When your mother is from Finland, your father from Senegal, and you live in neither, your identity becomes a matter of choice.
Photograph: Gideon Mendel/Corbis
“No, but where are you really from?” It is the question that automatically makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Like many “third culture kids” (TCKs), I panic, wondering whether the question refers to my nationality, where I was born, where I am living now, or where my parents live.
The term, coined by the American sociologist Ruth Hill Useem, refers to a child who has spent a significant part of their formative years outside their parents’ culture. People who fit that bill have a tendency to mix and merge their birth culture with their adopted culture, creating one of their own: a third culture.
Depending on the person and situation, I’ll have different answers to that dreaded question. I’ll tell white lies and change my story as I go, like many other TCKs. Sometimes I’ll go for the quick answer: Finland and Senegal. Other times I’ll tell the whole story: that I was born in Helsinki, moved to Luxembourg, then to Brussels and finally to London. Or I might say that my mum is from Finland and dad from Senegal, but that I really feel like my home is in the UK now.
Each time I get the question, I feel like I need to explain myself, prove my origins, and because of that I’ll often find myself omitting parts of my story in order to make my identity more palatable for others.
I always mispronounce my name for Americans. I'm reclaiming the originalSadia Latifi .
Living like this can sometimes feel liberating: I feel as though I’m wearing different masks, and I am constantly able to reinvent myself. But this also presents a dilemma: who am I really? Which of these masks is the true me? Where do I belong? In my case, this is made even more complex as I’m biracial. Although I was born in Finland, I’m aware that I don’t look typically Finnish – but seeing as I’ve never lived in Senegal, I feel strange saying I’m from there. Then again, I don’t feel very Finnish either, as I’ve lived abroad for most of my life. They’re both countries where I have family, and are places that I visit every few years – places I think of with nostalgia. But when I’m actually there, I feel out of place, like an outsider.
So where is home? Identity is attached to a sense of belonging, usually through family ties or deep emotional connections. Home suggests an emotional place – somewhere you truly belong, but I, like many other TCKs, never quite feel at home anywhere. It feels sometimes that I am in limbo. I am a strange mix of I-don’t-know-what, and sometimes I feel as if I’ll never find that one place where I belong 100%. I just feel blessed to have had the privilege of experiencing so many cultures.
Being rootless has given me a sense of freedom. I feel grateful for the experiences I’ve had
I sometimes wonder whether my life would be different if I had grown up in one place. I wonder what it would be like to have lived in a house where there were ruler marks beside a doorframe, documenting each of my childhood growth spurts; to have a friend who’s known me since nursery; not to feel like a tourist, wandering around with a map in a country that I’m supposed to embrace as my own.
Sometimes I resent the fact that I have to give complicated answers to seemingly simple questions. At other times it all seems rather trivial: as I watch my nieces and nephews growing up, and laying the basis of their identities among multiple cultures, I cannot help but feel proud. What an amazing opportunity, to speak multiple languages and see so many countries.
Being rootless has given me a sense of freedom. I feel grateful for the experiences I’ve had, and I am proud to feel, above all, like a citizen of the world. The possibilities for the future are endless. The sense of being at home anywhere, yet feeling that home is nowhere, is part of who I am.
I love being able to choose to be whoever I want, wherever I go. My many masks are a storyboard of all that I am. I’ve gradually built myself an identity that is a collection of pieces, each of which I’ve handpicked; choosing the best bits in order to create a whole. I’ve realised that those pieces are not mutually exclusive, but that they are all dependent on each other. Being rootless doesn’t mean I don’t belong to any one place; it means I choose to belong to many.