Last year, in Norway, everyone I met would ask, “Where are you from?” This year, in Georgia, I get the same question. My answer to this question inevitably varies, but it follows a pretty similar formula. In Norway, I would reply, “I’m from Auburn, Alabama. I’ve been there two years. Before that, I was in Lafayette, Louisiana, and I’m originally from Northwest Louisiana.” In Georgia, I typically add, “Last year I was in Norway.” I’ve written about this question and my response before when I looked at “unhoming” in Lucy Knisely’s An Age of License . Today, I want to expand on that discussion some, looking at Sui Sin Far’s Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian.
As I get older, my response to the “Where are you from?” question seems to get longer, and longer, and longer. That lengthiness, I think, arises from the internal debate within myself that seeks to define who I am and what makes me who I am. This debate occurs within each and everyone of us. We define ourselves in specific ways, and other people place their own perceptions and stereotypes on to us.
For example, whenever I say, “I’m from Louisiana,” I know that people immediately think about New Orleans. The area I grew up in, the Shreveport-Bossier area, sits about thirty minutes from the Texas border to the west and the Arkansas border to the North. For all intents and purposes, I tend to think of this region not as our stereotypical views of Louisiana. Instead, I describe it as more akin to East Texas.
If I rely on region to define myself, I would tell people that I am from the South. Again, that self-definition brings with it connotations that people have taken into their being. Some may view me as racist because the South, typically, becomes the symbol for racism in America. Some may view me as unintelligent because of the supposed lack of education. Some may view me as _____________. None of those things define me, and they do not define others.
The point here is that my identity is forever changing, evolving, morphing into something I could have never imagined even five years ago. Back in college, I don’t know what my identity was. I viewed myself as a student, musician, and lackadaisical dreamer. I never, in a million years, thought I would come to identify myself as a teacher. Even when I switched my major to education, I still did not think I could do it. I’m introverted, in so many ways, and being a teacher caused me stress, just like waiting tables did during my years in college as well.
Now, though, I identify as an educator. I have taught for close to twenty years, at various levels. Even within that twenty years, my views of myself as an educator have changed, specifically in the ways I conduct my class. I have become more of a facilitator in the classroom rather than the supposed bearer of all knowledge. I have become much more receptive to students and what they have to teach me in the classroom.
Most of us, when we look to define ourselves, fall back on typical categories related to profession, gender, hobbies, and place of origin. The latter carries with it a plethora of connotations that it can sometimes be hard to disentangle them. It brings with it the burden of having to push back against the connotations, creating a rebellious attitude that essentially says, “That does not define me. That is not me. This is me,”
I am a white, cis-male from the United States. I am not a immigrant. I am not a woman. I am not gay. I am not part of a diasporic community. I am not a person of color. I am privileged, yes. Still, like everyone else in the world, preconceived notions hover above my head. Notions based on my nationality. Notions based on my gender. Notions based on my profession. Notion based on everything about me.
Sui Sin Far delves into her own identity in Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of An Eurasian. She examines her own background, being the daughter of a Chinese mother and a British father, moving to the United States and working here. She talks about the stereotypes that she, herself, carried with her about Chinese individuals. She talks about the stereotypes that others carried within themselves about her because her mother was Chinese. She examines these things, working to discover her own identity.
Ultimately, she concludes with one of the most powerful paragraphs I have ever read:
After all I have no nationality and am not anxious to claim any. Individuality is more than nationality. “You are you and I am I,” says Confucius. I give my right hand to the Occidentals and my left to the Orientals, hoping that between them they will not utterly destroy the insignificant “connecting link.” And that’s all.
When I read Far’s closing paragraph, I think about my origins in Northwest Louisiana, or like I said, Northeast Texas. The permeable boundary between the two states is just that, permeable. I had more in common, food and culture wise, with East Texas than I did with New Orleans. Just like Biloxi, MS has more in common with New Orleans than it does with Jackson, MS.
I saw this permeability in Klagenfurt, Austria as well. The town is 30 minutes from Italy in one direction and 30 minutes from Slovenia in another. As a result, you will hear an intermingling of German, Italian, and Slovenian. When you leave an establishment, someone may say, “Auf wiedersehen.” They may also say, “Addio.” The intermingling of people from all backgrounds occurs throughout the world, even with our man made national borders.
This intermingling is why Far’s claim that “individuality is more than nationality” is so important. It’s not a new idea, and it has different connections with different people. For me, it’s a call, and acknowledgement, that we are people first, not citizens of a particular nation. It tells us, if we bring it out of nationally, we are individuals, not the preconceived perceptions that others place upon us. It tells us we matter for who we are, not for the connotations that people bring with them when they seek to define us.
This is all something that postcolonial theorists and others talk about. It’s nothing new. However, I think it’s something we all need to think about the next time someone asks that question, “Where are you from?”
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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