Monthly Archives: March 2015

so, what are you then?

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“The Argentine singer-songwriter Facundo Cabral famously sang No soy de aquí, ni soy de allá—“I’m neither from here, nor there.” For the immigrant and second-generation traveler, “where are you from?” is a question loaded with complexity in ways the people who ask it don’t always understand.”

With complete acknowledgement of the privilege and navel-gazing contained in this piece, I think it does speak to a certain group of people who do see their identity as something more complicated than just simply naming a broad category of ethnicity, residence, or nationality, particularly those of us who do get questions or pushback on our responses (“no, where are you *really* from? I mean, where are your parents from?” – a question that raises an even bigger identity crisis when one of your parents has already had his own immigrant birth story).

And even more so, those of who never felt comfortable with any one possible answer – what do you say when you are of an ethnic origin but don’t speak the language (and need a visa to get into that country), when your birth cert/passport comes from a country in which you’ve never lived, when you hesitate at the passport line in your country of residence because the “US passports/All other passports” split doesn’t really encapsulate your current situation (foreign passport, resident alien card)?

When you opened your mouth as a young child and your accent bore the imprint of yet another country (thankfully, that accent got dropped quickly, if painfully, though still every so often certain turns of phrase and pronunciations reveal hints)?

When your skin color marks you as other (even as your accent screams Midwesterner) and gives strangers leave to ask personal questions for which you have no answer (and of course, the inevitable situation of someone trying to speak to you in any one of a 1000 languages from S Asia that you do not speak)?

When college/job/scholarship/fellowship applications requested a copy of your passport to fulfill their citizenship/permission to work requirements, and then requested a copy of your naturalization certificate?

When your classmates conflated all the countries that start with the letter “M” into “Mexico (a cute artefact of childishness that somehow managed to become a long-standing “joke” even when we knew better), so now suddenly you’re from… Mexico?

When I lived and traveled in Asia, my ethnicity was of more interest than my nationality. In Taiwan, I wasn’t just American, I was Indian. In Malaysia, I was one of those emigrés – the ones who always obtained their passports from the embassy, who never actually lived there but claimed to be from there, but who suddenly caused much consternation when it came to light that I lacked a national identity card (a process that requires returning to the city of birth to apply). In India, I’m an overseas citizen/person of Indian origin, who nonetheless pays the foreigner rate at museums, national parks, and heritage sites, and who of course doesn’t speak Hindi because we’re so Americanized. In SE Asian, I was Malaysian, and visa fees were waived.

Here in Ireland, I’m American (except that time a Spaniard was convinced I am Spanish). My ethnic origin doesn’t matter so much as my accent, and even when mentioning my Indian heritage, I’m reminded “but you’re from America, right?” I don’t know if it’s because so many Americans claim to be Irish (despite never having been to Ireland, and not being able to claim an Irish ancestor from less than 3 generations ago), and the Irish in Ireland find that a little frustrating; or possibly because to much of Europe, the US is a vortex that sucks in all nationality and ethnicity and spits out a culture that seems far-removed (and yet misguidedly nostalgic) of the countries of origin of most of its immigrants.

Reflecting on identity naturally requires some navel-gazing, and everyone has their own unique issues of identity (though I certainly don’t claim to be special, and instead think that are parts of my own reflection that would resonate with many others). While anyone from America is American here, I daresay most Irish people would still claim that the Irish-born (and accented) children of Polish immigrants are Polish (because “Irish” is of course, not just natural origin but culture and genetics too, though that last opens a whole other can of worms when raised). American culture is native to America, but it is not independent of all of the immigrant pieces that make it up (as well as others – native Americans, descendants of slaves, etc), even if it is more than the sum of its parts. And yet, even while most Americans would acknowledge this, there is still a misguided dominant narrative that classes “American” as someone of European heritage, reminiscent of a culture that is not even extant in Europe today, and ignoring not only immigration from other parts of the world, but maybe more importantly, 400 years of slavery that essentially built America.

This narrative plays out in the media, entertainment, institutions, and even in the day-to-day interactions between people. And while it is easy enough for some to dismiss these crises of identity by suggesting that the response to the question of “where are you from?” should be simply “America”, I think these people fail to recognize that “American” is not so simple a term, and that many of us would love to answer that, if it weren’t for the fact that that answer is indeed questioned. When I was growing up, people who looked like me weren’t the main characters in movies and TV, we didn’t read much literature from outside the US and Western Europe (and the one piece we did read about a person of similar ethnic origin to myself was actually written by a European), we didn’t (as Machado points out her piece) talk about immigrant communities as part of history (in fact, other than some reflection on slavery and Japanese internment, the difficulty of immigrants in integrating was rarely discussed in classes). Over and over, “American” was described in a very specific way, to the point where it is not that we don’t feel like we’re American, but that we are made to feel as though we are not American. In response to the shooting at the gurdwara in WI a couple of years ago, even the President of the US referred to the Sikh community as part of the “broader American family“, a point which in fairness was probably intended to indicate that America is very mixed, but instead just reinforces this sense of “other”.

Even now, living in Ireland, I’m stumped with answering the “where am I from?” question when I travel. My accent marks me as American, my look as Indian (though in parts of Latin America, that is not always the case), but I live in Ireland and that was my airport of departure. This question is usually asked by tour guides and other travelers and not usually locals (unless you are in parts of Asia, where all manner of personal questions are asked without hesitation). bBut sometimes it’s asked (in some form) at immigration and airline counters, despite their having my passport in front of them, suggesting that a passport is really not enough to answer that question at all.

When I flew back from India recently, the person at the airline counter in Delhi perused my passport and asked me if I didn’t need a visa to enter Ireland. I said no, because I had long-term resident status, and also because US passport holders get 90-day entry visa-free. “Huh,” she said, thoughtfully as she flipped through a few more pages. And then she laughed. “So only for India, is it?”

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