironically, given the current climate of talking about white privilege, virtually nobody does ask me where I am from. I look English, I sound English and I behave like an English person. I don’t have a regional accent, so there is no cause to confirm assumptions about, say, whether I’m from Yorkshire or Lancashire (sound the same, but definitely aren’t). But I am not born here, nor do I have a British passport. Even though I spent most of my school days overseas, my family is here, and most of my working life has been spent here.
So I have no idea what the answer is to the question of where I feel at home.
The HSBC ad talks about origin as ancestry, a moment in time, about emotional connections to places. These all capture the ephemeral nature of grasping the past to explain the present, and avoid making genetics deterministic; they subtly challenge the people who think that what you look like is a reason to ask, “Sure, but where are you really from?”.
The fact that I face none of those challenges also makes me feel silly for caring, for wanting to explain my past, because I want to bring all those different lives with me into the present. I want to preserve the small town in Germany where I lived for ten years, because although I don’t feel I can say I am from there, it was my whole adolescence. It’s the kind of place where my school friends found it exotic to have one parent being born in the neighbouring town. So turning up there from Australia when I was 13, with a parent from a *different* part of Germany, *plus* an English mother, most definitely did not result in feeling part of any team. Playing Shakespeare in German, as Helena opposite the blonde Demetrius I fancied myself in love with, was enough cognitive dissonance for a lifetime.
Still, at least we hadn’t lived there our entire lives, and still had people say “Die ist vom Tal der langen Messer”, which was verbatim how people described their classmates whose parents were Turkish (there was a specific part of town where Turkish-German families lived that was called “the valley of the long knives”. Yes, really, 1992 was a long time ago). So I was pretty happy to have my group of friends, and to eventually get good grades – because in Germany there is kudos attached to being academic, which was also a surprise after high school in Melbourne, where there was kudos attached to escaping out of the hole in the fence at the back of the oval.
So I suppose my real disappointment is that I feel at home everywhere, and this is something I do not seem to share with many others. I speak German like a German, I understand the culture, the idioms, I have read the major works of literature, I spent six years at school there. I’ve never had as much fun as the summer I spent waitressing in Heidelberg and partying with two Lebanese-German girls, with whom I often finished work at midnight, and who seemed to view 2 a.m. as a very reasonable time to show up in a club. They were as German as I was, but so many people would ask them where they were from, I can’t imagine how frustrating that must be.
And yet I still can’t say I am “from” Germany, because although it is my nationality, I haven’t lived there for 20 years, and even the language is no longer second nature. Because leaving Germany was so sad, I want somehow to keep it in my life, to belong to my own past and to my father’s life, and so I always want to mention it, as if that will make it real. I could say “I’m from London”, but if where you’re from is where you feel at home, then increasingly the whole country seems too fractured, too obsessed with taking sides, for me to say I feel at home here.
And then of course my whole childhood was all just sunburn, beaches, Stradbroke Island, bluebottles and Mintie hunts. I would never say I was from Australia, even though I was born there. I can’t justify my feeling of belonging, because it seems too tenuous to explain. Sometimes people say “well if you were there until you were nearly 14, it’s definitely a part of you”, and in the sense that is has forever spoilt all British beaches for me, and seemingly made me obsessed with keeping hydrated, it is. But other times, people say, “that’s so long ago”. So most of the time, the question and all its reactions make me feel quite alone in the world, a citizen of nowhere indeed.
Maybe the real sadness I feel is that where I am from is somewhere I can never return to, and maybe everyone feels it. After all, unless you still live in the house you were born, we all leave home, our parents break up, time moves on, people die before we tell them how much we cared. We can’t return to playing dens in the garden and basking in the delight on our parents’ faces. We are all from our childhood, but we are not at home there.