Countries have long been a marker of our identities. Where we come from, or where we say we come from, allows other people to create an abstract sketch of our character. If they stay around longer and establish some form of a relationship, this sketch will transform into an elaborate and often mystifying artwork that is representative of our unique and complex personalities. If not, all that they leave with are the associations or experiences they have had with our stated county of origin. It is an even murkier situation if you have not remained in the same country for your entire life. The simple question, “Where are you from?” can quickly turn into an existential crisis if you share a story that is at all similar to Taiye Selasi’s.
Selasi is a writer who, in her TED talk about identity, claims to be not “a citizen of the world but a citizen of worlds … a local of New York, Rome and Accra[, Ghana].” She coins the term “multi-local” and argues that individuals tend to feel a sense of belonging to several small communities and neighborhoods, which can be spread out over one country or sometimes several continents. Since this feeling is not necessarily applicable to the entire country, choosing the place you come from is an awfully tricky question to answer. Should your answer be dependent on the passport you hold, the place you were born in or the place that you lived in for the longest time?
According to Selasi, none of those are relevant factors, for it is the experiences you have in these places that bring it closer to your personal concept of “home” and determine where you come from. She continues to make the case for “multi-locality” by discussing the three R’s that could help in identifying our places of locality: rituals, relationships and restrictions. This method attempts to narrow down the set of experiences we think of as we try to find our home. Our daily practices could be a collection of rituals from different parts of the world, the people that influence our lives on a regular basis could be in different parts of the world and most importantly, the restrictions a place enforces on us shapes the way we interact with the different parts of the world. Together, they enable us to empathize with and call these little communities the place we are from.
I agree with her idea of belonging to different places based on the memories, people and the sense of familiarity we associate with them. However, it is difficult for me to overlook the reality that eventually rituals will be abandoned, relationships will be altered and restrictions will be redundant. In my opinion, “home” is not a concept that can remain permanent, given its subjective nature. It is just as susceptible to changes as we are, and it too can cease to exist, as countries do. In fact, in our speedily globalizing world people need to travel to different places, adapt to cultures and accept progressive opinions at such a rapid pace that it does not allow for permanence of any tangible sort.
As Selasi accurately remarks, places change and so do people. Our experiences, however, do not. This creates a dichotomy between the places that are rigidly set in our memories and the places as they are, ever changing, in reality. How do we then proceed to answer the question that remains, “where are you from”?