Far-flung homes: Two students speak to diasporic identity, borderless sense of home

This is the third part of a three-part series centering the experiences of students who are the only ones from their home countries to be at Tufts.

This series has previously discussed how students identified with physical spaces both inside and outside of their home countries. In this final installment, the Daily features the stories of Olive and Faith, two undergraduates for whom home refers to the people — rather than the places — they care about.

Olive

Olive, who requested that their last name not be published due to safety concerns, is a sophomore from Tibet. They spent their early schooling years in a boarding school in mainland China and returned home to Tibet every summer.

“I was trying so hard in school … it was always in the back of my mind that I had to try extra hard to prove to my Chinese classmates that Tibetans were not barbarous or uneducated,” they said.

Olive’s parents lived in the United States at the time. They recounted that there were difficult times in school when they would break down and cry on the night before a parent-teacher conference.

“My dormmates would be scared about the conference, scared that their parents would be mad at them because they got bad grades. For me, I got really good grades, but my parents could never come,” they said.

Being so far away from their parents pushed Olive to learn how to live and deal with their emotions independently from a young age.

“My mum would ask me, ‘Why can’t you tell me you miss me or you love me?’ I just can’t say it, it makes me feel so uncomfortable,” they said. “Because I trained myself really well to never think that I miss [my parents], then it won’t bother me.”

In 2008, unrest broke out in Tibet during commemorations for the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising. Amidst this unrest, Olive’s friends from school bombarded them with discomforting questions about their birthplace and their political affiliations.

“I was only nine years old,” they said. “It was really hard because they were all my classmates, my friends, and suddenly they ask me really uncomfortable questions that I never thought about. I would tell my friends jokingly that I was not one of those ‘crazy Tibetans.'”

When Olive returned to Tibet that summer, they witnessed its street violence and started to rethink their identity as a Tibetan. While they sympathized with the cause of Tibetan independence, they were also unsure if a free Tibet would do more to destabilize the region.

“On one hand, I think Tibet should be free from China, because we had always been our own country, and have our own language and culture,” Olive said. “On the other hand, I wonder what will happen when Tibet is free … how people in Tibet will survive. The first time I heard or saw gunshots [in 2008], that’s when it really shook me to rethink my identity.”

Olive moved to New York in 2009 to continue their education. Because they had lived in mainland China, they found it difficult to interact with the Tibetan diaspora in the United States, many of whom had previously lived in Nepal or India.

“When they see me, they feel like I’m a Tibetan from China that doesn’t understand their struggle. For me, it’s like they don’t understand what we are going through in China as well,” they said.

They explained that as a Tibetan Chinese citizen, they have faced questioning by immigration officers at Chinese borders about their travel history and political affiliations.

Growing up in the United States has also prompted Olive to reevaluate some of the cultural norms that they grew up with in Tibet and China, which has caused disagreements between them and their family in China. They struggle between wanting to live their own life and not wanting to anger their family members.

“[My family] would tell me that girls shouldn’t wear shorts in the streets … even during the summertime. That really bothers me, because I feel that this is my body and it’s my freedom to wear what I want to wear,” they said.

Before coming to Tufts, Olive spent a gap year working in Madrid and traveling around Europe. It was during this time that they truly learned to embrace spontaneity and new experiences, after years of struggling with their identity while living overseas.

“If somebody tells me that this city is cool, on Friday I would just book a ticket and leave,” Olive said. “I was doing couch-surfing, and I always travelled alone. You are forced to meet new people, and I really enjoyed that.”

As a result of their new open-mindedness, Olive is relatively unfazed whenever someone asks them about Tibet or their Tibetan identity, even if the question reveals a level of ignorance.

“I used to get really offended and very defensive. Now, I don’t really care anymore — I’m trying to see where they come from and understand if they were [brought up] … where they don’t have a lot of access to information about Tibet. I don’t want to hold that against them,” they said.

Currently, Olive is a part of the Tufts chapter of TableTalk, an initiative to facilitate conversations between people on campus. They see this as part of their broader desire to meet people who are unlike them. Rather than be caught up in trying to figure out exactly where their home is and what they identify as, they have chosen to make themself at home with friends they enjoy spending time with.

“[My friends and I] never talk about identity. What actually makes us closer is that [our identities] are not a big part of our conversations or how we see each other,” they said.

Faith Ocitti

Faith Ocitti, a junior studying biomedical engineering, grew up in Botswana but has never had a rigid definition of where home is. Her parents moved to Botswana from Uganda and Sudan to raise Ocitti and her siblings, and she learned from her parents how to make a home wherever she went.

“You carry home with you and the people around you. Once you reached a place where you were comfortable, it becomes home to you,” Ocitti said.

A stark contrast exists between the cultures that are practiced inside and outside of Ocitti’s house. This difference means that she would say that she is the sole student from Botswana at Tufts, but back home in Botswana, it feels easier for her to say that she is from elsewhere.

“In my house, my parents speak Arabic, we eat Sudanese food, it’s a whole different ambience. We have things typical of Sudanese and Ugandan culture. But as soon as I step out of my house, they speak a different language, and they have a [slightly] different value system,” she said.

In response to questions from others about Botswana, Ocitti describes it as “the most magical place.” However, she is unable to explain more beyond that, mostly because of a language barrier that limits her from truly feeling like she is a part of the Botswanan community.

“I don’t speak Setswana, so there’s such a huge language barrier. It makes me feel as if I will never be a part of Botswana, until I speak the language,” she said. “Even if I live there my whole life, I feel that there is no way to connect enough to be from Botswana.”

While Ocitti has only experienced Ugandan and Sudanese culture through stories from her parents and grandparents, it still remains as much a part of her identity as Botswanan culture does.

“I almost feel like a fraud calling [Uganda and Sudan] home and a part of me,” Ocitti said. “If someone asks me if I would ever move there, I’d say yes in a heartbeat, but it’s also foreign to me.”

Ocitti has observed that her initial conversations with new people in the United States can be substantial but fleeting, while her connections with new people in Botswana are gradually nurtured to a point where deep conversations can be had and relationships can be maintained.

“[In the U.S.] it’s very in-depth in the moment, but there’s a possibility that it will be the only conversation you’ll ever have with [that person]. However, in my experience of the people around me [in Botswana], because you’ve built up to that [depth], the relationship is more easily sustained,” she said.

Nonetheless, Ocitti’s strong curiosity, cultivated by her experience in a high school that embraced learning for learning’s sake, has driven her to build lasting friendships with new people in everything that she is involved in.

“[In high school], you were expected to go out of your way to connect to people, you had to be empathetic, sympathetic and compassionate to others,” Ocitti said. “That has definitely taught me to be curious, especially with the people who I meet.”

This has held true in college, where Ocitti has used her familiarity with unfamiliar spaces to discover new experiences and meet new people.

“Even though my concept of home isn’t solidified like most people, it kind of adds to how easily I can feel at home. With my different identities, I can connect to a larger group of people,” she said.

For instance, in the midst of a hectic fall semester in her first year, she discovered Tufts Mountain Club and the Loj as a place where she could relax and make deep connections with people, and is currently its first ever student outreach director.

“That was very important to me, because I am not the biggest extrovert out there, and it’s hard to be overstimulated all the time,” Ocitti said. “The reason I’m still involved is because I want that for other people. I want them to find a space that they can feel comfortable in and that they can use to retreat if they wanted to.”

This sense of curiosity about other people and new experiences feeds into Ocitti’s reluctance to discuss her own sense of home and identity with others.

“My reality, to me, is so mundane. It’s one of the most boring things I could possibly talk about,” she said. “I’ve lived in and with me for 20 years. While I think there are a lot of conversations about identity here, usually it’s me on the asking end, prying into people’s lives and their backgrounds, learning more about their lives.”

Having occupied a liminal space all her life in Botswana and the United States, Ocitti does not value being able to definitively label a home or a community for herself, because it’s not something that she has ever had.

“It’s more about connecting with people one-on-one, or connecting with activities and thoughts, and then moving from there. Home has meant something to me, but it really hasn’t,” Ocitti said. “The people around me are more important than the physical location that I call home.”

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