For anyone who has asked somebody the question “where are you from?” and was met with words like ‘but’, or ‘however’ mixed in with the answer – this week’s TED Talk helps explain what that means.
I am familiar with the awkwardness that can ensue when someone asks me where I am from. I am one of those individuals, whose answer to “Where are you from?” contains a ‘but’, a ‘then’, followed by a ‘how much time do you have?’ Because, being born in a country that no longer exists then moving to a different country, before moving to the country where I would grow up and call my home – followed by moving to a completely different country where I have built a life and come to feel at home, yet again, makes that question hard to answer. And I am not alone. Many people feel the same way when faced with having to explain where they are from, including author and TED Talk speaker, Taiye Selasi.
In this Talk, Selasi explains why we can’t really come from a specific nation. She explains that countries are invented concepts, as opposed to history and cultures. Countries can come and go never to return again, which can cause some confusion when we try to explain being born a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (or something to that extent).
“How can a human being come from a nation, a country, or a concept?” Selasi asks in her Talk. “We speak of countries as if they are eternal, singular, naturally occurring things, […] and to say that we are from a country suggests that a country is an absolute, a fixed point in place and time, a constant thing,“ she continued, as she explained how fragile and temporary countries are.
Countries are not naturally occurring
In the past 100 years alone, big and powerful countries have dissolved and been replaced by new countries with new systems, political agendas and names. A good example to begin with would be the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which existed from 1867 until 1918. The empire was made up of today’s Austria, Hungary, Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Romania, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Slovakia. That is a lot of new countries that didn’t really exist before, not in the way they exist today. That brings me to the next relevant example: Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia existed from 1918 until 1993 when it dissolved and in its place came the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Another great example of the fragility of a nation would be Yugoslavia, which was created in 1918 and existed until its extremely violent dissolution in the early 90s into Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. These are just a few examples of the frail nature of nations, countries and their existence. So how can we, as humans, come from such concepts, some of which might not even outlive a long human life?
A friend of mine recently asked me if I feel as though I have lost part of my identity by moving around and possessing various passports throughout my life. I had never thought of a passport as anything other than an official document that legally matches my name to my face and the country in which I’m allowed to reside. The thing is that our identities are crafted by our surroundings and our experiences, not by official documents.
Experiences are what matters
Since the political question “where are you from?” is not a question everyone can equally relate to, Taiye Selasi suggests an alternative solution by asking a more relatable question like, “where are you a local?”
Seeing as we gain experiences from our local surroundings, Selasi explains that our experiences are the things that mark where we are from. The places where we have lived out our daily rituals; where we’ve had relationships and restrictions are where we are from. We are from all of the places in which we’ve lived, but only to the extent of our experiences there, locally.
I believe this quote from Taiye Selasi’s Talk sounds very familiar to most of us ‘multi-locals’ out there:
“All experience is local,” he said. “All identity is experience,” I thought. “I’m not a national,” I proclaimed onstage. “I’m a local. I’m multi-local.” See, “Taiye Selasi comes from the United States,” isn’t the truth. I have no relationship with the United States, all 50 of them, not really. My relationship is with Brookline, the town where I grew up; with New York City, where I started work; with Lawrenceville, where I spend Thanksgiving. What makes America home for me is not my passport or accent, but these very particular experiences and the places they occur.”
From there, the Talk only runs deeper through the complexities of all the important and personal things that make up who we are, and the deeply personal emotions we feel when we are faced with the question “where are you from?”
Watch it, take it in and see that we are all human beings carrying with us the experiences from our local surroundings that make us who we are today.
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