I have always thought that a sense of identity, belonging and knowing where home is to you are all important things to know in a person’s life. Those three things are precisely what I’ve struggled with as a Third Culture Kid, and I’m sure others like me can relate. Every single time someone asks me where I’m from, the answer usually goes like this:

“Oh, I’m originally from Indonesia.”

And then I receive a myriad of follow up questions:

“What do you mean ‘originally’?”
“Oh my gosh wait, you’re Indonesian? How?”
“No way you’re Indonesian, how’s your English so good?”
“You can’t be, I totally thought you were American.”

And the list goes on. More on that another time.

To clarify, a TCK is someone who spent the majority of their developmental years in a (third) country/culture away from the country/countries/culture(s) that their parents (which make up the first two) are from. This formation of a “third culture” is the root of the issues I have with my identity and sense of belonging.

Life as a TCK involves a lot of airports, and Hamad International Airport is definitely my favorite. Photo by Darrell Pinontoan.

My parents are Indonesian, and I was born there, but we left the country when I was six months old to relocate to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.  I went on to spend nine years of my life there. After that, we moved to Doha, Qatar where I would stay for three years before returning back to Jakarta, Indonesia – the place I was originally from.

Here’s Dubai Darrell, circa 2003. Photo by Darrell Pinontoan.

Growing up in the Middle East for most of my life led me to call it home. It was the place I felt most connected with, the place where all my friends were and the place I could understand and feel understood in.

Moving back to Jakarta was where all the issues with my identity, belonging and home manifested. For as long as I could remember, I would visit Indonesia every summer for at least a month or two. These holidays, however, never gave me a sense of belonging to Jakarta. Sure, I was proud of my culture, and still am today, but I was unaware of what this move would bring.

In Indonesia, even though I went to an international school, I would find myself constantly mocked for my lack of “Indonesian-ness.” This included my limited knowledge of Indonesian pop-culture references, my very basic Indonesian (that I spoke with a very thick “westernized” accent, which would lead to further teasing) and simply for being different. People would think I was arrogant for speaking English (and Indonesian) with the accent that I had – they thought I wanted to look cool. My issues with Indonesia went beyond school-life, though. I found myself not being able to relate to the wider community. The way I thought was different, I had a different outlook on life and I couldn’t relate with people. This all led to a series of mental breakdowns, anxiety, depression and eventually dropping out of high school (which I somehow bounced back from? Hello Northwestern!).

All this stemmed from the fact that I never truly identified as Indonesian. Again, I was (and am) proud of Indonesian cultures and traditions, but I could only talk about them without judgment with foreigners who didn’t have a preconceived notion of them. I could not find a sense of belonging in the geographical location of Indonesia. I could not call it home, and I don’t think I ever can.

Qatar is home for me… at least for now.

Returning to Qatar was a relief for me, a breath of fresh air. I think that deep down, we all just want to feel like we belong and that we truly know ourselves. I’ve found all that in Qatar.

This does not mean that I despise Indonesia. I still have a deep love and emotional connection to it because that’s where my family is from, where I found great friends and where a lot of my cultural roots originate. I have  fond memories of Indonesia and Indonesian culture. I just cannot call it home or feel connected to it.

I am also aware of the opportunities I’ve been given through living abroad, and I’m so fortunate for them. I’ve been able to have experiences and outlooks on life that I would not trade for anything.

So, for now, Qatar is home. Northwestern University in Qatar is my home within a home, a place of community and with bonds like no other. Will my definition of home change in the future? I’m sure it will. Home is whatever you make it out to be; it’s completely subjective.

Doha. Photo by Darrell Pinontoan.

All I ask from you is this: show compassion and understanding to those around you. You may find people who look like complete foreigners but actually belong there as much as you do, or you may find the complete opposite. Either way, love people and talk to them about what home is to them, where they feel they belong and what their identities are. Who knows, you might learn something new yourself!