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#167 Not Knowing Where They’re From

September 3, 2012

Sooner or later Expat Aid Workers wake up from the soft-focus dream of making the world better while simultaneously being one with the people. One day the futility of blending in, dressing like locals, being nomadic, or becoming experts in local culture will come as hard slaps in the face (or cold showers first thing in the morning) to the modern up-and-coming EAW. On this dark day she or he will suddenly understand that going native, establishing field cred, or even being enigmatic can only take an EAW part way down the path to full EAW self-actualization. She or he will understand that as important as all of what she or he might do is, an EAW is simply who she or he is.

And when it comes to finding one’s place in the hierarchy of EAW “who I am” awesomeness, there is no better designation than simply not being able to say. “Local aid worker” has limited shelf-life – usually until the local aid worker gets snapped up by a big grant or relief team in a neighboring country, thereby becoming immediately “expat.” “Not being American” is a similarly credibility-boosting ascribed status, but it can only take you so far – usually through the second round at this weekend’s house party. (And anyway, once the American EAW slaps a maple leaf or Union Jack on her/his backpack, no one will be able to tell the difference between her/him and everyone else in the pub/coordination meeting.)

But not knowing where they’re from is solid gold. No other designation makes the EAW immediately almost-enigmatic, inherently capable of embracing  multiple cultural realities while simultaneously immune to the negative trappings of any particular cultural, national or ethnic affiliation. There’s the obvious give-away:

  • Aid worker a: “So, where are you from?”
  • Aid worker b: “I never know how to answer that question, you know? I mean, my mom is half French, half Croatian, and my dad is Masai. But I grew up in Melbourne. Well, except for when my dad was a diplomat in Mogadishu. But I have a British passport. But I’m actually using a Paraguayan passport on this mission. But I’m most comfortable speaking Dari. But my favorite food is sushi, but culturally I feel the most affinity with traditional Saskatchewanese…”

Not knowing where they’re from also offers the modern EAW hours of angst-ridden team house introspection:

  • Aid worker 1: “I’m just really bummed…”
  • Aid worker 2: “Oh, what happened?”
  • Aid worker 1: “The visa application form had ‘white’, ‘black’, ‘Asian’, ‘Hispanic’, ‘Pacific Islander’, ‘Francophone African’, ‘Baltic’, ‘Amerindian’, ‘Himalayan tribal’, ‘Greater Rift Valley’, ‘North African Nomadic’, ‘Melanesian’, ‘Arab’, ‘Phoenician’, ‘Polynesian’, ‘Punjabi’, ‘Gujarati’, ‘Hausa’, ‘Tuareg’, ‘Micronesian’, ‘Andean Qechua’, ‘Mauri’, and ‘other.’ It’s just soooooo frustrating. There’s never a box that really describes me.”
  • Aid worker 2: “Wow, that must be so hard for you…”

Of course our advanced EAWs who don’t know where they’re from will, within a month of two of leaving their first internship for their first real job, have figured out how to turn the “neither/nor”-ness of their status into the far more beneficial “both/and”:

“Ethnically I’m from here (I more eligible for this job/deployment/mission than common class EAWs) –> But I hold a foreign passport (hire me as an expat so that I can draw expat salary/benefits, live in the teamhouse, be evacuated if things go pear-shaped) –> But I speak the local language (so, really, I save the agency money because I don’t need a translator) –> Since I’m technically a foreigner, the normal cultural rules don’t apply to me (I can drink/smoke/dress how I want/go native with impunity) –> And since I’m also local (and can ‘blend in’ if I want to), organizational security policies don’t apply to  me, either…”

For those of you out there in EAW-land who have the misfortune of being born of a monoethnic family and lived in fewer than five countries growing up, all is not lost. Spend a few weeks in another country – long enough to feel like you ‘really belong.’ It’s amazing how quickly you’ll feel out of touch with what’s going on back home.

Add strobe lights, loud music, perhaps some alcohol… And before you know it your Facebook profile will practically update itself. Let the comforting wave of alone-while-at-the-same-time-one-with-all-humanitay wash over you. Be a citizen of Earth. Pretty soon you, too, will not know where you’re from.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 3, 2012 2:42 pm


    you make me smile, as always, but hey, dont make so much fun of people who dont belong anywhere..its a bit more tragic that you put it! ……Snobiness apart, its a bit true for me now, I dont know where Im from in the sense that I dont feel a belonging to any geographical spot, my sense of belongings as very blurred and vague and I just feel a dis-conection from people (the normal people, with normal lives) and it can actually cause some bad stress you know? ITs not only becasue of humanitairan aid….I hate nationalisms and regionalisms which are always actually based on exclusion, but at the same time I understand people get from them some sense of belonging, whatever arbitrary it might seem. they feel soothing. from the chaos of the world, from uncertainties. they know who they are and they hold on to that. in my case, it goes well before I took up any aid worl as I was born in one country then at 10 left for another one that never felt home. Now this birth country does not seem what I though it was. at all. I feel from nowhere. what are the criteria? language? time lived on that particular country? relations built there? intensity of a lived love in that country?. family born here or there? fiscal status? I frankly dont’ know, J…:-(

  2. Colonel Tusker permalink
    September 3, 2012 3:52 pm


  3. Caterinavaincitta' permalink
    September 4, 2012 5:14 am

    I am originally Italian, from two Italian parents (even heterosexual: one female mother, one male father), BUT. Of course. My maternal grandfather is Sicilian (e.g. I am hot), both my grandmothers are from near Bologna (e.g. I know how to have fun and enjoy life), and my maternal grandfather is from an old family from my hometown Genoa (e.g. possibility of a long-line blue-blood origin as well).
    The advanced EAWs know very well – and your article fails to recognize it – that being born and raised in one country does not mean you are mono-ethnic. Please, how superficial.
    In addition, as all EAWs have been to Italy at least once, and for sure none of them has ever travelled as a simple tourist, they will: a) either know the differences about different Itailan tribes and correctly engage with me in discussions about them and be impressed by my multi-ethnic origin; or b) never admit to their ignorance and pretend they know and engage with me to make up for their mistake.
    So, I am totally a winner. Even if I still only have an Italian passport… (single-passported: my most hidden cause for self doubt).

  4. September 4, 2012 6:27 am

    Reblogged this on

  5. Joseph Keller permalink
    September 4, 2012 10:06 pm

    The article didn’t touch on another crucial fact: the ability of the “I need a paragraph and a week of therapy to explain where I’m from” people to switch hats at their convenience: negative comments about their nationality / ethnicity / whatever X, and all of the sudden they emphasize that they’re not from there and really grew up in Y and X is really just a passport/language/nationality/culture. As soon as something cool is said about X, they’re all about X and how they’re so connected there and “just spent some time in Y”. And then the inverse. Complaining about X while in Y (and therefore emphasizing that one is exotic and foreign because of their connection to X), complaining about Y while in X… Don’t bother to deny it.


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