Those of you who have been following my blog for a while know that I grew up in many different countries. Having had such an experience has left me in what I like to call a permanent culture clash. This is something I say as a joke and have mentioned on my about page, but have never really gotten into detail about how it really feels. If you were ever wondering what it feels like to have moved around for most of your life, and struggle to fit in anywhere, keep on reading.
You don’t have childhood friends
Looking back at my life, the country I spent the most time in was Zimbabwe. For some strange reason, my non-Zimbabwean mother had settled down and decided to raise my sister and I in the home of Victoria Falls. That was a place that I spent fourteen years of my life. Fourteen years learning a culture and creating friendships in a place that I thought would be home forever. But in those fourteen years, I went to four different schools and started over quite a few times. I also crossed paths with many different people that I naively assumed would be a part of my life forever.
After fourteen years of hopping from school to school, I finally moved away and began the second chapter of my life. All of those friends that I had made during my childhood have disappeared into the ether. Some have stayed acquaintances on Facebook, others happen to be silent bodies in the same city right now. But almost all of them are living their own lives. It doesn’t stop with just people from Zim actually. About 90-95% of the people I met growing up are scattered across the globe and have become distant memories.
People always ask where you are from
Living in such a globalised world, this is a question that people always ask at the start of a conversation. But you know something funny? This question gives me anxiety! It’s not the easiest to explain that I was born in one random country to parents with heritage from three different countries. That’s when the interrogations start coming, and boy do people get inquisitive!
What I’ve found to be the easiest solution to this problem to just go by whatever passport I am carrying. So when I was in Brazil and Japan, I claimed to be Angolan. In China, I was Zimbabwean. In any other country, I claim to be be South African even though I do not hold the passport. My mother’s mother was full Zulu, born and raised in Durban after all!
Your accent doesn’t quite come from anywhere
The interesting thing about living in the twenty-first century is that people come in all different shapes, colours, and sizes. The other thing that I find quite interesting is that accents seem to be tainted to the point of no recognition. That’s basically how mine is as well.
For me, British English was the very first I ever learned. My schooling system was based on O-levels and A-levels. My spelling was hardcoded to be like the Queen… then came the travelling. When you hop from a British educational system to a Canadian, your accent will change. Then go from that to an American based University and your writing style will change too!
You don’t speak any language fluently
English is my native language, so I like to believe I speak it quite fluently. The thing about being fluent in a language is that you should be able to express yourself completely without the need to switch to another language. Well, when you grow up in different countries and learn different languages, you find certain expressions that convey a certain message perfectly but cannot be translated. Pair that with people that speak both languages and you find yourselves inventing a new language.
When my siblings and I chat, we often switch back and forth from Portuguese to English. The same happens when I am speaking to my friends in Japan. It’s really not a problem at all, but I’ve noticed that this has also crept into my professional life. Imagine being on a conference call with a client that you are trying to sell a product and find yourself constantly throwing in random words and expressions from a different language!
You cannot relate to a specific culture
If you read through my Blogmas posts, you would have noticed a post or two that was centered around Portuguese food. Ever wondered how I speak so much about Portuguese culture but claim to have concluded all of my education in English? And then all that talk about Japan? Yeah, don’t ask.
Okay, okay, I’ll let you in on a bit. My father is Angolan and my mother was half Mozambican half South African but somehow met in Zimbabwe. However, besides the food, I really struggle to relate to both of my parent’s home countries and cultures since I grew up in many different places. As I mentioned before, when people ask where I am from, I tend to just claim whatever passport I have a visa in at the time. This definitely makes conversations easier but also makes it easier for me to wrap my head around. Until the questions start flowing about how life is in said country.
Conclusion – What culture?
When I married my husband who was also from Angola but moved away when he was very young, it was an interesting task to figure out what traditions we needed to follow to appease our families. Well, mostly mine really. And now that we have a daughter, it is even harder trying to teach her about her heritage. Solution? Create our own tradition!
I am grateful for the experiences that I had growing up and all of the lessons life taught me. This is something I will never take for granted. But while it seems like such a cool thing to have traveled around the world, the biggest downfall is living in a permanent culture clash. It isn’t always fun not fitting in anywhere, but it’s something that I am grateful for.
Hilary Tan says
I lived in one country all my life, and never moved house or switched schools. I was stuck with the same classmates throughout elementary and most of high school. However, I didn’t keep any childhood friends and often wonder if it’s due to my autistic tendencies (although never officially diagnosed) or if I’m just really bad at keeping friendships. And yet, 8 years later, I’m still with my SO. I think he’s slightly autistic too (although never officially diagnosed) which may explain why we are so compatible. The chances of meeting someone who gets me is very slim, and I acknowledge that it’s rare in this day and age.
Even though he is similar, he is very different. We’re different races and come from different backgrounds. Our daughter is a mixed race kid. I often wonder how she will feel growing up, that is, if she feels like she belongs to any specific race or culture. I wouldn’t be surprised if she feels the same way you do, since we will likely move around a lot and probably leave this country during her childhood. I wonder what the next generation will experience, and whether their coping mechanisms will be different or similar to our generation. I guess only time will tell. Thank you for sharing your views about this struggle and what it’s like being a multi-cultural kid.
Shelly DS says
You know, Helen (crispy confessions) recently posted about being “Hapa” which apparently is half Asian half white. I didn’t know such a term existed, but apparently it’s almost like a whole culture in itself. Your kids will always belong as long as they feel loved. I’m sure both sides of your family are already doing so much of that. At the end of the day, it’s becoming more rare to find people that aren’t mixed or didn’t grow up in several places! Thanks for sharing, Hilary!
Hilary Tan says
I follow Helen and yet I didn’t read that particular blog post. It did show up in my reader though! I was wondering what “Hapa” was and thought it was some kind of religion 😂 I think it’s beautiful that society has embraced interracial couples and mixed race babies! 🙂
Shelly DS says
LOL go and read it! Just goes to show that you can’t judge a blog post by it’s title 😛
Hilary Tan says
SO TRUE! I will go read it right now! 😄
Markus + Micah says
You are such an interesting person. With that background, I can only imagine the richness of your experiences. Also really in love with the thought of making your own traditions. I understand the struggle given your background and this is just a brilliant solution. Well done!
Azilde Elizabeth says
I dont have any childhood friends either. I read once that every 7 years you loose those friends and get new ones. It seems to be true for me anyway. This world is very different. I’d like to think most ppl are more accepting than before. Alot of marriages are interracial I have noticed including mine. My parents are Dominican. I was born and raised here in America with Dominican culture. My husband is mulatto. His mom’s side is Irish and dad’s is from the Virgin Islands. My kids are multiracial and only speak English. Even though I was born and raised in the US I have learned plenty American cultures from my husband. For example, I new Madonna and Michael Jackson as they are world known but have learned about soul music etc LOL always learning! I loved this post. Nice getting to know you Shelly ❤️
I can totally relate Michelle!!
Shelly DS says
Thanks hun! I didn’t know about the 7 year thing! It sounds very fitting, actually! Your family sounds awesome. We need more people like you who don’t care about a person’s race, heritage or culture. Love should see no limits!
You have an awesome history 🙂
Delicate and brutal says
To be honest I thought it was an awesome thing that you lived im different countries growing up but I now see how challenging it was for you. I can’t imagine as a child moving around so much and leaving my friends. I always thought it would be so cool to learn different languages from living in different countries but I now see the stress and struggle that cteates in one’s identity. I still think you are one awesome chick even with the culture clashes 😀
Shelly DS says
Thanks Amy! I am pretty awesome aren’t I 😛
It can get frustrating at times, but it has been such a fun experience that not many have had. I don’t wish to change anything, I just want to finally settle down. I think that’s already happening 😀
T. B. C... says
We really enjoyed reading this and actually felt emboldened by the fact that you had lived in so many countries and had so much experience and knowledge on culture, language, traditions and the like. People could only dream of being in your shoes, a worldly wide view of the human experience. We think this is your strength, almost like a superpower and that is what you can pass on to your offspring. Citizen of the world who knows and understands so much more than a simple basic view of one village, one town, one language, one mentality of the people, one way of being. Sister, you are intersectional and that is beautiful and when people ask that question “Where are you from?” it is their inability to understand that you belong to the human race. They are the ones who see them selves as separate…they are the ones who should look at how to belong. You already do!
Shelly DS says
Thanks so much for such a positive and intrigued perspective! I do wear this badge with pride, although it does sometimes feel frustrating to not belong anywhere specific. I wouldn’t change my past travels, I would only change my future. Now is the time to set my roots and settle down 😉
Kayslee Decker says
This sounds like my dream life 🤩😻😹 I’m a college student majoring in Spanish and French with a side of Greek and Guaraní so I can definitely relate to the “switching to different languages without even knowing it” thing 😹. I think I’m the opposite when it comes to background though. I grew up in the exact same house in the center of a landlocked state, my family has little to no cultural heritage to speak of, and as I’ve learned more about other cultures, I’ve grown to wish I was anything but Caucasian American (or United-Statesian), especially now. Hopefully we all find a place to belong, where we are or wherever we end up in the world 😊
Michelle (Boomer Eco Crusader) says
I had to smile at your comment about accents. My mother was born in Ireland, where she lived until she was 18. She moved to England at 18, and then emigrated to Canada 20 years later. When I was a teenager my friends would say “where is your mother from?” It has been 70 years since she left Ireland but she still has an Irish lilt to her accent.
As for me, we arrived in Canada from England when I was 9. I quickly lost my English accent because it was just easier to fit in at school if I sounded like everyone else. It does come back when I go there or when people from England visit here, though. It makes my daughters laugh when mum starts talking with an English accent.
Shelly DS says
Haha a globe trotter eh? I always read your posts in a British accent, mainly because I keep thinking you’re British! Well you are British but you know what I mean. Why did you guys move to Canada? The British weather wasn’t gloomy enough? 😏
Michelle (Boomer Eco Crusader) says
You’re not too far from the truth. My dad had respiratory issues so the damp, industrial northern English air wasn’t good for him at all. His sister had moved her family to Canada a few years before us so she convinced him to move here too.
Patty Gordon says
I’m a military brat who lived all over for the first 13 years of my life. I feel like complete alien about 90% of the time No matter where I am. I so relate to this post!.
Shelly DS says
Ahhh yes, army brats definitely do have it rough! Where have you lived?
Jenny Pink says
Thanks so much for sharing your experience! I’ve lived in a few countries myself and one of the things they just love to ask is where you’re from. It can get othering, to be honest.
While my experiences aren’t on a global level like yours, I was born and raised in California until we moved to the Midwest. Until probably high school I was told my accent was funny or strange. Then we moved even more south and I experienced another culture shock.
Jane Tawel says
Loved reading this personal narrative. Fascinating.
I loved reading this! Thanks for sharing! I can see that it’s downright awful to have to meet new people every few years. Since I was 5 I grew up in the same city in America and I always wondered what it would have been like if my dad had stayed in the military & travel every few years. I feel like I would have loved the experience of getting to know a new culture and place but there are downsides as well.
I understand the clashing of the cultures though. I experienced that all my life growing up with a Korean mom and eating Korean food and speaking Korean at home, and then speaking English/eating American food outside the home.
Very interesting! To tell the truth I immediately thought that you are from Brazil ,lol! I am Greek,I have lived a while in Spain, my boyfriend is Spanish but I write in english on my blog about healthy lifestyle and mexican culture and music. I don’t know why but in a previous life should be Mexican lol
The Caffeinated Powerhouse says
This is such an interesting post,Shelly. I started following you recently and you’re right, by your posts, I assumed you were Portuguese. Sybr I thought a little South African, too. Thank you for sharing. Those aren’t things one would realize about such a life without it being explicitly shared.