The long way home

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am


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Where are you from? It seems like a fairly innocent question. Sure, there is the occasional bigot who wants to put people into boxes depending on their place of origin. But for most of us, asking where someone comes from is simply a way to connect our biography with his or hers.

If the person lives in or originated from a country we have travelled to, read about or have some interest in, it becomes easier to share stories and start to build a relationship.

However, answering the 'Where do you come from?' question is not easy for many people. I was born in Chile but grew up in Australia. Although both those countries formed me, neither feels like home. I left Australia more than 12 years ago and have since called London, Delhi and now Hong Kong home. My wife was born in Australia and grew up there. But she also spent a significant part of her childhood in Papua New Guinea, an experience that had a lasting impact.

We moved to Delhi when my daughter was two, where she attended a local preschool. As the only Western child at the kindergarten and, in fact, a blonde-haired blue-eyed kid, she certainly stood out. But she never had any trouble fitting in and loved the experience.

When asked where she came from, her reply was always 'Delhi'. To her it made sense to say she came from the place she called home.

Sometimes adults would push a little, asking, 'Which country do you come from?' (since she didn't fit many people's image of an Indian child). My daughter would then reply, with the dismissively indignant tone only young children can muster while stating what is obvious to them, 'India.'

The point was driven home to me when we were watching a Commonwealth Games hockey match between Australia and India. It soon became apparent that my daughter was cheering for the Indian team.

I decided to ask, 'Why cheer for India?' She replied, 'Because all my friends are Indian.'

At the time national identity was becoming a more challenging idea for us. Not long after moving to Delhi, I attended a wonderful exhibition of Australian indigenous art. I spent a while talking to the high commission attach?in charge of the exhibition, explaining my background growing up in Australia and my experiences with indigenous culture. She then asked after my wife, and when I said she was born in Australia, the attach?s reply was, 'So, she's a real Australian then.'

My daughter travels on an Australian passport, which amuses her, since she has never lived in Australia (she was born in London). If we filled her head with ideas of being 'Australian', then wouldn't that be a kind of fiction? After all, India and Hong Kong have formed her more than Australia ever has.

Increasingly, she has become aware that some children she meets on her travels, either on the playground or through friends and families, don't even have passports. Those children don't tax their imaginations trying to answer the 'Where are you from?' question.

It seems to me there is a divide in the world between those who have to pause to think before answering the 'Where are you from?' question and those who don't.

As a family we've lived what looks like a nomadic life - moving every few years to a new city and country. It's a wonderful adventure - the classic expat existence - but it always raises questions.

What does national identity mean to a child who changes country every few years? What are we doing, as parents, if we encourage our kids to think of themselves as Australians or Brits or Americans, if they end up living most or all of their lives in Hong Kong? What is our job as parents: to train them for their future or weigh them down with our past?

Our approach has been to not make a big deal of our national identity. We celebrate Christmas and Easter, but we also enjoy Lunar New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival. The last time we celebrated Australia Day was in 2006, when living in India (by a strange coincidence, January 26 is a national holiday in both Australia and India).

Maybe it makes sense to ground children in a home culture if, as parents, we expect to one day return 'home'. Certainly, some expat parents in Hong Kong have those sorts of plans. But increasingly, many expatriates don't repatriate.

Perhaps the most important skill we can give our children is the ability to navigate different cultures. That involves being able to notice the codes and customs that make each society different. It also involves being able to make a home and find happiness in new places.

I don't like being described as a nomad. I prefer the term peripatetic. In English, the word has a military and diplomatic history, used to describe a life of constantly moving from posting to posting.

But peripatetic was also used by Aristotle to talk about a way of doing philosophy; literally, going for a good walk. We've all experienced great and memorable conversations on walks - and sometimes, when we face a major problem, going for a long walk helps us find the solution.

I like to think there's a potential kind of wisdom in living this peripatetic life. For now, we live locally and think globally, trying to see and understand the world. For everything in between, we improvise.

Fernando Gros is a writer, musician and photographer currently based in Hong Kong