When we just moved to Singapore, a friendly aunty in the park asked my children where they were from. They looked at each other, hesitantly, and then at me. Born in the United Kingdom, from Dutch parents, living in Singapore; the answer was not easy. More curious than the asker I shrugged, and waited for their own response. ‘England?’ my then five-year-old son offered. He looked at me. I nodded. That was right. But there are more right answers.
After three years at the Hollandse School in Singapore, my kids became more and more Dutch, almost too much for my global taste. When my daughter was asked to list all the countries she had lived in, the Netherlands topped her list. That she never lived there, my headstrong then six-year-old would not accept. Now, at an international school with more nationalities than I can count, we are back to inconclusiveness about the big ‘where are you from?’
I share my children's confusion. I too was an expat-child. Every three years I moved to a different town, country or continent. Often we lived in a ‘camp’, a compound with only expats working for the same company. The camp had it’s own school, shop, and sports and private club facilities. The camp was a country in itself.
Life abroad changes you. You adapt to a new culture, learn new ways of doing things, and when you come back to your own country, you feel like a stranger. I still clearly remember the move to the Netherlands when I was ten.
We would go ‘home’, my parents had said, but I did not feel at home in that country, that I mostly knew from holidays and visits to grandparents. I felt different, yet everybody expected me to fit in, my parents included. I looked and sounded the same, didn’t I? I remember it as the most difficult of all the moves I have made, and trust me, there were more than a few.
I could not wait to get out of that tiny, cold, and to me, constrictive, country, so after secondary school I left for a gap year abroad. A few countries and continents down the line, I finally know where I feel at home: Everywhere and nowhere.
Being a stranger in a new country is hard for some, but to me it feels great. Comfortable. Outside of the Netherlands I don’t feel the pressure to fit in, and I can just be me. Maybe that is why Singapore, a multicultural immigrant city with a vibrant expat community, fits me like a glove. Here, everyone is different. Four years down the line, I am happy to stay just a little bit longer. I am not finished here. And I have finally learned the correct answer to that dreaded question.
‘Me? I’m from expatland!’