As I contemplate the purpose of this blog, I have to ask myself, “who am I?”. That instantly reminds me of the question I most dread to hear. “Where are you from?” Why does everyone want to know where one is from? Why don’t they realize that for some people in this world, that question is simply too difficult to answer. For those who ask, I am sure they think of it as just a simple ice-breaker. A conversation starter. A simple question that hopefully may lead to closer bonds and a better understanding of where the other is coming from.
But for me, “where are you from?” brings angst. Fair enough, I do anticipate it when it comes, but I’m never ready. How do I answer? What do they really want to know? Are they wondering where my name is from? Where I was born? Why I look the way I do? What on earth my accent is? What school did I come from? Or perhaps, are they just trying to confirm their suspicion that I do not belong?
So how do I answer?
When I was really young, I used to answer simply “Ghana” and get away with it. After-all, that is what my parents told me. I was living in communist Germany and going to school with British military kids on a Royal Air Force base. I was a dark-skinned, almond-eyed, black natural hair-in-plaits child in a sea of pale British kids who knew full well I was Ghanaian but who belonged. Despite my self identity being very different from that of my class-mates we all had one thing in common – we were all foreigners. Maybe that is why it was easy for me to thrive in that environment. I developed a strong British accent, developed a taste for all that is Cadbury’s and McVite’s, read Enid Blyton, and would defend the Royal Family as if they were my own. And as my siblings all attended local German schools, I developed a German identity with them. I was comfortable and Lord knows I NEVER wanted to leave. But leave Germany we did.
We left to return to the country I claimed as my own. Ghana. I was in for a shock. Now answering “Ghana” to that dreaded question not only did not fly but was met with doubt. First of all, “they” were all Ghanaian, so ordinarily the question was supposed to elicit an ethnic group. Fanti, Ga, Hausa, Nzema, Ewe and so on. Although I knew which one I was, that really wasn’t what they were expecting from me. No way! Now, I was supposed to explain why I spoke differently, why I was pretending to be better than them. Or why I was so rude as to raise up my left hand in class. How was I supposed to know that is so taboo?! The fact that I did not speak any of the Ghanaian languages did not help my cause whatsoever. For my three years there, I remained a dadaba lactogen baby from abroad. But even then it was easy. Ghanaian/British/German. Three identities I could juggle.
Next stop New York, New York. Destination, urban public school. I’m not even going to touch the cultural shock (or was that horror) of attending an American public school – high school at that – when all that one had been accustomed to prior had been private, formal, uniformed, Christian, strict, regimented education. Anyways, in this setting answering “Ghana” to the dreaded “where are you from?” question also wasn’t satisfactory. I suspect it had something to do with prejudicial beliefs as to what an African girl should sound like and what her level of sophistication should be. I need not remind you of the African booty-scratcher stereotype. I wasn’t bothered though. I was Ghanaian. To admit otherwise, was to agree with them that the reason I was so well-spoken, so smart, so eloquent, was because I had “British in me” and I knew that to be untrue.
The dread with the question “where are you from?” began to set in when I went to uni. I went to Wellesley College, a small women’s college just outside Boston, Massachusetts. For some here, when they asked that dreaded question all they wanted to know really was where in New York I hailed from. But I wasn’t a New Yorker and I wasn’t an American either, so I wouldn’t claim it. I was an international student from Ghana despite my home address in the campus directory saying otherwise. Strike one! Never-mind that, I told myself. Americans didn’t have to worry about visas and I-20s. I did, therefore I was international and Ghanaian.
But it wasn’t as smooth with the internationals themselves. Unlike them, my family lived only a few hours away, so close that I didn’t need to use the host family Wellesley provided for me. I didn’t suffer from homesickness like they did. I didn’t have to travel with the barest of necessities. I didn’t have to adjust to New England winters. Strike two! With my fellow Africans, Ghanaians particularly, at area universities, many of whom had travelled from the homeland directly I wasn’t quite African enough. I didn’t sound like them. I didn’t go to secondary school, or GIS, or SOS to be able to contribute to the story-telling of suffering under the upper-class-students. Strike three! But to be fair, in college, I met Africans who were “less African” than myself, and as much as I wanted to quiz them as to what they were, I had to remind myself how much I hated being interrogated for being who I was. Here I was, a student from Ghana who was not Ghanaian. Odd, huh?!
The real breakdown though came when I went to medical school in the Midwest. I had spent all of college hanging out with international students, immigrants, and first generation Americans, loving the multiple displays of culture and revelling in our shared differences, that when I found myself one of a few in a sea of “real Americans”, I was besides myself. I remember attending a mixer for minorities and breaking down into tears after being asked for the millionth time the dreaded question. Ghana, New York, Boston, Germany, British, Wellesley, I couldn’t keep it straight. For the first time, I experienced the feeling of not knowing who I was. I couldn’t even begin to answer that stupid question. I was with a bunch of Americans with shared identities (despite their forced and artificial delineations along racial lines) and I was very clearly a lone outsider. I began to question myself. Had I made up parts of my history? After-all, who was there to collaborate my experiences at RAF-Gatow? No-one, not even my siblings. Had it all been a figment of my imagination?
It was then that I discovered the concept of the Third Culture Kid. Oh my goodness, I had found myself – there was nothing wrong with me! I was a TCK, an individual “who has spent a significant part of the developmental years outside the parents’ culture building relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any”. I soon found websites dedicated to the British military schools I attended as a child and linked up with a few of my former class-mates which reassured me I wasn’t psycho.
I have since left the Midwest, and have gone back to the Northeast, Rhode Island exactly, thereby widening the many possible answers to that question. I still answer Ghana for simplicity for myself as it remains my “passport country”, but I have learnt to figure out what it is the questioner wants to know. In regards to my accent, now a mix of American, Ghanaian, British, which admittedly sounds odd even to myself when I hear my own recorded messages, I reply “long story” and move it on. To the Africans and Ghanaians, as to how Ghanaian am I really, I answer I am Ghanaian enough to know. I’m not giving up that identity simply because I don’t match other people’s concept of a Ghanaian woman. They need to deal with it, not I.
So, where am I from and who am I?
As an adult-TCK, I belong everywhere and nowhere in particular. I am a chameleon who adjusts well to various conditions. I am nationalistic to Ghana but identify as a global citizen. Admittedly, it has been painful not being like my peers during adolescence and even during my twenties and I hope that as I age I become more comfortable with who I am in all my multiple identities. As to whether I will subject my future family to this kind of life I cannot say. It has been both good and bad. However, I know I am restless and will want to keep on being on the move.
I don’t think I’m ever going to conform wholly to any one cultural expectation – Ghanaian, American or otherwise. Since I have refused to identify as American ever since I landed here, yet have lived in this country the longest (13 years and counting), I really have no other options but to be comfortable with the realization that I will be American to much of the world. I accept that I am a ball of contradiction – introverted and camouflaged on the outside, robust and full of rich life experiences on the inside, and overall very observant and slow to commit!
In short, when asked the dreaded question, I ask back, what is it you want to know exactly? Hmm?!