He slowly raised a long, bony finger to draw circles in the air between us, and while pointing at my face, he asked: “where is this from?”
It didn’t take me long to realise that “this” meant me, and he was trying to figure out why I looked the way I did. In short, my ethnicity. As if knowing where I “was from” would help him decide how to “deal” with me.
Now, I’m not a stranger to such questions, but never had it been put to me so… bluntly. So… indelicately.
It was the precipice of a slippery slope as the answer was never black, or white. Literally. Anything I said in reply inevitably led to a slew of other questions. Which only paved the way for even more. The discussion could prove interminable. I never enjoyed it.
Where is this from? Indeed.
It’s not a matter of trying to be mysterious, or even – difficult. I was just never a fan of the way people seem to size you up depending on where they think you’re from, and the presumptions that go along with their perceptions of that. In my years as a traveling journalist, I discovered that if people didn’t know what prejudices to look at you with – you stood a better chance of being taken simply for what you showed them. You become a blank canvas of sorts … on which you and the “viewer” can create together.
I liked not fitting into a box. Or better said: I liked others not being able to put me into any of their boxes. It allowed for more possibilities.
When assigned in the Middle East, I passed for everything from Lebanese, to Syrian …to German!
In Europe, I was Mediterranean, Arab, or Turkish. Occasionally, I would get asked if I was “Oriental”, or Canadian. In Asia, I am often seen as European, “foreign”, or at the very least, most definitely “mixed”. Being uncertain about “who” I was, meant people often treated me simply as an “open vessel”, if you will. Which is exactly what you want if you’re there to listen, and to learn.
I am not the only one with a such a circus in my genes. I like to think it makes us citizens of the world. One without barriers, or borders.
As Amin Maalouf, the French Lebanese writer, put it: “every individual is a meeting ground for many different allegiances…”. And these “composite identities” allow for the opportunity to “act as bridges, mediators between various cultures and communities.” Where differences intermingle, and co-exist. A most basic manifestation that people shouldn’t limit themselves to black and white definitions of ‘identity’. Life is more magical than that. And each of us is not confined to a fixed mark. We are all many things at once. And we don’t have to cancel each other out.
Apparently, I am descended from Sephardic Jews, and Basques. From Javanese Hindus, and Malayan Muslims. From nomads, and gypsies. From people unsettled, in one way or another. I am all this and more, just as you are. More.
Ultimately, we are all “displaced”, and in search of where we belong. To feel accepted for the potent cocktail of humanity that we each are. To not be asked with such open perplexity – “where is this from?”. Twenty-five years of meeting all sorts of people in different places has shown me that “home” is a construct. A fabricated concept made up of our nightmares, and aspirations. Our roots, our wings, our shadows, our solace. Eventually, we realise we have to carry it within us to survive. To be happy. Like turtles with their homes settled firmly on their backs.
We are all – in one way or another – migrants, searching for our souls.
“Where is this from?”, he asked.
I told him the truth: “I am a migrant.”