The question “where are you from” is so simple, yet complex for someone like me. My immediate response when I get asked that is to say, “I'm originally from Senegal, but I've lived all around the world, and right now, I live in New York”. People sometimes look confused when I give them that particular response because you’d usually expect a one-word response.
I was born in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. Senegal is a small tropical country in West Africa, rich in culture and traditions. My parents are Senegalese; my grandparents are Senegalese, and my great-grandparents as well. I left Senegal at the age of 7, and moved to New York with my family.
It was my first time in the United States so it was definitely a huge transition. The first thing I had to do was to learn how to speak English. I was used to speaking French and Wolof (one of Senegal’s native languages) and now I had to communicate with others in a completely different dialect. My parents first enrolled me in an American school so I could adapt and once I was fluent in English, they put me in a French school. That school was interesting because although it was a French curriculum, there were still some classes taught in English. During these years in the United States, I also noticed a shift in my household. I mainly spoke in English with my parents, and we occasionally spoke in French and Wolof. So even though 95% of the language spoken in the household was English, we could all switch back to our mother tongues whenever we wanted to.
After three years in New York, we moved back to the African continent, but not in Senegal. Instead, we went to Johannesburg, South Africa. Johannesburg was another transition. I had gotten used to life in the United States, and now I was again, thrown into a completely different setting. People speak English in South Africa, but they also speak Afrikaans and Zulu amongst an array of 11 national languages. To keep the bilingualism going, my parents again enrolled me into a French school. I met a lot of people like me in South Africa. By that, I mean people who were raised in a culture (or a multitude of cultures) other than their own. Simply put, I met other “third culture” kids; it was refreshing to be around people who had experiences similar to my own. During my time in South Africa, my family and I mixed both Senegalese and South African culture in our everyday life. For example, we tried South African dishes, engaged with the locals, and still practiced our Senegalese traditions with other Senegalese people in the country. After two years in Johannesburg, I moved to Beirut, Lebanon.
Lebanon was probably the biggest change of all. I was a teenager by the time I moved there so I sort of began to understand that defining my identity was difficult. I would go back to Senegal during summer breaks and I often heard things like “Penda you’re not from here, you’re an American” or “you’re not really Senegalese, you left when you were a child”. It was confusing because to me, I was Senegalese, even if I didn’t spend my formative years there. So, while I was living in Beirut, it became difficult to answer the question “where are you from?” because I felt like I had to really explain to people that I was Senegalese but that I had grown up everywhere.
After Lebanon, we moved back to the United States where I completed highschool. This was the longest we had spent in a country so by the time I was a senior, you could say that I was really an “American”. However, it was interesting because I would find myself “looking” for South Africa and Lebanon. I’d sometimes say some common Arabic or Afrikaans words to my parents or sisters, and of course, I would always look for South African or Lebanese restaurants in New York City.
I didn’t realize it at the time but now that I am older, it’s evident that I spent my formative years in different environments which has arguably made me who I am today. Even if you don’t realize it, culture shapes who you are. Living in these different countries has allowed me to be extremely open-minded and acquire the ability to adapt to any environment and get along with others, amongst other things. These places have allowed me to grow in a very unique way, and for that, I am forever grateful. So, to answer the question, “where am I from?”, I say: I am a Senegalese woman with hints of America, South Africa and Lebanon in her.