International Perspectives

International Perspectives: Story Of My Life

“Where are you from?”

It’s an innocent enough question in a city like Toronto where many people have international roots. But when the story of your life spans six cities and four countries, it could be a little complicated to answer.

So here it is.

odango
Some mini-odangos

I was born in a rural town in northern Japan called Tsukuba. For the first five years of my life, I operated entirely in Japanese. Eating odangos under sakura blossoms, wearing the yukata during the natsu matsuri, and watching Studio Ghibli reruns on television was my early childhood.

Then we relocated to China. My neighborhood went from the quiet Japanese countryside to the bustling metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai. The enormity of everything – from the majesty of the Forbidden City to the lights of the lantern festivals – was thrilling.

Three fascinating years later, we moved back to Japan. But we no longer lived in rural Tsukuba – our new home was an artificial island called Rokko Island in central Japan. Rokko Island was so petite you could bike around it in three hours.

After being away from Japan and learning in English, Japanese had become my second language and English my first. Cartoon Network was a serious addiction and I regularly visited the Foreign Buyers Club with fingers crossed to find the next issue of American Girl magazine.

Then my world shifted radically, yet again.

My father remained in Japan.

My sisters went to Canada to attend college as international students.

And my mother and I went to Sri Lanka to wait for our Canadian Permanent Resident statuses to come through.

I thought that it would be a breeze living in a country my parents had talked about all my life. Turns out though, I had a lot of learning to do on my inherited culture. I couldn’t speak or read Sinhalese or Tamil, didn’t know how to dress for cultural events and could no longer be on the internet 24/7.

But the absence of the internet turned out to be a blessing in disguise. With a lot more time on my hands, I began reading fiction for fun and getting more involved at school. I also began meditating, sitting down with my grandmother every evening at 6 PM.

By the time our visas came through, I was quite reluctant to leave. I had landed in Sri Lanka feeling like a complete foreigner. And once it felt like home, I was moving.

So we flew to Canada and touched down at Pearson in the dead of night. My first memory is that of being bewildered by how big our hamburgers were (now I’m vegan)!

After living in three countries, it was a struggle to adjust to yet another culture and fit in without feeling out of place.

Through a slow trial and error process, I began colour coordinating my wardrobe and picking up on popular culture references.

And ten years later in Canada, it feels like home. One of my homes.

Because everywhere I go, I take a piece of that place with me.

To prepare for the adventure ahead.

This article is the first in a series on my international experience.

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Akemi Liyanage
ISS Cultural Ambassador. Passionate about the international experience. Lived in four countries, would love to see more! In Fourth year of journalism. Follow me on Twitter @AkemiLiyanage to find out more about my travels!