Questions of identity

January 5, 2017

As any person with an accent would tell you, the much-repeated question about one's provenance can be utterly irritating and boringly predictable. When I was asked by a fellow peruser of a street poetry impromptu stall on K Rd - and after just a very short exchange - where I come from, I had to stop myself from visibly and audibly sighing. "Here we go again", I thought, "can't one read street poetry without accounting for one's passport country of issue?" At least this one was straightforward, for I also get the roundabouty question of "you've got a lovely accent there, where does it come from", as if an accent is a self-existing entity.

 

I refused to answer in the predictable way, for I refuse to go only by my national identity, as it strips me off all those other layers that constitute the complex me...the woman with a strong 'mana', the traveler, the sister and daughter, the institutionalized academic, the attempting to be a writer, the southerner, the youngest child, the feminist, the teacher, the islander, the idealist, the granddaughter of a matriarch, the avid reader, the inner lands explorer, the art lover, the amateurish painter, the multi-tongued, the island lover, the consummate conversationalist, the protester, the vegan for the love of all sentient life, the middle-aged little girl, the easily outraged by injustice human, the ......, the....., the.... How can all these layers fit into the answer of "I am Greek" and all its subsequent cliché conversations of geographical locations, Greek salads, ruins, tourist destinations  and historical references? For as much as I would have gladly associated myself with Socrates, I am doubtful Socrates would have liked to be associated with me…

 

Encounters such as this one remind me the question the writer, Taiye Selasi, so aptly asked: "How can I come from a country? How can a human being come from a concept?" In this, she is not advocating in doing away with countries, for culture she says "exists in community, and community exists in context" and as she aptly argues,  geography, tradition, collective memory are still very important.  Like Telasi, I am more concerned about the element of power involved in such benign questions and like her, I am questioning primacy: "What are we really seeking, though, when we ask where someone comes from? And what are we really seeing when we hear an answer? Here's one possibility: basically, countries represent power. 'Where are you from?' Mexico. Poland. Bangladesh. Less power. America. Germany. Japan. More power. China. Russia. Ambiguous. It's possible that without realizing it, we're playing a power game, especially in the context of multi-ethnic countries. As any recent immigrant knows, the question 'Where are you from?' or 'Where are you really from?' is often code for 'Why are you here?' Why should any human being be accountable for their existence and reason of presence on earth?

 

Selasi's concept of 'multi-local' people, who feel at home in the town where they grew up, the city they live now and maybe another place or two sits well with me. So, like her, when introduced I would like to hear my own truth, that I am a human being, like everybody here, not  a citizen of the world that I have mistakenly been using so far as my budge of honor, "but a citizen of worlds",  a local of Auckland, Iraklion and Bridge of Allan, or....


But you might wonder what my reply was. I was about to give one of my standard answers of "from many places" or "from Crete" for those insistent souls who need a google earth location or my more wicked one of "from my mother's womb." But I decided to try a new tack this time. "From up the road" I said, because that's where I was really coming from, to which my street encounter after a tiny but perceptible pose had the good grace or perhaps sense of humor to answer with a "ha-ha, me too!" Excellent, I thought. You see how fast we found how much we have in common? For being an Aucklander, from up the road, says much about our local identity, the one we experience every day and this local street poet was sharing with us.

 * This story was originally published by Serendipitous Encounters with the title "From Up the Road"

 

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