The identity struggles of an expat

by Kriti Toshniwal

‘Do you feel more Indian or Dutch?’ a friend asked me recently. We were a company of six; two Dutch, two Germans, one American and me; blissfully tucking in a hearty meal laced with garlic and turmeric, at a Tibetan restaurant in Zeedijk, the multinational heart of Amsterdam. Food is perhaps the one topic that seamlessly transcends all borders. I had just been saying how anyone with a bit of Indian blood, even a second or third generation immigrant, would always harbour a love for well-spiced food. In fact, I was just about to boast how I grew up eating raw green chillies back in India.

Then my friend posed this question, and I had to pause and venture beyond my culinary affiliations. There were several thoughts that crossed my mind right then. But since our mouths were busy working on the steaming dishes in front of us, I decided to keep it short. ‘Neither,’ I replied, ‘I feel neither very Indian nor Dutch, actually,’ and left it at that. Nevertheless, it was a question I took home with me. After all, identity is a subject that constantly inhabits the hearts and minds of us expats and immigrants. More so because we know that it isn’t something with a simple answer, a clear black-and-white delineation.

“Identity is a subject that constantly inhabits the hearts and minds of us expats and immigrants.”

A fluid identity

Take me for example. I was born in India, but raised for several years in the Middle-East. I attended an international school in Dubai which itself is a city with a unique mix of temporary residents from all across the globe. I met my Dutch husband in India and moved to the Netherlands eight years ago. By now, several of my Indian friends have also followed a similar pattern and migrated to the United States. Meanwhile, several of the new friends I’ve made here in Europe have been East Asian, a culture I barely knew before coming here except for some stereotypical jokes about how they ate every moving thing and were inevitably surnamed Chen, Chan or Chang.

So am I more Indian now, or Dutch? Living abroad for so many years has not only changed the way I look at the world, but also the way I see myself. To me now, my identity feels like an odd jumble of ideas and beliefs I’ve gathered from several countries and cultures. Yet, or perhaps because of this, I feel like I belong to neither one of these completely. I feel neither entirely Indian nor Dutch. What I have acquired is more a sort of ‘fluid identity’ which shapes itself to the context at hand. I often feel like a chameleon who assumes the character of my surroundings. When I’m with Indians, I do as the Indians do. When I’m with the Dutch I work hard at fitting in and ‘acting normal’. And when I’m with my international mixed group of friends, I assume the easy-going nature of the in-betweener.

“I often feel like a chameleon who assumes the character of my surroundings.”

Being a chameleon

Of course the chameleon is not an easy creature to be. Some people are inherently good at it. I had a friend in India who would dress traditionally to satisfy her grandparents at home, and then as soon as we were outside, she would strip to reveal the short skirt and sleeveless blouse she wore underneath. I was never very good at such quick personality make-overs. It has taken me both time and practice to be able to comfortably manoeuvre different cultures, and it is still work in progress.

The other issue with being a chameleon is that it is not a very attractive creature to be. I don’t mean the big goggle eyes and long lizard tongue, but the fact that as individuals we often seek to find our core identities. And a person who changes with their surroundings is someone we see as being lost or inauthentic. Our traditional outlook on integrity demands that we find our true inner selves. But perhaps this is a simplistic, outdated and somewhat misplaced notion in the complex and constantly changing world we inhabit. After all, hasn’t evolution always favoured the ones who are able to adapt to their changing environment?

Maybe, as an expat, it is time to stop trying to identify or be our one true selves, but to openly embrace and nurture our chameleon natures. My strength is that I learn and adapt and change. I am not one thing. There are many shades of me.

Kriti Toshniwal


This guest blog is written by Kriti Toshniwal and translated by her husband Mark Bos. Kriti comes from India and lives currently in Amsterdam with her husband. She writes stories about the city life on her personal blog page:

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