Beyond Borders #7: personal accounts exploring how identity is found when you are living between cultures

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[Written by Livia Dyring]

[Image by Dalia Sara and Aike Jansen]

At times, I can feel like I’m playing twister constantly. Except the mat is a large world map – and it’s all too real.

If I was asked what home is, I could not give a straightforward answer. It’s an odd thing to say for somebody who spent nearly two decades in the Swedish city of her birth. Three years ago, however, my family converted to the nomadic lifestyle and now I find myself playing this fairly absurd game: trying to keep one foot in Sweden and the other one on the Canadian prairies, where my family resides and where I also lived briefly. One hand stretches to Glasgow and the other to Germany, home to two beloved grandparents and an important place of my childhood – and the whole thing results in a bizarre yoga pose. Maintaining and nurturing these four different connections is a challenge and strenuous on bad days, which has led me to conclude that it is a true skill to smoothly expand the ground you call home, and something that you may have to devote years to.

Naturally, this situation has got me interested in the term “citizen of the world”. A Google search gives the definition “a person who is at home in any country”. Dig a bit deeper, though, and you’ll find that it is more complex than that. It can also be associated with a belief in a kind of global citizenship, meaning all persons being regarded as members of the world as opposed to belonging to only one particular nation. Others say that for them, it’s not a question of identifying with everywhere, but rather with nowhere – finding their roots in other aspects of their lives, such as their profession.

What appeals to me the most is this idea of a person who feels at home wherever they go – it seems like a total dream, like total freedom. I have yet to meet someone who fulfils that ambition and who can honestly say that planet Earth is home, and I confess I find it hard to believe they even truly exist. Even so, I can image that every expat wants to believe that it is true. Personally, I would love a nomadic lifestyle – that would feel less odd, less messy. No more grappling with different cultures and what roles they play in the constitution of your identity – you’re a citizen of the world, and it doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.

The struggle, I tend to find, lies in the feeling that your perspective is not shared by most people. It does not align with a traditional view of the constitution of an identity, which tends to be seen as created by one country, one language and one heritage. Most do not have to explain why they are going to Saskatoon in Canada to see their closest family when they have previously said that they are Swedish. You feel like you are in the middle of a lifestyle that does not make much sense – without the belief in the global citizenship.

Committing to the goal of becoming a citizen of the world is a bold ambition to have and, as I have learned, a great deal more difficult than you first thought. Being an international student can seem challenging enough. Apart from the expected ailments such as homesickness, other effects of your international move can take form. Longer distances can make it difficult to keep in touch with people properly, school friends plan reunions that you can’t attend and perhaps most potently, your sense of the place that you have left becomes hard to maintain. It sounds obvious, but the impact is unexpected: old neighbourhoods you know from the back of your hand change, and if you are gone long enough, they can make you feel like you return a total stranger. Even the most important places in our lives move on without us and there is little to do about it – except visit that one time a year. Flights are costly, and, in my case, I have to take a whopping three in a row to reach my destination in Canada (have I mentioned yet that I hate airports? I hate airports.)

I am still learning from this wild ride called university and life abroad, but along the way I have picked up some tips which may be of use to the international student suffering from a bit of culture shock. Firstly, chilling out and take everything in slowly instead of joining ten societies at once is fine and probably a healthier way of adjusting to your new world. Secondly, don’t be afraid to root yourself here through activities and commitments – it’s the only way to build a lifestyle as rich as the one in your home country. Lastly, I believe it should be emphasized more that it is okay to not feel like you fit in straight away or don’t think it’s the best place ever. You’ll discover in time what you really like and don’t like because it’s a place – just like everywhere else. Nationals, what you say and do matters too. It helps to be understood, literally, where you’re coming from. Being reminded by yourself and others of the normality of the struggle, but also of what the international experience brings to your table, will make it easier.

It’s a long transition from being an international student to becoming a real citizen of the world. It includes a lot of longing and a few crying sessions when you genuinely think you’ve made things so difficult for yourself for no reason. However, with that said, I refuse to believe it’s not worth it. After each journey is made, you will find that you have your very own tailored perspective on the world – one that is chosen rather than just given. And, ultimately, the sense of risk that comes with it, I have to say, gives a sense of satisfaction. If I were to take a guess, I think that in my old age I will be able to look back and say that, regardless of whether I ever become that magical citizen of the world, I was brave. I stuck my chin out.

[Image Description: A photo of an American skyline, with water in the foreground, merged with a photo of trees and the sun. The text ‘Beyond Borders, personal accounts exploring how identity is found when you are living between cultures’ is placed over it.]


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Ron Pavellas
5 years ago

Wonderful and insightful, Livia. You are a writer. Love, Ron