I often wonder how it feels to be tied to a place, to know that your history happened there, that the rhythm of the seasons and the pulse of life are echoed by the beating of your heart. How does it feel to be secure in your identity, to say ‘this is where I come from’? In the absence of belonging I mostly feel yearning; yearning for a place I left behind and cannot return to, either because it no longer exists, or because I am changed. I am under no illusion that my feelings are in any way unique. We all experience a sense of hiraeth at some point in our lives, a lingering nostalgia for a time or a place or a person, and we yearn for the ability to return, although we rarely can. But when you combine that nostalgic yearning with rootlessness amplified by years of moving around the world, the concepts of identity and belonging, of culture and community begin to shift until a renegotiation of who you are becomes inevitable. I recently embarked on my own journey of renegotiation and discovered that I am not the first in my family to have done so.
Africa Was Calling
I was born in England to a South African mother and a Dutch father, and was delivered by a giant Nigerian doctor whose dazzling smile and baritone voice reminded my mother of Africa and put her at ease. Despite there not being a drop of English blood in me, being English was all I knew from birth. It didn’t matter that I had three passports, and that my grandparents and many of my cousins lived in a hot country called South Africa that was full of wild animals; my identity was British and I didn’t question it. But Africa was calling, and after twelve years my parents could not ignore her beat any longer and we immigrated ‘home’ to a place I had never known. The narrow country lanes and green hedgerows of England were replaced by the vast blue skies and shimmering heat of South Africa, and it was completely bewildering.
I was homesick, I missed my friends, I felt out of place, I sounded different to everyone else, I had lost everything that was familiar. These are common issues faced by children who move around the world, and today there are myriad resources dedicated to helping third culture kids through the transition of moving. In the early 1990s however, it was more a matter of ‘get on with it’. As I matured, my Englishness began to mix with a newfound ‘South African-ness’, my identity bleeding together like watercolor on paper. Yet by adulthood I realized that I was stuck somewhere between countries, not quite here, not quite there. Fitting in but not belonging. This was the start of what would be a lifelong search for somewhere to belong.
As an adult, probably propelled by my experiences as a child, I have continued to move, carrying the feeling of fitting in but not belonging through the countries I have called home: Vietnam, Thailand, Turkey, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and now the Netherlands. I have always questioned my identity, examined my history, and struggled to identify my place in the world. What are my roots? What does it mean to be ‘rootless’? Do I really need roots? How can a craving for roots and the compulsion to move coexist?
My Sleeper Nationality
It wasn’t until we moved to The Netherlands that I reached a turning point. I have Dutch nationality from my father, but I call it my sleeper nationality. I grew up with many Dutch traditions, but Dutch was not spoken at home, and although I felt a warm familiarity whenever we visited Holland, my knowledge of the culture did not extend much beyond poffertjes and Sinterklaas. I was very close to my Dutch Oma, a straight talking, no nonsense lady of diminutive stature who survived WWII in a Japanese concentration camp in Indonesia, and who raised four sons across three continents. Her stories were incredible; she led the most extraordinary life, although she never thought so. Through our many wonderful conversations I learned that she had been born in Indonesia in 1918, where her father was employed by Shell to hack through the jungles of Sumatra looking for oil. As an adult, living back in the Netherlands, she met my Opa who was on leave from his job in…Indonesia. They were married in Batavia in 1937 just a few short years before WWII shattered their world.
They were torn apart, Oma imprisoned in a concentration camp, Opa sent to starve and toil on the death railway. They were apart for five years with no way of knowing if the other was alive or dead. In 1945, shortly after capitulation my grandfather managed to make contact with my grandmother (a story which involved Lady Mountbatten and a piece of toilet paper) and they were reunited to set sail for home. But home was a place they no longer recognized.
The war had decimated large swathes of Holland’s major cities, work was scarce, and austerity measures added to the grey atmosphere previously blamed solely on the weather. My grandparents longed for Asia, for their adopted home, the bright colours and exotic chaos and so returned to Batavia with hope in their hearts. Their hope was short-lived. They had returned to a country in the grip of revolution and a bid for independence from the Dutch. With two young sons in tow they headed back to the Netherlands to share a house with my maternal great grandparents. I’m not sure how my grandfather felt about giving up his Asian dream to move in with his parents-in-law! My father was born in the attic of that house, the third son. Five years later they were off again in search of adventure…this time to South Africa.
Oma used to joke how funny it would be if I ended up living in Holland one day. I’d laugh it off and say, ‘there’s no chance, Oma’. My husband’s job had taken us to Asia, the Middle East and South Africa, but we had no interest in coming to Europe. I should have paid more attention to my wise old Oma; she knew a thing or two about life’s unexpected twists and turns. Two years after she passed away (at the ripe old age of ninety-four) we found ourselves moving to the Netherlands…to her hometown…to her neighborhood…within a stones throw of the house in which my father was born. As I settled into our new Dutch life I was acutely aware that I was finally in a place where I had history. My family had lived here; my father was born here; this was the lake they had skated on in winter; this was the village where they had done their shopping; this was the pannekoekenhuis where they’d shared pancakes dripping in syrup. For the first time I had a tangible family history and the physicality of it felt important, as though it legitimized my presence here somehow, my claim to Dutchness. Here I have a lineage. Here I have roots.
Perhaps the essence of belonging is not to be found in a geographical location, and being able to answer the question ‘where are you from?’ is less important than talking about where you have been. I think there are many ways to belong: historically, emotionally, consciously, that for people like me ‘home’ is always evolving, and that maybe the rootless belong everywhere.