You Can’t Categorize Me Based On Where I’m From


I make no sense on paper.

Most people can answer the question “where are you from?” with just a few words, maybe even just one. Most people can tell you where “home” is. Most people can tell you their race and nationality in one second. Most people feel fully confident that their answer describes them in the fullest possible way and that they don’t need to add any further details or explanations.

I have no idea what that feels like. And I love it.

I am what is called a Third Culture Adult. The reason I am called that is because I was a Third Culture Kid from the moment I was born. Unlike the term multicultural, which is used above all to describe a society in which people from widely different cultural backgrounds live and assimilate, third culture is not a widely used or recognized term in the United States.

Third culture kids was coined by Dr. Ruth Van Reken, and is the title of a book she wrote with David Pollock about her experience growing up in Nigeria as the child of American missionaries. I first came across that book at the American Library of Paris. I was barely two months pregnant, and because I was married to a Frenchman and was going to give birth to a French baby, and have Italian citizenship, I was paid by the French government to stay home during my pregnancy in order to minimize the stress and augment the chance to have a healthy baby. I just saw it as the chance to read to my heart’s content, still the only activity that relaxes me completely.

So one day, just meandering down the aisles, in no rush to be anywhere or do anything specific, I wound up in the sociology section and found that book. It was obvious it hadn’t been read much. It pulled it out, looked at the cover and flipped it open to the first chapter, only slightly intrigued. I read it in an hour. I left the library excited and joyful, thinking “finally, someone understands what I have been saying for years, I’m not a freak!” It was a revelation and an epiphany, and a damn big relief.

After six years in Paris, one Provence wedding and one set of twins, my husband and I decided to come to the United States. For me it was a homecoming, for him it was a first move to a different country. He had grown up watching American TV shows and movies but nothing prepared him for the culture shock he faced. He adjusted and now we have our own business, but in some ways I have had to adjust even more than he did. I sound American, I have known the city we live in since I was four years old and even went to college here, but I notice that people look at me in confusion and almost fear, while they look at him in awe. He’s French. I’m an unfathomable mess.

My answer to “where are you from?” is now “what do you want to know?” I was born in Rio de Janeiro. I am Italian because my parents were both born and raised in Bologna, but I have never actually lived in Italy. My French is as fluent as my English because I grew up in Switzerland and Belgium and I also speak Italian and Spanish. Portuguese was my first language. I feel equally at home in Geneva, Brussels, London, Paris, Bologna, Venice and New York: it always feels like I have never left and I miss all them all the time. I don’t have one favorite food, or one favorite author one favorite art form. Diversity is what I love and what I am used to. And I would move to another country in a heartbeat if I had the chance.

In many ways I feel that being stuck between worlds and having been raised to see other points of view no matter what the subject is has been and continues to be a huge advantage. As a kid it was the only way to make friends.  At my school in Geneva we had over 50 nationalities. No-one was exactly like anyone else so you had to look beyond the easy definitions and find other, deeper things in common or you ended up alone. Thanks to my friends I knew how to curse in every language from French and German to Arabic and Tagalog. I have friends who grew up going to dances and hanging out at Mc Donald’s on Thursdays who now live in places from Beirut to Sydney and Tokyo to Copenhagen. Most of them are like me, with two passports and a long list of places they have called home since childhood. We all have people we care about in many places and almost every event in the news touches us on a personal level. We don’t think in categories and we don’t judge based on what could be a one-word answer to a superficial question people usually use to pigeon hole you. I am not just Italian, or an American, or a convert from Catholicism to Buddhism, or a mother and wife, or even a third culture person. In order to know me it takes a lot of conversations and time to understand.

What bothers me is that right now is that the political discourse in this election is veering toward a redefinition of what it means to be an American.

I am one. And so are my children. And my husband will become one. It’s not all I am, but the beauty of being an American is that it is a basic set of principles which call on us to look beyond the categories which only scratch the surface of defining someone. It demands that we remember that the measure of a person is a fluid and constant journey we all take. We all have our bad days and our good days, our dark side and our empathetic, selfless side.

We all want to be appreciated for what is deep inside us and which defines who we are not in a simple sentence but by our actions. This country was founded on the idea that anyone can be anything they want and that having that freedom would bring out the best in ourselves because knowing that none of the barriers which had categorized people and kept them stuck in a position they could rise above would play no part in our destinies. Being able to see from another’s point of view has to be the basis for all our decisions.

In this election year I want people to think about what they truly want: a country that accepts everyone who wants to build a stable present to make a better future, and to contribute to their communities without asking “what’s in it for me?” no matter what their skin color, religion or cultural background may be? Or a country which reverts to the xenophobic and hatefully distorted theories which created divided societies which crushed dreams and killed spirits? A country where might makes right and entire populations are singled out to be treated like second class citizens because those with power decide they are too “different” and do not deserve to fully participate in this country’s potential? Theories and agendas which caused so much pain and suffering in the past have no place in the present, or in this country.

When the founders gathered in Philadelphia and dared to defy the greatest empire of their time, to stand up and say “you’re wrong, your whole vision is wrong and we won’t accept it” they were putting into action the greatest sociological and political experiment in human history. They could not have imagined what it would have looked like over 250 years later. They had no idea if it would last fifty years, but they put in place a framework so simple, and so elegant because of its simplicity, that it has stood the test of time and been emulated by almost every country around the globe. We must trust that that framework will continue to hold up. We have to stand up and defend it and not allow anyone to tear it down.

We have to say loud and clear that we will stand up for every person, every citizen, and proudly proclaim that we remain the country of freedom, not judgment, that we give everyone a fair chance, because this country has proven that mistakes can be fixed, assumptions can be turned around for the better, and when the best of the human spirit is encouraged, it will win out.