Between Nowhere and Manywhere

Reflections on identity, belonging, and the mixed-race experience

I am mixed. Multi-ethnic. Biracial, if you will, although this word is an uncomfortable one for me. While the word “biracial” suggests division, the word “mixed” suggests a dissolution of the borders that divide one group from another. To me, this is a vital distinction: for when I look into the mirror, I see my own face, not one that is half-black and half-white. I do not perceive myself as half anything, but as wholly myself.

My heritage is complicated. While my mother originates from Eritrea and grew up in Germany, my father is German-Italian and comes from Luxembourg. I myself was born in Scotland and spent the greater part of my life in England. While I have made peace with this complexity, I am still learning to make sense of it. I don’t know if this process will ever end.

Being mixed, to me, doesn’t mean that I am rootless, but that I have too many roots: roots that seem to grow everywhere, so widely that they cannot go deep, and so wildly that they have become all tangled up. And so, it often feels like my identity is an inextricable knot. In no country do I feel like a native, at ease and sure of my place there. Nowhere do I understand, intuitively, the unwritten rules of living. And never have I felt like I would, by studying and imitating the paths others have taken, be able to find my own.

This has brought a great deal of bewilderment. Not to belong anywhere, and yet still to belong everywhere, is a uniquely disjointing experience. At times, I wished I could exchange it for what I imagined to be the monoracial, monocultural experience—a little more certainty, a community to call one’s own, perhaps even a faith to go with it.

But it has also, in ways I come to realise more and more, given me a richness that I would not exchange for anything.

* 

First of all, a confession. My childhood was a colourful, colour-blind cocoon that kept out most of reality—and I am glad of it.

I spent sixteen years in one East Midlands city, Nottingham. However, most of my friends were mixed or bicultural, while what seemed like half of the students at my school were of Commonwealth origin. Thus, although I could tell that few were as uprooted as my family was, I did not know that my mixedness was not just unusual, but even offensive in some eyes. I did not know that there are still people for whom the blending of bloodlines means impurity, or for whom the thought of having children who do not look like them is unbearable. This kind of thinking would never have occurred to me.

Of course, it could have been drastically different. Unlike many other mixed people, I experienced no rejection, no ill treatment, no obvious discrimination because of my origins. Accepted by both sides of my family, I never felt like I was torn between worlds. Being mixed therefore always seemed like a good thing, something that made me my distinctive self, and I was spared much inner turmoil. In this, I know that I am not representative of most multi-ethnic people. I am unusually fortunate.

However, as I hope will become clear, being mixed has still complicated my life in many ways. Therefore, although I know there are others who have suffered far more, in a world far less kind to them, I feel compelled to share my experience.

*

In my childhood home, the three cultures would mingle with little differentiation. For one, though only my mother was a Christian, my family would celebrate Easter, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and, in early years, even St. Nicholas’ Day. For Christmas, my sisters and I would sing German carols like O Tannenbaum and Stille Nacht, while for Easter my mother would make us the Italian easter cake Pasqualina.

Food became my main way of connecting with Eritrean culture in particular: even now, it is the food that comforts me the most, and there are dishes to which I have a joyful attachment, such as ful or injera. I’ve come to realise that something as simple as food and drink—seemingly little things like eating with my hands or enjoying a traditional coffee ceremony—quietly formed me.

However, I cannot help but suspect that, to some extent, I simply had no other option: beyond its food, I had few ways of connecting with the non-European side of my heritage. Most of my Eritrean family lived too far away from us, we never visited Eritrea nor any other African country, and my inability to speak Tigrinya made it hard to communicate with my grandmother. I don’t like to admit this, but despite my bicontinental roots, my upbringing was mostly European.

A part of me regrets this. Because of this imbalance, I cannot connect with my Eritrean heritage more deeply, even more so because I am not recognisably black. I regret that I did not learn Tigrinya, a language that is exceptionally difficult to learn and for which there are few resources, as a child. I regret that I can count the number of black authors in my library on two hands. I regret, though I know it is a privilege, that I grew up with holidays to France, Portugal, Italy and other European countries, for because of this I see Europe as home, but have never stepped foot in Africa.

As for Eritrea, the country that takes up half my roots and yet is still unknown, I feel even more distant. Thousands of miles away in both flesh and thought, I am unsure what to imagine when my mother speaks of Asmara. I think of big palm trees against a cobalt sky. Worn-down but charming art deco buildings from the colonial era. Asmarinos idling through sun-beaten streets and on café terraces. But all this beauty I know only from photographs, which capture little of life’s vibrancy, nor of its darker underbelly. And so, there is a sense of shallowness: my thoughts of Eritrea are just thoughts, with no smell or sound or taste, no pangs of nostalgia or homesickness. It is outside me, not inside.

If anything, this is what troubles me about having so many heritages: the difficulty of knowing and laying claim to all of them, the ease with which the dominant culture washes out the rest, the sense of incompleteness that comes from not knowing the tongue and culture of one’s ancestors. I wonder sometimes what I would be like if I had grown up with yearly trips to Italy and Eritrea, instead of Germany and Luxembourg. Whether I would feel like I have a community I belong to. Whether I would have become a less complicated, thought-haunted person. Whether I could, by deepening my roots, have gained the spiritual nourishment that I, for a long time, could not get on any soil. But these, too, are just thoughts, and so I try to remind myself that all I know, and all that is important, is who I am now.

*

 For the many-rooted under us, there is nothing more dreaded than that ubiquitous, but unreflected question: where are you from?

The way I answer this question has changed over time. I used to, feeling obliged to total honesty and unwilling to conceal any part of myself, give a carefully worded summary of my entire story. My birth country, my home country, my citizenship, my ancestry—no detail would be amiss. Nowadays, it has become tiresome for me to answer the same old question in the same old way, and so I only say as much as I want to. No longer do I feel compelled to satisfy someone else’s curiosity. When I feel playful, I ask my conversation partner to toss a guess: the results span across South and West Asia, Southern Europe and North Africa. No-one, of course, has ever guessed right.

Regardless, I constantly get amusing, but bizarre reactions. I still remember the Tunisian who told me, perhaps flirtatiously, that I possess an Arab soul. The Moroccan who, comparing the shades of our hands, could not believe that I wasn’t Moroccan. The older German man whose first words to me were, of all things, “Frisch aus Indien!” (fresh from India). I do not know what they were thinking, but I do know how I felt: entertained, but at a loss for words. Interactions like these have not been the least bit hurtful, but they do make me wonder where, if anywhere, I can escape this interrogation.

For many mixed people, the way they identify depends on how they are perceived. The same goes for me: far from being surface-level, my ethnic ambiguity—which means that I am continually mistaken for something other than what I am—has also affected how I perceive myself. Feeling a strange affinity for what should seem foreign, simply because of this outer similarity; feeling like the other in what should be my communities, simply because I am seen as other.

At Eritrean weddings, attendees look at me as if I were not one of them or speculate about my mix, while distant family members address me in rapid-fire Tigrinya. In Germany, I am sometimes still asked whether I speak German. Wherever I am, strangers try to break the ice in Arabic, Persian, even Spanish.

And when I, two summers ago, visited Italy after more than ten years, seeing family in Milan, Turin and Chiavari, it turned out to be a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, I quickly fell for the sensual beauty of Italy: the stylish Milan, the lively beaches of Liguria, the delicious trofie al pesto and Genovese focaccia. I was grateful to finally get to know my Italian family members, whom I had seen only once since I was ten and yet greeted me with open arms. On the other hand, I found myself isolated, passing like a ghost through the country, unable to connect with the locals and speaking to my family members in French, rather than Italian. Although I was happy to be there, there was a little sadness in knowing that this delightful country, though it was in my blood, was not really mine and might never be.

Of course, even sharing a language does not ensure belonging. Growing up with several cultures and two languages meant that, while I could navigate many settings, I didn’t feel quite right anywhere. After sixteen years in England and fully internalising the English language, which is now the one I am most comfortable in, I still felt like an alien trying to act human, but lacking the antennae to pick up on, or make sense of, signals all humans can read. And when I moved to Germany five years ago, my head full of expectations formed through books, fairy-tales and my parents’ stories about the ‘90s, I could not keep my rose-coloured glasses on for long: not only was it far from the land of poets and thinkers that I had imagined, I soon found that even speaking German did not make it easier for me to understand, or feel at ease with, its version of normality—the polite distance, the bluntness of expression, the need for punctuality and structure.

Even now, after five years living here, I remain ever on the periphery, one foot in and one foot out.

*

What do we mean when we talk about identity? I’ve always felt that most people are confused about this. We speak of cultural identity, as if someone’s whole self could be reduced to what group they belong to. Perhaps this is why, faced with someone like me, people with less complicated backgrounds struggle to relate: they cannot understand how you can have multiple belongings, and so expect you, often without realising it, to choose one over another.

This insistence leaves many mixed kids disoriented, even in turmoil. To me, however, it never made any sense and still does not. And so, reading Amin Maalouf’s “In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong”, his words immediately resonated with me. Maalouf, who is Lebanese-born and French, writes: “What makes me myself rather than anyone else is the very fact that I am poised between two countries, two or three languages, and several cultural traditions. It is precisely this that defines my identity. Would I exist more authentically if I cut off a part of myself?” Likewise, my multiple heritages, the languages I know and do not know, and my precarious positioning at the fringes of different worlds, have all shaped who I am. However, so too have the books I have read, the people I am close to, and the very bewilderment I write about. I feel no need to cut off any part of myself, but at the same time, I know that I am more than the sum of my allegiances, that they do not define me, that they are simply part of the mosaic that is my identity.

And so, one question I want to ask is: why do we insist on seeing others through the lens of a single allegiance? That is, why do we believe that, in a world where borders constantly shift, where a single country can span continents, where cultures exist in perpetual cross-pollination, we can fit each other into these clear taxonomies? Being mixed made me acutely aware of their unreality, their artificial simplicity. So, although I recognise that all of my heritages have shaped me, I do not know what it means to feel German, English, Italian or Eritrean. Rather, I know what my values are, what kind of person I want to be, and that all this complexity is what I am, not the constructs we impose to avoid it.

This is not to say that I have had no trouble accepting it. Far from it: the more origins you have, the harder it is to know where you come from and where you can go, and the greater the temptation to hide or surrender a part of yourself in order to belong. This makes the choice between authenticity and a chameleon-like existence even more fraught with difficulty. Hence, I have often felt like an impostor, unsure of whether I have any right to claim all of my heritages, especially in the face of rejection. I still think, now with more amusement than anything, of an ex-boyfriend who told me that I had no right to see myself as Italian or Eritrean, that growing up in England made me merely English, that I would never be accepted by Germans. For a while I bought into it. Since then, I have realised that no-one can tell you what you are: that is solely your prerogative, and your heritages your birthright.

Our loyalties have a way of ossifying our minds. What is familiar seems good and natural, while what is foreign is inferior, strange, and even threatening. Being mixed or multicultural makes possible a liminality that allows one to look at things from both within and without a culture. Thus, it helps open the mind to other ways of being, recognise which elements of one’s cultures are worth keeping and which are detrimental, and, beyond all this, see the human heart in everyone, regardless of colour, tribe or nation. These are difficult tasks, and no doubt they have a unique emotional complexity, but I, for one, embrace the challenge.

Tamara Falcone

Tamara Falcone is reading Philosophy and Islamic Studies at the University of Tübingen. An aspiring scholar and writer currently working as a language teacher, she is passionate about words and stories, and the magic they hold.