Who am I? Where do I belong? Where is home? These and similar questions are ones we all come across at a certain point in time, when we grow up and walk through different stages of our lives. We occupy ourselves with them throughout puberty in particular, a phase where we struggle to define our identity and find our specific purpose in life.
But what happens when you not only make experiences in the society you were born in and grew up in, but instead leave the world you know and expose yourself to different cultures, languages, nationalities – in different places of the world? And how do these experiences affect your personality, identity and worldview? Do they alter you and make you „different” from peers of your generation and age, who haven’t travelled as much?
Over the past 14 years I have had the opportunity to travel to many different places as well as live in different countries, mainly in the English speaking world. The experiences I’ve made have had a huge impact on my personal development. They have enriched my life immensely and opened my eyes to different points of views and opinions. They have given me a better understanding of the world and myself, and have made me a different person.
I am a German native. I was born in a rural part of Germany and grew up in a small village, relatively sheltered and socialized in a sort of “traditional” part of German society. I looked at my country, the world, and life the way someone with my background from Germany would.
At the age of 15, I got the chance to visit newfound family in the United States of America on a two-week holiday. It was the first time I boarded a plane, the first time I left Europe, and the first time I got exposed to a different culture in an English-speaking country. I still remember looking out the car window on the way from the airport to our relatives’ house. I noticed all the little differences. The different colored street signs, the different vegetation, the different ways houses were built and how there were no walkways to the front doors of some of them. The first time I ordered a salad for dinner after our arrival I was shocked by the size of the plate that was put in front of me (literally two plates!) and I remember having trouble trying to figure out how to use the shower and turn off the lights. Throughout the two weeks I was there, I had countless new experiences and was blown away by places like Times Square in New York City. I got introduced to seafood, including learning how to cook and eat crabs, and went tubing on the water for the first time.
Seven years later, I returned to the U.S. for another visit and travelled to some other places along the American east coast, gaining more new experiences. But the year that really started to change things for me was 2011, when I spent five months studying and living on an American college campus. During this time period, I had so many new experiences and gained so many new impressions that my personality started to change. I lived in a shared apartment with amazing people from various different cultural backgrounds. Some of them are still close friends to this day. I tasted new food, celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas the American way, and travelled with new friends from all over the world to more new places. In short, I totally immersed myself in what I like to think of as the best part of American culture – its diversity – and got to look at my own culture from a distance. I began evaluating opinions and ways of life in a different manner due to the new perspectives I had gained.
When I returned to Germany in early 2012, it first dawned on me that I had changed. I noticed having diverting opinions more frequently and found it harder to understand and relate to people at home. My own personal goals had changed too. The experiences I had made abroad had made me crave more of the same kind. I missed the diversity of the American society I had lived in in the Capital region, and its open mentality. I remember a moment riding a street car in the city I was studying in shortly after I had returned home. I felt sort of detached and foreign, looking at how people were avoiding to look at each other and merely minded their own business. I missed the friendly „How are you’s” Americans greet each other with when entering a shop or an office, no matter how sincere they might be. I think the custom serves a good function, namely to break down initial personal barriers.
It didn’t take long for me to get accustomed to German culture and society again, but there’s certain aspects of my personality and identity that had begun to undergo an irreversible process of change. Every time I returned to the United States over the following years, three times for at least four to eight weeks each, gaining work experience, travelling, and visiting friends and family, that process continued. The degree to which I changed seemed to be dependent on the duration of my stays, but I remember feeling different each time I returned home.
Last year, I moved to Australia for six months and got to live in yet another part of the world for a longer time frame. Even though Australia is an English speaking country as well, I noticed differences and got to immerse myself in yet another culture and different environment. After having gotten so used to the American culture over a time span of twelve years, it was somewhat refreshing to learn about Australia’s customs and particularities. I even subconsciously picked up the Aussie accent and mixed it with my heavy American English. In addition, I got used to driving on the left side of the road – a skill I will probably use again in the future and one I am a little proud of.
After leaving my host family in Sydney, I embarked on my craziest journey yet. During the following 9 ½ weeks, I travelled along the Australian east coast in Queensland, had multiple-day stopovers in Singapore and Dubai, spent a week with my family in Germany, and visited and travelled with family and friends in the United States. On most of these travels, I was by myself. The experiences I made and the people I met are incredible, and the memories will last me forever. I snorkeled, dove, and helicoptered along the Great Barrier Reef, sailed through the Whitsunday Islands on a 100-year-old tall ship, got stuck with a flat tire on the largest sand island in the world – surrounded by a great group of international people and a crazy tour guide – , had a drink overlooking Singapore by night, saw the sunset in the Arabian desert, walked through a cotton field in South Carolina, climbed Stone Mountain near Atlanta, Georgia, had the best crab cake in my beloved Maryland, looked at my reflection in “the bean” in Chicago, and wrote job applications in a café on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. There are so many other experiences and anecdotes, but this post is already longer than I had planned it to be.
But what have all these experiences done to me? To my personality, my identity? They have made me different. Different from a typical German, different from a typical American, different from a typical Australian. I feel like I am all of the above – and none.
There are countless positive aspects to the state of “hybridity” my identity has adopted. I have become far more open and confident. I feel like I can master most challenges, get along with most anyone, and make myself comfortable in most places. I’ve learnt how to “troubleshoot” and help myself in unforeseeable situations, and take care of myself. My experiences have strengthened my belief in the possibility to create opportunities for yourself and that putting in effort eventually pays off. In short, my 15- or 21-year-old self would not recognize me – in a positive sense.
However, there are negative sides as well. Despite having incredible friends and family, spread all across the globe, I never have all those people, or most of them at least, around me at the same time. I can try to visit them and have them visit me as much as possible and I can stay in touch with them from anywhere and at any time, thanks to modern technology. But staying in touch through text, video chats, and phone calls can be tough, time consuming, and hard to organize due to different time zones and different schedules. So at the end of the day, after you’ve ended all those phone calls, video chats, and turn off all those technical devices, you can still feel somewhat lonely. The thought of not being able to hug someone in that particular moment, because he or she is simply too far away can be deeply saddening. It feels like being in a long-distance relationship with not just a boyfriend, but with most of the important people in your life, and as long as teleporting is not a reality – please, Elon Musk, can you work on this? – nothing will change about that.
Another aspect that can be tough about being a “hybrid” is not knowing where you really belong. You feel somewhat at home and can make yourself feel at home in many different places in the world, but somehow you never feel completely at home. That problem is to some degree connected to the fact that friends and family are spread across the world. As many people say, and I’ve found that saying to be very true, home is where your loved ones are. But what do you do, if the people you love are all in different places and if you haven’t found “the one” yet – the one you want to share your life with or even spend the rest of your life with?
This month, after returning from my travels last year and after a rather short stint living and working in Berlin, I relocated once again – this time to the United Kingdom, to London in particular. Once again, I am building a new life for myself in an exciting foreign place. I have met new people and already have a great group of friends around me. I have started a new job and am looking forward to the opportunities and the fun this city has to offer – especially once it gets warmer. But I also have to admit to the fact that somehow, this move seems to be harder than the ones before. Maybe this is due to the fact that I am at a crossroads in my life, saying a final goodbye to my student life, entering the professional world, and approaching my thirties. The uncertainties and insecurities after finishing school or university are felt by most people and it seems to be a normal phase in most people’s lives, but I also feel like my hybrid identity plays a big role.
I do not want to complain about any aspect of my life. I know I am very fortunate to have so many opportunities and I worked hard for them. My hybrid identity is mostly a blessing and an asset that will hopefully help me in the future, in a professional and private capacity. It has its downsides, which can be tough to deal with, but learning how to cope and live with them is part of the “hybrid package”. If that package is being sent your way, you have to decide whether to open it and accept the pros and cons or keep it closed. I am glad I ripped it open once it arrived.
Feel like you know what I’m talking about? Let me know in the comments.