“So Genevieve where exactly are you from ?”
You’ve all seen those memes on social media that go along the lines of “if I had $1 for every time *insert instance*, I’d be living on a yacht, living my best life."
Well I really do feel like it’s THE most relatable meme for me personally. I get asked that question so many times, by friends and strangers, that I’ve perfected a short answer: “well my third year undergrad International Relations professor put it best by calling me a mini-United Nations”. That normally gets people giggling and then they decide that it’s too much effort to ask further questions and we pass onto the next pleasantries of casual chit-chat. In truth, the answer to that question reflects one of my favourite parts of who I am.
My mother, born to an Italian father whose family fled the Second World War and a mother born to German immigrants to South Africa, is a first generation South African.
My father is an immigrant to South Africa: born in Brussels to a Polish mother and Belgian father, his passion and continued drive within the hospitality industry brought him to South Africa almost 35 years ago. To add to this all, my mom was born Roman Catholic but converted to Judaism almost 30 years ago and my father was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household. A crazy mix right? So what does that mean for me you may ask. Well in terms of legalities, that means I hold both South African and Belgian nationality as well as Italian citizenship. In terms of day to day activity, well I’m nothing shy of a sexy mad chaotic mix.
Remember when your mom used to take you on a Saturday morning with her to the stores for your weekly shop? Picture this: my mother’s trolley includes everything from bacon to chicken livers to challah (traditional Jewish bread) and bottles of Prosecco. Not to mention the SA favourites like Nik-Naks and Crème Soda. And when I misbehave I am shouted at in Italian across the aisle. I gossip back to my mom in French. Oh and every now and then I drop a Yiddish (old Hebrew) word while speaking English. It’s confusing – not just to people listening in or bearing witness to the extra-ness of it all, but it’s hella confusing to me. Who am I?
Friday nights were spent with family, observing Shabbat around a heavily-food laiden table after the 18h service at synagogue. Sundays were spent at my maternal grandparents home eating traditionally homecooked italian feasts. This also included all meat cooked on the braai (barbeque for non-South Africans) as well as afternoons spent in the swimming pool or on the beach depending on whether we were at the city or beach family home.
The assumption may be that such a diversity of cultures may create either an identity crisis or a difficulty for myself/others to identity to one another. This would be incorrect – precisely because I am a meeting point of a variety of cultures, I am the first in the room to be outspoken or outgoing. I want to know where people are from, who they are, what they like. I am loud like an Italian. Observant like a German. Friendly like a South African. A foodie like a Belgian. Nurturing like a Pole. And while these are only my own stereotypes I associate to my own biases to the nationalities based on how I was raised, they speak to only a fraction of what they mean to me. This is where I believe social media has played a major role in my development as a third culture kid. Platforms like Facebook and Instragram have allowed me to venture outside of my reachable physical world and connect to individuals around the world just like me. And the truth is, we are abundant in numbers.
While I’ve made being a third culture kid sound like heaven, there have been times of frustration. Growing up was sometimes confusing: the italian side of the family believes a young girl shouldn’t be dating anyone her uncles haven’t picked out for her and should have her date chaperoned while the Belgian side was way more understanding. The Jewish side of the family believed in only three career choices being medicine, accounting or law while my Roman catholic side wasn’t as bothered. Again, it was only until I was older, living on my own and outside the loud bustle of my worldwide family that I realised that cultures can both create barriers and destroy them. Culture permitted my family to raise me with a variety of understandings (created through rules) that I would one day be able to fine tune into my own independent structures.
I always find it so intriguing when someone asks my sister where she is from. Her immediate, unfiltered answer, is always Belgium. I on the other hand always say South Africa. So what does that mean for culture? Are we born into it or do we identify to it?
The older I am, and the more life I live, the more I would tend to agree with identifying to a culture. Every three years since I turned 18, I have picked up my life, packed it into two suitcases and move to a new city for 12 months. And yet, no matter where I live or where I travel to, I am always South African. Always African. I identify to the concept of “it takes a village to raise a child”. I understand the concept of interconnectedness. I have lived the life of realising there is nowhere quite like being Africa and knowing you are at the source of it all. Literally. My father refers to this as the boomerang effect: “no matter how many times I throw you out into the world, you always find a way of coming home”.
The truth is, without sounding absolutely cliche, I’m a kid of the world. And I genuinely don’t mean that lightly - my parents are both children of immigrant families and my father himself is an immigrant to South Africa. That makes me a third generation immigrant baby. I’ve lived in four major cities in the world, studied alongside representatives of all continents, worked with international companies and individuals, and interacted with some of the most multifaceted nationals you could imagine. So ask me again where ‘exactly’ I’m from. The truth is: I’m a third culture generation kid who is a proud South African by birth, with Italian and Belgian citizenship, roots in Poland and Germany, and identifies with the concept of interconnected humanity.