I constantly feel like I am forced to dumb down my identity to fit into the mental schema of a stranger who wants to know where I'm from. Wait, let me correct that: to fit into the mental schema of a stranger who thinks he/she knows where I'm from (or should be from, based on the color of my skin and the parts of my body I chose to cover).
This has been going on for a long time, but it didn't start to really bother me until Spring 2016. I was enrolled in an English class in my undergraduate institution. We were broken into pairs of three and were editing each other's papers. Instead of focusing on the assignment, though, my two partners decided to take the time to talk about the latest sports gossip, followed my fulfilling their curiosity by asking me where I'm from. In response, this is what I was about to say: I'm from Pakistan, but I was born in an American compound and mostly raised there, and I moved around a lot growing up. I've lived in Saudi, England, Italy, Jordan, and now the US. What I actually ended up saying (because he interrupted me) was: "I'm from Pakistan but I was born in Saudi Arabia...." Before I could continue, he snarkly responded, "That's what I thought."
This whole conversation bothered me for the longest time, but I decided it wasn't worth the effort and to just move on. I tried to forget about it, but it made me realize how much I hate the majority of my identity (being a TCK) being taken away from me, to be placed into a bubble of where I'm probably from, based on my skin tone and hijab.
The next incident was when my undergraduate institution asked all the graduating seniors to post what their post-graduation plans were. I had recently been accepted to seven Master's and Educational Specialist programs in school psychology across the U.S., and of course was so excited to share this news! The form asked us for a variety of information. Our name. Our major. Where we were from (the form called it "hometown"). What we're doing. So forth. I filled it all out, leaving the hometown question for last. I figured I should write "Islamabad, Pakistan" (which is where I'm technically from - it is my passport country and where my extended family live), but I felt like I'm lying to myself if that's all that I write. Islamabad, Paksitan is simply a part of my story, but not my whole identity.
Next, I debated writing "Udhailiyah, Saudi Arabia" (the oil-company owned, Americanized compound/gated community which is where I lived the longest), but I cringed at the idea of someone mistaking me for a Saudi citizen (simply because I, as a south asian, have faced much discrimination in that country. So for someone to assume I am from there, when Saudi Arabia has made it against the law for a Saudi man to marry a Pakistani women - to protect their bloodline - how can I not be insulted?).
The next city that came to mind was Reading, England, which is where my parents lived for a few years and I lived in a nearby city, Thorpe. It truly still feels like home to me - I love that city with all of my heart. But that would be a complete lie - I am not a British citizen.
So, instead of picking just one place, I wrote a sentence. A SENTENCE. I wrote something along the lines of, "N/A - I am from Islamabad, Pakistan, but I moved around a lot and do not have a singular hometown." I waited a week or two, then went and checked the website where this information would be posted, only for my excitement to be turned into a confusing mix of frustration, anger and sadness.
For hometown, this institution had decided where I am from for me. On my behalf they wrote "Dhahran, Saudi Arabia". No where on my form had I indicated Dhahran being my hometown. Udhailiyah, maybe, but Dhahran?! Absolutely not. So, where had they gotten this information from? I figured it must have been from my "permanent" mailing address (which is in Udhailiyah VIA Dhahran. My family doesn't even live there at the moment, but it is the closest thing we have to a permanent address).
It angered me that they decided for me where I am from. It was simply the last straw for me. This school constantly brags about their diversity, and was one of the reasons I chose to attend. When i arrived, I was honestly shocked to find out just how much of a minority there. I, like other minorities, was often used as their puppet on display to show outsiders just how "diverse" they were. Anyways, One sentence was too much for them, they wanted one word. They chose to dumb down my entire identity to impress strangers who might want to come to this school. Their singular hijabi in the entire school - where is she from? Saudi Arabia, according to my school.
Needless to say, I left with a bit of a bitter heart. I do love my undergraduate institution, but that (on top of everything else I experienced over the 4 years there) was like the icing on the cake. I couldn't wait to move to a city and to a new school where there would be thousands of people who look like me, and share similar backgrounds too.
While I much prefer Philadelphia to Carlisle, where my undergraduate institution was, I found myself frustrated again when, during my first week of classes at this new school, one of my Professors asked us all where we are from. I told him, "Pakistan, but I moved around a lot, and moved here from ___ (previous institution name) in Carlisle." He looked at me in a confused daze and said, okay, you're from Carlisle. It wasn't a question, it was a statement. It felt like he was telling me where I am from. Normally, honestly, I wouldn't care, but after the last few months of having my identity taken away from me, it just frustrated me so much. NO I am not from Carlisle. I am not from the place where I was constantly harassed for being a hijabi, and before that, for simply being a brown woman. Ugh, NO NO NO. I know he meant well, I really know he did, but please dear world: do not tell me where I am from.
I really hate when people try to define who I am for me, or when they dumb down my existence, my identity, to fit into their schema of who I should be or who they think I am. My life, like most other TCK's, is not that straightforward. I am from everywhere, and yet no where at the same time. What am I? I am a South Asian TCK. That's it. That's where I'm from, that's who I am. I'm a Desi TCK - there is no shorter sentence I can think of that really encompasses who I am or where I am from. Can't I just introduce myself as that? In one small sentence, I have managed to state my identity without feeling like 95% of my life story is missing. But what I've seen is that it's simply not an acceptable response - people want more, they want specifics. They want to know who I really am, which is based on where I am "really from".
So here, let me tell you where I'm "really from".
I am the daughter of two Pakistanis. My father, like his parents before him, was born in India. My mother, unlike her parents before her, was born in Pakistan. My grandparents from both sides, and all my ancestors prior, were born in India. They were Indian. My grandparents (and their parents) migrated from India to Pakistan during the war of independence, when they were just children. Nevertheless, much of my extended family, whom I'm not in contact with, remains in India to this day. I was born in this place called Dhahran, in Saudi Arabia. Dhahran is one of four camps/compounds/gated communities owned by a mega-rich Arabian oil company. The compounds are very Americanized, with American curriculum taught in our schools and American teachers who taught us all English. Two main languages spoken in these compounds? English and Arabic. These compounds are a world within themselves - they are simply so unlike the rest of Saudi Arabia, and honestly, so unlike any other place I have ever been in this planet. The closest description I can give is Utopia or all the family members of the UN ambassadors living together. Now these compounds are true diversity. So, I was born in the main compound, Dhahran, but my family lived in another one - about an hour away, called Abqaiq. That was home to me for the first three years of my life. Then, we moved another hour away to Udhailiyah, which will forever be the closest thing to home for me. It is where I spent the majority of my life. So, even if I were to say I am from Udhailiyah, Saudi Arabia, that makes people believe I am Saudi - which I am not. It leads them to conclusions which simply aren't true, unless they know what Udhailiyah really is. So, someone please explain to me how I can explain my identity in a singular word?! It is completely unfair to myself and to my past. Furthermore, I spent one year in Jordan, about four years in the UK, one year in Italy, and this is currently my fifth year in the U.S. Also, from 2009 on wards, I have been living without my parents (in boarding school, and then in college). From 2009-today, they have moved five or six times. I don't even remember. Across continents. I would travel to where ever in the world they were/are for school breaks, and to this day they are abroad, moving! So please, someone please go ahead and tell me where I'm from. Please, go ahead. It wouldn't be the first time.
Why does this bother me so much? People who cannot relate, or who (rightfully) think my wanderlusty life is super glamorous, may think that I am overacting. But I'm not. I'm not. If I could say I am from ________ without feeling like I am lying to the stranger asking me and to myself, I would. Trust me, I'd save myself the trouble, and I would just give that one word they're looking from. But it's not that simple, not for me, not for many TCK's... Why is it so hard to hear me (hear us TCKs) out? Will a sentence, or a small paragraph, explaining where we are from really hurt you? Will it take away too much of your time? Or is it that you are afraid of your schema of who I should be based on my skin tone and my hijab will be shattered if I say otherwise?
I am not one to complain. I am not one to rant. I am not one to get angry. But it really hurts, and it really bothers me, when someone tries to belittle my life, my story, my identity. When someone tries to dumb down my entire existence. I'm sorry I can't give you a one word response. I'm sorry my life is too complicated. But please understand... I am not (just) Pakistani. I am not Saudi. I am not Arab... I am not British, or Italian, or American. Physically and citizenship wise, I am South Asian/Pakistani, but in all other senses I am a mix of all the cultures I have experienced, including Pakistan. My name is Ayesha Solaiman. I am a South Asian TCK. Why isn't that enough for the people who ask me? - Scratch that, I think it is actually too much. They don't want that response, they want one. One place. Two places even (Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, great!), but they don't want me as a whole. I don't want to hide who I am or simple it down because it's too complicated, but I often have to. I try to be understanding, but the more this happens, the harder it gets for me.
I love who I am. I love my story. I love my experiences. I don't want to belittle myself, and I don't want anyone else to define me. My name is Ayesha Solaiman, and I'm a Desi TCK.