It was like entering a survivalist compound, every single item I could imagine being necessary in a post-apocalyptic dystopia was at my fingertips: legions of hand cranked lanterns, medicine for upset stomachs, stimulants for increased fingernail growth, neck warmers for infants, and a seemingly never-ending row of peanut butter. For those of you who erroneously believe (like me) there is only a single type of peanut butter, you are unabashedly incorrect. There was crunchy peanut butter, smooth peanut butter, vegan peanut butter, “exotic” peanut butter and even a container of peanuts mixed in butter! Mouth agape, I stood transfixed for a full five minutes, reveling in awe at the might and excess of a consumer-driven society.
I emerged from my first trip to an American Wal-Mart overwhelmed by my first real bout of culture shock. You see, I was born in the tropical embraces of the equator to idealistic American parents who traded life in the mother country for a globetrotting existence, eventually “settling” in Southeast Asia. My closest connection to the United States was through my passport—a frayed, blue book telling the world where I was “from.” However, eighteen years after I materialized in the outside world—seven pounds of corked fury and misshapen feet—I found myself standing at the exit of a dingy Wal-Mart, dormitory essentials and a generic Animal House poster strewn about my feet, about to matriculate at Dartmouth College, U.S.A.
I chose Dartmouth for the simple reason that it wasn’t home. I yearned to experience the country to which I supposedly owed my allegiance. Mother’s testimonies (she’s an alum), coupled with the website’s promises of “intellectual engagement” and a “striking landscape” hooked me. Collegeprowler.com (the name should say enough) also gave Dartmouth an A- for general attractiveness of the student population—a tempting factor for an angst-ridden teen.
I have never felt more out of place and more at home at this college in the New Hampshire boonies. I can easily pass as a born and bred American: I’m familiar with our government structure, can name all the state capitals and can consume Big Macs like it is my cosmic purpose. My personal record is six in fifteen minutes. However, whenever my peers begin harkening back to the places and cultural facets of their formative years, I am completely lost. I nod as they speak, shit-eating grin on my face, pretending to understand what they are talking about.
For me, the prototypical American upbringing was only revealed through the occasional pirated, out-of-date cartoon VHS my parents bought at the wet market—translation issues led me to believe Scooby-Doo was actually called Rooby-Poo. The Teletubbies were the Telefuckies. I am completely serious.
As a kid, fish paste, not peanut butter, was slathered on my sandwiches. My equivalent of a pet dog was a semi-rabid monkey aptly named Curious George. There were no snow-days, but school was cancelled during the bi-annual coup ‘d’états (slight exaggeration.) I could buy alcohol at age fourteen and my taste buds had an intimate relationship with word “spicy.”
I can drive a team of water buffalo, but am basically rendered useless in a Civic. I never had a BB gun, but I have shot a rocket-propelled grenade at a palm tree. My Cape Cod was the fetid gutter in the slum behind my house. My “weekend on the slopes” was the super air-conditioned, indoor, bunny ski-hill at the Jurong Science Center in Singapore.
I felt more at home in rural kampong (village) than in an American suburb. Something about the cookie-cutter houses and the piercing eyes of the garden gnomes unsettles me. I also chuckled at the wheezing efforts of the pudgy neighborhood watch as they harassed teenagers smoking cigarettes on the golf course. At home, I watched eight year olds masterfully scam tourists with no fear of repercussion. It was a broken system perhaps, but it was home. But, over here, how can I relate to a classmate who honestly believes that our democratically-elected president is a jihadist terrorist? I try to be tolerant and understanding of my countrymen and women, but damn, I sometimes feel like a foreigner in this country, which calls me one of her own.
My closest buddies at Dartmouth have listened to me rant about identity and my sense of place. Just the other night, we were all gathered in my room after a night of exuberance, discussing the debauchery of our peers when one of them blurted out “ZNelly, I know you grew up in Southeast Asia and all, but you look and sound like you are from Waterloo, Iowa. If the United States invaded Indonesia, what side would you be on?”
“Well…uh…shit man, I don’t know,” I mustered in response. “I’d probably spontaneously combust, I can’t handle that type of pressure!”
That night, I couldn’t sleep. My mind was whirring at supersonic speed. When the sun began to grace the horizon, I sat bolt upright in bed, slamming my head in the process and audibly exclaiming, “Who the hell am I?” I still posses the brownish-purplish bruise from that moment of boisterous introspection.
The truth is, until recently, I’ve never really thought about these tough questions. I’ve complained and kvetched, but haven’t actually expended the mental energy to address my concepts of home and identity. I like to think of myself as a decently intelligent college junior: I can rattle off the names of 17th century Islamic Ethiopian scholars and explain the relatively complex processes of eutrophication (there’s a liberal arts education for you), but I can’t definitively tell you where I am from.
I guess I’d tell you that I’m in some sort of limbo between America and Southeast Asia, between east and west; a purgatory of sorts. I consider myself to be a global nomad, not truly rooted anywhere, but with tendrils snaking out all over the world, forming tenuous connections with people and places. I’m what those in the know call a Third Culture Kid, or a person that builds relationships with many cultures, but never has full ownership of any of them.
Going to college has provided me with the medium to truly be able to assume full ownership of my very own culture. In the sub-arctic town of Hanover, although I’ll only be here for a mere four years, I’ve began to root down, cementing relationships that will sustain me for life and forming ideas that will serve as the bedrock of my life philosophy. As I walked across the Green this morning, I was greeted by beaming faces and was hurled endearing insults by some of my more vulgar peers. It feels like home. It feels like I belong. I’m not accountable to any nation, any flag or nationalistic creed; I’m a college student, accountable only to myself and those that care about me.
Now this all may seem sentimental and seemingly insignificant, but put yourself in my shoes. Most of you knew where you were “from” when you were a stinky toddler. I’m twenty-one years old and still struggle with the question. It’s at the core of one’s existence - this sense of self - and I’m still basically an aimless wanderer. I’m a Dartmouthian for now, but when I graduate, where will I go? Who will I become? If you, my reader, know of a community of folks like me, let me know -- I’d even be open to a cult of nudist neo-hippies that engages in the black market organ trade.
So now, I’m off to Wal-Mart to buy myself some peanut butter. What type you may ask? That I do not know, but much like the infinite variety that exists of this staple brown paste, so do the possibilities and combinations of what I am, what I can become—cheesy I know, but true.
Zach Nelson, ethnically confused Singaporean-American-Indonesian, signing off. I’m home, for now.