It was the international school life. I had friends from Malaysia, The United States, Japan, Germany, and so many other countries. They would come back after the summer and tell me about adventures in their home countries. Most of them had parents from the same country or from neighboring countries, and there were a few like me who have parents from immensely different cultures. I’m West European and South East Asian. I thought it was really cool to have two countries to talk about, but as soon as I was in one of those countries for vacation or to see family, I started feeling uncomfortable. I realized that not all of my friends had to be seven year old translators for their extended families and that, unlike me, they actually look like their family members.
There are clear differences in my family. My cousins on the Dutch side are all light-skinned, blue-eyed, and various shades of blond, while my sister and I have dark eyes, tan skin, and brown hair. On the flip side, I don’t look Thai either. At a young age, I began to understand that I will always be in this ambiguous place of belonging a little, but not fully.Even though I personally felt this way, my entire family has always been so encouraging and inclusive. I am incredibly lucky to have always had such a loving background. It is one of the few things that has remained consistent in my life.
In terms of academics, an international education has been a constant, and I have grown up in it feeling comfortable with who I am. But now that I am in university, I have been thrown into a different world. It’s unnerving. I’ve started asking myself all these new questions about who I am and how I present myself in front of others. That feeling of ambiguity and almost-belonging has crept up again. I’ve tried to find answers by trying to relate more to my home cultures, but it often feels too forced. I meet people from The Netherlands and Thailand outside of those countries and a lot of the time it’s a bit awkward. Sometimes it feels like I disappoint people from my home countries because I am not culturally fluid or normative. Other times, I don’t really want to try and learn to be fully Dutch or Thai because I know I will never be, and I don’t know how to deal with that yet. I am not fluent in Thai or Dutch culture. I only learned the basics of those identities, but not enough to pass. I cannot make up for time not spent in those countries and to pretend would make me feel like an impostor.
A principle of Sociocultural Psychology states that humans feel the need to belong, which can motivate some behaviors and help explain why it feels so dreadful to feel left out. Humans are group animals. We need to be part of some kind of group in order to survive, so being an outsider feels inherently uncomfortable. While feeling like an impostor has both benefits and limitations, I’ve come to approach it as being an individual and gaining a greater sense of autonomy. I don’t feel the need to gain approval from others, and I am not weighed down by specific cultural expectations. However, it’s also hard to know what direction to go in, and my cultural ambiguity can make interactions with others a bit awkward.
Something that has been on my mind since I was a little girl is the constant feeling that I am a foreigner. Every time we moved, I knew I would be an outsider in a new country—a guest. While this was important to remember, being a foreigner was never my most important concern—school was. Armed with an unnecessary amount of stationary, I would walk into my new classroom and get ready to make friends. I’ve never been bothered by the fact that I am a non-native. It’s only when I am in one of my home countries that I truly feel like an alien. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel proud to be Dutch and Thai. You can bet that I root for Oranje whenever there is a World Cup or European Cup and babble on for hours about how Amazing Thailand is. Dissociating from my home countries does not mean that I feel apathetic towards them. I still admire the beauty of my parents’ countries, and I will always appreciate my roots.