Learning and Unlearning My Identity on the European Continent

What does it mean to be a true European?

Learning and Unlearning My Identity on the European Continent

As I write this, I am one day away from turning thirty. I came to Europe when I’d just turned twenty so it has been a decade since I’ve moved to this continent from Southeast Asia, and more specifically, Indonesia. Naturally, I’ve been thinking about how I got here in the first place. I was not fleeing from war nor any political conflicts – a privilege in itself. 

This year I had a lot of time to think, so I started wondering, why did I come in the first place? In literature and cinema, you’re always sold on this idea that your twenties are the best years of your lives, or at the very least, there is this romanticisation of it all. And of course, as did a lot of impressionable young people in the world, I grew up consuming a lot of Western pop culture; American and/or European. I was also watching a lot of French movies in particular, which probably contributed greatly to the decision and effort of me moving to France to pursue a higher education. Of course, it was not as simple as packing a bag. I was lucky enough to be able to afford it despite coming from an average-income Indonesian household. There was a lot of paperwork and sacrifices my parents had to go through. Reflecting on it now, I respect them for even entertaining the idea of me moving halfway across the world, fresh out of adolescence. To be honest, lately, I’ve even felt guilt for having been persistent about studying abroad and leaving my family behind.  

I’ve lived in five different cities in three different countries within the European Union. I’ve also been in love in those cities – or at least, I think I have.. Today, I feel so ridiculously lucky to be able to share a life with someone who’s basically an extension of my soul. I guess that’s why they call it soulmate. I definitely never thought I would end up in Denmark ten years ago, and especially not in a two-going-on-three year marriage. I may sound like I’m turning sixty and not thirty, but in all seriousness, I have experienced so much, and have met so many people from various countries, that I feel as though I’ve observed and absorbed their lives - for better or worse. Something maybe I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do had I stayed back in Indonesia. I’ve built friendships; some will last forever, some have started to fade except for the accidental like on one another’s Instagram pages.

​For all the happy memories, there were also hardships. My struggles were by no means comparable to anyone who had no choice but to relocate to Europe due to their homes being completely decimated by unprecedented violence, but I had struggles that affected me nonetheless. They still affect me today in the way that I think and carry myself in European society at large. However much I try, there are reflexes and habits that are hard to get rid of. For example, internalised racism – but that’s a whole other conversation. I also used to have so much anxiety and would agonise about just wanting to stay in Europe for some inexplicable reason. Ironically, now that I actually have a reason to stay – true love – I’m not as desperate anymore. Of course, it took some time for me to understand myself. There was a lot of learning and unlearning. Ten years ago, all I wanted to do was get away from home. Now that I think about it, I don’t know if those feelings were genuine, mere teenage angst or if I had watched too many films. 

Was I seduced by the promise of freedom, self-expression, or something else, that Europe seemed to offer? And did I actually find it here? I will never truly be European at heart nor on paper. But again, what does it even entail to be a true European? I thought a lot about that this year. Things I’d never given much thought about are now on the back of my mind. I wonder how my future children will feel about being part of a diaspora. I have plenty of friends who are and have mixed, complicated feelings about that. Literature and cinema might have you believe that your twenties are the prime and best years of your lives and that Europe is one, if not the only, centre of the world. To that I say: it’s not that this has been a lie all along, but it’s definitely way more nuanced than that.

The fact that I was overwhelmingly consuming ‘Western’ culture, music, or what have you, and thinking that was the only cool or respectable thing growing up, was definitely questionable. Once I started to really diversify the content I consumed these past years - any kind of content - from other parts of the world - it helped me realise and relativise things. I only wish that I had the wisdom back then, when I made the decision to leave my home country, to view things differently. But I’m grateful for the self-reflections I've been able to accumulate the past decade, even if it sometimes makes my head hurt, and makes me wonder if ignorance is actually bliss. I try not to regret or dwell too much on things that were or could have been - because what good does that do? Maybe that’s what I’ve learned, and am still learning: that you need to balance criticism with letting go, and that family is everything.