Meet Nate, Project Pengyou Winter Intern

Nate Levin

“Where are you from?”

A common enough question to ask with a simple enough response. In my case, California, USA.

But, on the other hand, “Where is home?” Now that is a trickier one.

That question instantly calls to mind a number of places: Moorpark, the Pacific Palisades, and Malibu, California; Colombo, Sri Lanka; Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire; Kuwait City, Kuwait; Seoul, Korea; and finally Beijing, China.

See I’m what you call a foreign service brat. Being raised with a father in the foreign service, I’ve had to move every time he gets a new assignment, always in a different continent.

I started living abroad at the age of five, a daunting task for young boy trying to figure out his place in a diverse world. The exposure to such different cultures, as well as being grouped with other international students in the classroom, made it easy for myself to identify as “American,” with little thought about where exactly in America I was from, besides my specific state.

Moving back to the States in 7th grade was no easier. The handful of kids who knew me growing up had long forgotten me, and it felt like I had to rebuild my identity in a place that should have been “home.”

I realized that all my time abroad had left me out of the loop of numerous jokes and references; I didn’t even know what YouTube was. But this wasn’t nearly as frustrating as most students not knowing where Cote D’Ivoire was on a map. Needless to say, I felt extremely detached from a place I had been calling home for most of my life.

“The handful of kids who knew me growing up had long forgotten me.”

During my later high school years I was extensively exposed to Asia, as I lived in Seoul. While in Seoul, I attended a small private school with students from all over the world, so we were one large multicultural group where nationality was meaningless.

The Americans that I hung out with abroad were well-read in philosophy, geo-political history, and had a broader perspective on life than my American counterparts stateside. Most of my colleagues had global aspirations, whether that involved traveling to a bustling Delhi, or Sao Paolo, or pursue humanitarian work in central Africa. It was nice to be around people who could relate to and understand my international experience.

It was because of these friends that I realized I had a choice to make: Should I settle for a simple life in the U.S.? Or stay abroad like I had most of my life and continue living an expatriate life?

Early in high school I thought that home was what my passport said. I thought I would be more comfortable settling down in one place, where I wouldn’t have to struggle with acclimating myself to a new environment, and reestablishing bonds of trust with a brand new set of faces. It would be easier to move back and settle down in the U.S., where I wouldn’t have to deal with a rapidly changing environment (socially and geographically), and could focus on making a home for myself.

“I choose to be here in Beijing.”

But in the end I decided not to fight against the lifestyle I had lived with for most of my life. Instead of trying to control my environment and surround myself with familiar faces, I would rather meet people of different backgrounds across a range of settings, a comfort I have learned to appreciate. In the increasingly global world of today, I want to be able to feel that any place I travel to can be a place that I can fit into, that any place can be home.

Now, in my fourth year of undergraduate study I understand that home is where you make it. And I choose to be here in Beijing.

Regardless of where I have been, I am here now, in a city full of diversity where I can lose myself in the culture of both the past and present, whether it’s a grand temple, or a narrow hutong. A city where I can walk to a given bar and be able to have a conversation in my broken Chinese, then proceed to argue about who is the best NBA player or even why the latest Michael Bay movie is even more overrated than his last.

And, regardless of the countless Chinese faces that stare at me every day or make fun of my Chinese, this is the city that I choose to call home.