Category Archives: writing

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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facebook free february

For the month of February, an Irish NGO issued a challenge to quit Facebook. Just for the month (though you can go longer if you’d like). The idea behind it is to examine your connection with social media (vs the real world). The hope is that, for the month, a person can reframe their relationship with online and outside, and maybe fill those now-vacant hours with other activities (going for a walk, a show, dinner; learning a new hobby; writing?).

I’m not one of the people who think Facebook (and other forms of social media) is a menace, though I can certainly see how it can be addictive for some, or a replacement for “in person” interaction for others. I can also see how it can create a skewed perspective of the world (a la internet trolldom). Of course, the things we see in others are often the last things we see in ourselves, so I could be fooling myself when I say I think my relationship with social media, although very deep, is healthy. Nevertheless, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc, are useful tools for me to stay in touch with friends from around the world. They are also great sources of information – either through links posted, or through status updates/tweets/photos from people “on the ground”, as it were.

Of course, social media’s big drawback in all of this is that you curate your feeds. You only see what you wish to see, and if you don’t wish to see it, you can unfriend, unfollow, block, mute, etc. In some ways, I can see how this can polarize further our societies, and also how it can translate to “real life” in the sense that people can find it so easy to turn away from things they find unpleasant or distasteful. Of course, we do this all the time, turning off the TV or not reading the newspaper, but the difference with social media is the social aspect – it is a conversation with others that is being turned off, not a one-way push of news.

I do think social media can be a means by which “offline” life could be bettered. For example, social media could be a place to learn to skillfully manage conflict such that could be applicable in real life, but unfortunately, it becomes a way to tune out. It also becomes a way to hide behind anonymity or firewalls and not have to take responsibility for, or face the consequences of, hateful or offensive speech. People say things on the internet that they would be unlikely to say to another person’s face. The internet free-for-all, while a great equalizer for free speech, also becomes a breeding ground for hate. I suspect that in coming decades, we will learn to harness the strengths of social media for better in-person interaction, but for now we’re just children with new toys and we’re still trying to figure out the rules.

So, I’m 8 days in now on my own social media experiment. I’ve stayed off Facebook this time, though I’ve been tempted to log on and see what my friends are up to. One thing I realized is that I can use this time away to have some more personal interactions with people, so I’ve started reaching out to people to set up skype calls. Another thing I’ve noticed is that I seem to have a lot more time to watch Netflix and read. For the former, I’ve made a queue of interesting documentaries that I hope to check out in the coming weeks. But on the reading front, I managed to read 2 books since late Jan to now, and I’ve got a whole list in my Nook app to still check out. I also bought a book recently (actual tangible pages to touch!) and I’m excited to read it too.

I do miss talking to friends, and there are a few who I know are going through difficult times and I regret not being there to see how they are doing. I could do it on email, but sometimes the collective approach of the group is more comforting. Of course, this “ban” on Facebook is not absolute, and I could always go back if I wanted to. But for now, I’m exploring the possibility of taking this time for myself, and seeing to some personal needs.

One thing I thought would happen though – I thought I would have more time for writing. I do seem to be getting more work done, so maybe I’ve filled some hours with that, and I am spending more time on Twitter (something that should be addressed too, though Twitter fills a different niche for me). But I haven’t been blogging more, so I think it’s time I turned my attention to that.

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on writing, motivation, and these cold and dark days

I woke up this morning to some snow on the ground. It’s only on the sidewalk and pavement, so the contrast between the startlingly green grass (it is called the Emerald Isle, you know!) and the bright white powder on deep black asphalt is striking. In a few hours it will be gone of course, but in the meantime, the sky is suitably grey, and it all just looks so cold.

Three days ago I posted that I would try to blog at least once a day. And then I went two days without posting anything. I have an excuse of course – I was trying to meet a deadline, and then we went out for dinner, and drinks (found a cute new pub), and a movie. And then I spent some time with a friend yesterday and you know, the days just get away from you. But in any case, excuses are excuses, and in the end I didn’t do what I said I would do.

So then of course, I’m spending some time this morning making up for it with two posts. I love to write. I do. I have so many thoughts in my head, and most of them aren’t worth the time it takes to put them down, but every so often, there’s that one clear thought that needs to be expressed, but it hasn’t quite crystallized, and I think – write. this. down. Even just in the act of writing, thoughts can become clearer. Ideas can deepen. And maybe even new thoughts and ideas can emerge.

But I never do. Or maybe I put a piece of it on Facebook or Twitter, and then leave it there, like some half-formed thing, thinking I’ll take it up again at some distant point, clean it and polish it, or take it apart piece by piece to examine and perhaps reassemble into something that more closely resembles the seed from which the idea sprung. But mostly, it just dangles there, like that time you wanted to try sprouting lentils, and you put them in water in to soak, but you did something wrong (are you supposed to change the water every so often? refrigerate? add salt?), and they sprouted, but then kind of got stuck between the seed and sprout stages. Cute, and tasty, and it worked well enough, but not quite what you were going for. And ultimately they disappointed, because you just didn’t do what you should have done.

You’d think winter would be a good time for writing. If you’re lucky enough to live in a place where the snow comes down regularly and cleanly, I suppose you’d spend more time outside. But when the days get shorter, the nights darker, the sun struggles to break through the clouds, and the wind, oh man, the wind is just cold here. Well, then you find it a bit cozier to be inside, turn on the heating, snuggle into a blanket, make some soup…. and write? Or not.

But it’s 2015 now, so time for new beginnings. Time to re-dedicate ourselves to all those things we meant to do last year, or five years ago, or maybe one day in the future, only the future is now, so this is it, this year I’m going. to. do. that. thing. And I’m going to start today.

Well, tomorrow, anyway. There’s still a small smattering of snow on the ground yet.

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