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"I'm Just a Hodgepodge"

Where do international-schoolers come from?

“When you look at people from an internationally-educated social background, regardless of nationality, they all seem to resemble each other,” said Arnaz Mallick, an Indian first-year studying English. “It’s kind of funny.”  Mallick was born in Sri Lanka, then moved to India, Thailand, Tunisia, Brunei, India again — she now lives in Poland. 

“You go to France, you're the Austrian. You go to Canada, you're the Austrian. And then if you've lived your whole life somewhere else, you come back [to Austria] and people are like, ‘Yeah, you're Austrian, but not really,’” said Armin Lassl, an Austrian International Relations first-year. Lassl was born in Germany, then moved to Austria, Canada, France, Austria again, Tanzania — he now lives in Austria.

“Oh my god, people have childhood bedrooms. I don’t have a childhood bedroom. I’ve not lived in a place long enough for that,” said Caitie Steele, a South African second-year English and Modern History student. Steele was born in Cape Town, then moved to Zambia, Kenya, Scotland, Washington DC, Kenya again, South Africa again —

 she now lives in Austria. 


“I think I’m just a hodgepodge,” said Steele. “It’s hard not to be when you go to an international school [...] I've always kind of envied people where it's like, ‘where are you from?’ ‘Oh, I'm from Texas,’” she said. “That would be so easy, wouldn't it?” When she goes back to South Africa, “people usually don't assume I'm South African,” Steele said. “Fair enough — I don't really sound it. I wish I did, though.”

Mallick felt a similar disconnect from her peers. “I mean, I'm not seen as completely Indian,” Mallick said. “I'm sort of indifferent to it. I think it is what it is.” She doesn’t know how “intrinsic” her Indian national identity is to her: “I think largely it's a thing I tell myself — and I do believe it, quite often,” she said.

For Lassl, the sense of judgement he feels from other Austrians complicates things. “I want to say that I just [decided my identity],” Lassl said. Even though he considers himself unambiguously Austrian, he still described a disconnect: “I know the Austrian food and all the Austrian Austro-pop, but you can tell the difference.” 

Lassl spent several years living in both Paris and Ottawa, and there were points when he felt closer to French or Canadian culture than to Austrian culture. But in his teens Lassl moved back to Vienna, and he began to feel Austrian again. In France and Canada, Lassl told me, he only “acculturated”, adapting to a foreign culture. But coming back to Vienna, he “enculturated again”, reconnecting to his native culture. 

As a young child, Mallick’s parents spoke to her in Hindi-Urdu — but when she started going to English-language international schools, her family switched to just speaking English at home, to help her acclimatise. She now speaks perfect English, and even though she’s forgotten the Hindi-Urdu she spoke as a child, she still doesn’t see herself as a “native speaker” of English. 

“It's almost a choice, national identity. I mean, if I wanted, I could cosplay as a Westerner. I don't want to. I think I'm very conscious of being Indian,” she said. “One value that's been instilled in me a lot by members of my family since I was quite young [is] that I am Indian, and that nothing will ever change that.”

I asked what the trio thought about their childhoods. “[My upbringing] is a huge privilege. It’s taught me so much,” said Mallick. “I think I’d be half the person I am today if I weren’t to have moved around as much as I did. But I would rather the comfort and stability of a solid home.” 

Lassl also said his upbringing was a privilege. But he felt that its downsides weren’t well known. “Would I want that life?” he asked. “I know a lot of people who had to move around a lot [...] who suffered and continue to suffer,” he said. “If you invest in friendships, and you open yourself up, but then you’re uprooted [...] you will be less inclined to do that again.”  

Lassl said that he eventually learnt to manage the frequent moves — but he wouldn’t want to raise his kids that way, if he had any. “It doesn’t have to be Austria, but I’d want them to stay in one place [...] I wouldn’t want to uproot them every three years.” 

Steele doesn't regret her upbringing. “I differ from Lassl in that I never had any roots,” she said. “I think I would have gone stir-crazy growing up in one place.”

None of the three thinks national identity is a binary — that you either are or you aren’t. It’s much more complicated; much more fuzzy. “I have a friend — she has an Irish father, a Uruguayan mother. She lived her whole life in Switzerland except for four years in Paris. What’s binary about that?” said Lassl.

As a child, Mallick said she “knew that I was Indian, but I had no understanding of what exactly that meant.” Mallick wants to spend her life continuing her Indian enculturation. “As we grow older, we are drawn somewhat naturally to our roots,” she said. “And I would hope that makes me actively work on becoming closer to my culture.” 

No matter where she ends up, though, Mallick wants to put down roots. “When I am an adult and have a job and everything I'm going to find one place and live there my entire life [...] and not leave,” she said.

For all three interviewees, family was what grounded their national identities — even when they felt alienated from their language or birthplace. “Moving around alienates you from things like schools or particular homes,” Mallick said. “What it brought me closer to was my family, because that was the one constant in my life.” 

Steele talked about her “long-distance loved ones” — she doesn’t feel like being physically far from her family matters “because I have a family that has moved around so much, I think that I just have a lot of faith that we will see each other.” 

To finish up, I asked how the three feel now that they’re at St Andrews — a place whose student body is only vaguely tied to Scotland, or even to Britain — a place that seems to exist as its own little international planet. 

“I definitely do have great connections at St Andrews,” Mallick said, “[but it] just feels like an extension of every international school I've ever been to [...] I've grown up with the one constant in my life being human relationships, and I think that makes a place home.”

Steele and Lassl feel a stronger connection to St Andrews. “I feel particularly at home in St Andrews at the moment,” said Steele. “It’s the first place I have chosen to live.”

“I would actually call St Andrews my home. It’s ridiculous how quickly that’s happened,” Lassl said. “In St Andrews you have a really weird mix of [...] Scottish culture, but also international culture and British culture [...] I identify really strongly with that,” he said. 

After around six months of living here, he’s started acculturating. “I’ve noticed, actually, that I’ve started to ‘take on’ British culture,” he said. “in my language, in the things that I do, in the way I drink my tea.”

Illustration: Aimee Robbins


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