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Insight: The many places I called home helped me shape my identity

Attending ASU has broadened my worldview after spending my childhood abroad

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"I identify with the nation where I was born, the region where I was raised and the culture I originate from. For a question simply asking me about my background, I have a bit of a messy response." - Amir Imam


“Where are you from?” 

It seems like an easy question to answer, right? For most of my classmates, the answer is simple: Arizona. Most out-of-state students and international students have a single place to call home.

But my answer to the question is much more complicated.

On one hand, I was born in Phoenix, so technically I am an Arizona resident. My family is from Sudan, an Arabic-speaking country in Northeast Africa, and I was raised around Sudanese culture. However, I moved to the Middle East when I was young and went to school in the United Arab Emirates, solidifying my experience as a third culture kid

I identify with the nation where I was born, the region where I was raised and the culture I originate from. For a question simply asking me about my background, I have a bit of a messy response. 

My high school in Abu Dhabi was diverse, having people from all over the world. One friend was from Croatia, the other was from Azerbaijan, some people had even lived in over five countries and spoke multiple languages. In contrast, many of my peers here at ASU have never stepped foot outside of the United States.

Despite having lived in several homes, there was always one constant: a mosque within walking distance. Not a single week went by where I didn't hear the call to the Friday prayers via the mosque's megaphone. 

Now, however, I hear the church bells playing in the Memorial Union, going off every hour.

When I first moved to the Middle East as a child, I remembered it being an overwhelming experience. Coming to a new country with a different culture, while also leaving my family behind in Arizona, did not seem like an easy task for someone who still had not reached the double digits in age.

Yet, that is the same description I would use to describe my experience returning to Arizona as an adult. In hindsight, I had become a little too comfortable in the environment around me. 

Words could not describe my excitement to graduate when I initially began my senior year of high school. However, eight months later, I was nervous about what would come next in a new home with new people surrounding me.

Suffice to say, my freshman year at ASU was a culture shock. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the spring of my freshman year, it reduced the number of interactions I could have with my peers.

Now two years later, I still find myself in a similar position. The pandemic took many of us away from campus, so returning here during the Fall 2021 semester felt like I had to relearn American culture all over again. 

When I attended my first ever football game last semester, my friends spent most of the match explaining all of the rules they were easily accustomed to. School holidays, such as Thanksgiving, seemed like another day, except the only difference was there was no school. 

However, in many respects, I have felt at home here in Arizona. I always liked playing basketball and watching NBA games, and being able to do so with my friends felt like nothing new to me. 

I have consumed American media and pop culture from a young age. Whether that be in the form of reading Dune or watching the Star Wars movies, these interests became frequent topics of discussion with many of my friends. 

After staying in the same place for over a decade, it feels like my own worldview has broadened more in my three years here in Arizona than in my time in the Middle East. 

ASU has given me the opportunity to force myself out of my comfort zone, to meet and talk with people whose experiences are so very different yet similar to my own. Being a part of different student organizations gives me the opportunity to foster stronger connections with other students, regardless of our backgrounds.

As part of the Undergraduate Law Association, I meet several students who share many of the same career aspirations as I do. While I may be the only member interested in international law due to being a third culture kid, I still feel as though I have so much to talk about with my peers, who are more concerned with municipal law.

In the Coalition of International Students, I meet other Arabic speakers who have also grown up all around the world. Despite coming from a similar culture, it is those small differences in our dialects or the countries where we were raised that allow me to widen my perspective of the world just through speaking to them. 

We would talk about our reasons for coming to ASU, why we chose our majors and our shared aspirations of continuing to live and work here in the United States. 

In a strange way, when I initially came to ASU, I felt uncertain about my place at the University and reluctant to reveal my background. But now I come to see the school as a second home to me: a place where I can feel both challenged and comfortable.

So to return to that central question: Where are you from? My answer is complex, wide-ranging and filled with experience.


Reach the reporter at amimam1@asu.edu and follow @amir_amimam1 on Twitter.

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