In 2013, about 13.1% of the United States population was foreign-born, according to a Pew Research report released in September. Additionally, many of our citizens born on United States soil are born into families with immigrant parents or cultural norms passed down through generations, grandparents to parents and parents to children.
At Penn State University alone, 7.6% of the undergraduate population consists of international students, and many others are student living in the United States but born abroad. These students do not live the exact same lives as the rest of us- they go to classes, the eat their meals in the commons and in town, they go out on the weekends- but what happens when they return home, or when they are with their friends that come from the same region as they did?
Some students don’t even have the luxury of seeing anyone from where they are from, because they aren’t exactly “from” anywhere. These students have moved around so much and have such profoundly complicated backgrounds that they are trapped between several distinct lifestyles, unable to fit snuggly into one cultural identity.
Shirin Zaidi (Class of 2019, studying physics and philosophy) was born in the United States territory of Guam, but soon moved to China, then Japan, London, and Pakistan, returning to the United States to live in Texas for a brief time before moving to Saudi Arabia. Upon being asked where she is from, however, she is unable to give a simple explanation. “I don’t know how to answer that question at all, because I don’t identify with a certain place and I feel like when you ask where someone’s from, that’s the kind of answer they’re asking for,” she replies. “I think I freak out a little bit when people ask me where I’m from.” She explains that her cultural identity is difficult to pin down. “I pick things up as I go,” she begins. “I would say that being in so many different places has affected me a lot, but most of me has been moulded by my parents, not by places.” Pakistani by descent, Zaidi says she is “conflicted” in how she defines herself culturally. She explains that in Pakistan, she is made to feel as if she is “not Pakistani enough,” and that she feels that she doesn’t have a place anywhere.
Dipesh Timsina (Class of 2019, studying physics and astrophysics) also has a complicated background, but for other reasons. “I was born in Nepal and I moved to the United States- I lived in Atlanta and then I moved up to Pittsburgh.” He, however, is torn in answering the question of where he is from. “Location of where I was born versus where I’m actually from… Where I was born wasn’t considered part of any country.” His cultural background is so confusing because his country of origin is Bhutan. “To give the location of where I was born was Nepal, but where I’m actually from would be Bhutan.” Culturally, he defines himself as Bhutanese, but says that he “takes good things from other cultures as well,” as he has been exposed to life in Nepal and in the United States.
Both of these students also have another thing in common- they want people who have grown up solely in American culture to know something. “Not every [aspect] of culture can be good or can be bad. You have to be open-minded and take the good of each culture,” explains Timsina. “I don’t think it’s easy,” Zaidi reflects. “You kind of want to have a place to go back to, and I almost… don’t. At all.”
Next time you talk to that international student friend of yours that was born in Brazil but raised in Mexico, know that her background is unique and she may face challenges you cannot understand. If that guy in your math class that’s ethnically Chinese but born in Hong Kong and raised in France and England has a hard time explaining where he is from, try to understand that that’s not an answerable question for some people.
Photo credit: http://www.lahistoriaconmapas.com/atlas/ecuador-map/world-flags-map.htm