WARSAW, POLAND–People often ask me where I’m from. And rightly so, I just started university, and non-invasive questions like these help get a conversation going. But when faced with this particular question, instead of breaking the ice, I freeze.
You see, I’m Indian, but I don’t sound Indian. My passport says I’m from Poland, but I’m not really Polish. And I currently study in the Netherlands. The answer to this notably simple question is therefore complicated. Confused is what I am. Because frankly, I don’t feel Indian, I don’t feel Polish and I definitely don’t feel Dutch.
I’m what they call a Third Culture Kid (TCK): a species of individuals that have grown up away from their parents’ country of origin. When I was six, I moved to Poland where I completed my schooling at an international school (hence the variation in my accent).
I treasure my experience growing up in a foreign country, attending a multicultural school. For one, I was introduced to a whole new world of gastronomy. As a self-proclaimed foodie, I worshipped United Nations Day. The night before, parents at my school would set up elaborate tables representing their nationality along the main corridor and gymnasium. Each student would bring in a dish from their home country for a potluck to be enjoyed by other students. While the food was most likely my favorite part of the day, I found it remarkable that so many nations were represented within such a small proximity.
Through my school, my multicultural experience has enabled me to fully experience Europe. I have visited Moscow, Paris, Berlin, Budapest, Istanbul, and Tirana to name a few, be it for sports competitions or extra-curricular endeavors like Model United Nations.
Because I was exposed to so many cultures at such a young age, I have become more culturally sensitive and tolerant towards people from other nationalities and cultural backgrounds. Although my list of nations that I’ve visited might be shorter in comparison to that of my international peers, I have experienced a broad spectrum of the world in comparison to others my age. For this reason, I find that I can relate to people from different countries with ease during initial encounters.
In addition, I have made friends that I will most likely remain in contact with for as long as the foreseeable future permits. When beginning university, I noticed that a lot of people who grew up in their home countries were not as close to their high school friends as I was. It is true that not everyone got along in my grade. However, with a class of only 53 students in an international school, even though everyone comes from vastly different backgrounds, we were more alike than we realized. Many of my friends share similar experiences to me–growing up in a country different from where their parents come from. Our common background and the struggles we face as TCKs unite us, and keep us close, because we try to hold on to the few constants in our lives.
Friends were not the only group of people I cherished about my experience at an international school. I was close to my teachers and still keep in contact with many of them, like my peers. You might find it strange to add your teachers on Facebook, but at our school, it is not an uncommon practice after you graduate. As a TCK studying at international school, much of your life revolves around the school community. Students engage in several activities multiple times a week, facilitated by the school. Thus, we also meet our teachers outside of a classroom setting. In this way, teachers often act as mentors, perhaps even friends, advising and encouraging us in other areas such as sports or volunteering.
I loved this aspect of my experience. However, like other TCKs, I cannot associate with a particular country, which does bother me. Although we would visit India often, I do not fully believe I can identify as an Indian. I feel as if the only grounding factors are my roots and appearance (however, I would like to revisit and hopefully change this sentiment in the future). I wasn’t fully able to integrate into Polish society either. This feeling of being between countries was partially attributed to my inability to speak either language fluently. Had I grown up in India, I believe my Hindi would be at a higher level of proficiency than it is now.
Internationals tend to surround themselves with other internationals, creating what can metaphorically be described as a bubble. I spoke English at home (in India we mainly spoke English as well), and English at school. The only exposure I had to Polish culture and society was occasional visits to malls, grocery stores or the city center. After over a decade living in Poland, my father and I received citizenship two years ago (my mom opted not to and my sister only recently acquired citizenship). The process of applying was tedious, especially given that Poland is a fairly homogenous country. However, an EU passport allows me to continue living in Europe and provides me with more opportunities in terms of studying and working.
Although I’ve made a conscious effort to learn the language more seriously now that I’m a Polish citizen, growing up it was not something that I felt I needed to pay attention to, leading me to pick up French instead. My Hindi suffered as a consequence. Although English is my best language, like a stereotypical TCK, I do speak more than one language. However, in order to properly integrate into any society, it is not enough to proficiently speak a language. You must be fluent.
Of course, language might not bear as much significance for others as it has for me. Each TCK has a unique experience; mine was mainly shaped by my school. The bubble encompassing the international community was suffocating for some of my friends. But for me, it was a sanctuary. A shield. A safety-net. For the most part, my classmates and I were like-minded, liberal. We came from similar socio-economic backgrounds, and faced similar issues. Unfortunately, I have to admit that I was ignorant towards what was going on in Poland outside of my bubble. It was not until I started volunteering regularly that I was exposed to the local community. Service learning was one of the most valuable experiences I take from attending my school. Unlike other local schools, international schools have a wide array of extra-curricular activities that students can participate in, also providing them with the option to set up their own initiatives. Through my high school experience, I set up a club that periodically visits children suffering from life-threatening illnesses, I also volunteered with Chechen refugees in Warsaw and helped teach English at a center for children with dysfunctional families. My experiences exposed me to a wide variety of individuals from different socio-economic backgrounds, and helped me step out of my bubble.
I have always believed that I would find the sense of belonging I felt I was missing if I moved to a cultural melting pot such London or New York. Perhaps in the future life will take me there. It’s been a year since I graduated. This time of the year is exciting, marking the end (but also the beginning) of a chapter for students across the globe. Reflecting upon this past year and my experiences as a whole, I wouldn’t change anything about my upbringing; I loved growing up in Poland. I recently realized although I may not be 100% Indian or Polish, I do have an identity. I may be neither here nor there, but I am a global citizen.
Vedika Luthra is currently a freshman University College Utrecht in the Netherlands. She enjoys writing, food and writing about food (@hotchocolatehits on Instagram hotchocolatehits.com)
Photos courtesy of Vedika Luthra