"Who ARE you?" asked the cat with a grin

3:05pm. With ten minutes left to the start of a long weekend, the class of ten-year-olds in front of me were getting squirrely. I decided to cut my musical losses and have a group chat. “So what are you guys doing for the long weekend? Their hands shot up in the air and a couple of them started gushing their stories at the same time. “Whoa! Hands up and one at a time.”
“I’m playing a lot of soccer at the German school.”
“I’m going to Tom’s house.”
“We’re not doing anything special because my dad is in Egypt so it’s just me and my mom.”

After three or four eager beavers had shared, I cast my eye across the group and asked a sudden question: “Are any of you guys American? Will any of you be celebrating Thanksgiving?” They only looked at each other for half a second.
“No not really.”
“Well, I’m part American. I was born in Brooklyn but I’m Danish.”
“I’m American! Not really – I’m Nigerian, but I lived in America.”

In this class of thirteen students, none were American. In fact, I am not sure that any two come from the same country: Sweden, Denmark, Nigeria, India, El Salvador, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Israel, South Africa, England, Singapore …

I decided to bend the conversation in a thoughtful direction. “Here’s a real question for you guys, what do you think: How do you decide where you’re from? Is it where you’re born? Is it …” At this point five or six hands shot up and two of the boys shouted out “Born!”
“Wait! First of all let me finish. Second, raise your hand please. Is it where you’re born, where you’ve lived most of your life, or where your parents are from?” This time the ones who had shouted out an answer reigned in their enthusiasm and put it in their bodies. One or two of them flapped their hands high in the air at me; another stood up, his body as straight as his raised hand; three or four of them added wide eyes and small squeals to their straight arms.
“Jack?” “BORN! It’s definitely where you’re born.”
“Phil?”
“I was born in the US but I don’t think of myself as American because I’ve never really lived there. I’m Danish.”
“Edwin?”
“Well … I think it’s where your parents are from. I’ve lived most of my life in Kenya, but I’m English because my parents are English.”
“Andrea?”
“My parents are mixed up. My mom is from El Salvador. My dad was born in Kenya and lived most of his life in Kenya, but HIS parents are from India.”
“So you’ve lived all your life in Kenya?”
“Yes I’ve lived in Kenya but my dad’s family is from India and my mom’s family is from El Salvador. Sooo … I don’t know.”
“Toni, you say it’s where you’re born. Where were you born?”
“Congo.”
“So you’re Congolese?”
“NO! I’m Nigerian! But I’ve lived in Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, the US … ” (All by the age of 10)
“You were born in Congo and have only lived in Nigeria for two years. So why are you Nigerian?”
He stood up with his hands on his hips and a sassy smile, “I just AM!”

Last Friday we had International Day at school. All 800 kids and faculty got to dress up and represent their “home country” in a short parade. The parade was followed by a food fair – a feast of fare from every continent. For the last two years, I’ve gone as an American. Why not really? It’s an excuse to wear jeans to school. I don’t have to justify my American-ness to anyone. It’s almost never questioned – at least not by onlookers in a parade, and rarely by students. This year though, I decided to embrace a less visible side of me. I decided to dress fully West-African. I donned a colourful embroidered boubou with matching head wrap, wore heels and gold jewelry. Need proof? A mental picture?


The outfit is from Ivory Coast, but I walked in the parade with the one kid from Congo. It didn’t matter where the outfit was from though. Without fail, every African that saw me on campus that day stopped and said “wow!” or some variation of it. “Nice dress.” “You look smart!” “Beautiful!”

Then of course there was Matty. “Ms. Lillis, what country are you representing?”
“Today I’m walking with Congo.”
“Why? You’re not from Congo.”
“Well, I’m American, but I did live in Congo for a long time. And my dad grew up there so my family has been there a long time.”
“But that doesn’t matter. You’re still not from Congo.”
I just smiled back at her. “And who are you walking with today?”
“Zimbabwe.” She laughed a little, knowing I had her. She had on a pale yellow sundress and a light-blue short-sleeve sweater top – not especially Zimbabwean. “There’s yellow in the flag!” she exclaimed, trying to defend herself against my skeptical look. But not blue, I thought. If anything she could be walking with Sweden.
“So an African can dress American but an American can’t dress African?” I asked.
“No!” she laughed. The friend walking with her shot her a strange look – like, why would you say that to a teacher?! kind of look.
“It’s Ms. Lillis! It’s okay.” And it was. Because it got me thinking.

Right now there is an Indian wedding party happening in the community centre behind my apartment complex. The view from my kitchen window is a swirl of bright saris whirling in time to the beat of the tablas and singers. I’ve never been to India. My knowledge of the culture is limited to the books I’ve read, movies I’ve watched, friends I’ve had, and food I’ve eaten. A well chosen sari and some carefully rehearsed dance moves might get me into the party, but they would not make me Indian. What would? Living there? Many of these revelers haven’t. If I had to venture a guess, most of the guests this evening are probably second or third generation Kenyan residents. Many have never lived in India and some would say they are Kenyan.

What I see is a dualism of “from-ness.” There is the commonly held belief that one must be “from” a specific place. The answer to the question must come from one of the three options I gave my fifth graders earlier today: birth place, life experience, or familial connections. It ought to be singular and definite. However, this singular view of “from-ness” is often undermined by the reality that many people experience – the reality of an unfolding and shifting identity. The sense of having been “from” more than one place, or of having significant life connections with more than one cultural / community group.

I am beginning to believe that identity is NOT a birth place, or a passport color, or a parental bequest. I think identity is a story. And as such, it may be all three. Each story is as unique as the one living it, and unfolds with each day, each choice, each experience.

Those are a few of my thoughts. I will probably edit this and add to it as I continue to ruminate, but for now, that will do. Please share if you have any thoughts to add.

7 thoughts on “"Who ARE you?" asked the cat with a grin

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  1. After all these years, it was only this week that I realized that my nationality might be American, and my culture a commune, but in a culture where your father's father determines identity, I shall always be Finnish 🙂

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  2. The question “where are you from?” is hard for many people to answer, and your words expressed that so well. I love your West African outfit…you really looked beautiful. 🙂 And I think you can absolutely claim West Africa as a home, as much as America. Both places are lucky to be able to claim you. 🙂

    -Jessica

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  3. Just catching up on your blog. 32 more posts to go according to my RSS feed. Great writing as ever (and the dress is fab!) Hope you're week of prep for school's gone well,
    Andrew

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  4. love this post, lillis. i was thinking, when people in the U.S. ask me where i'm from, 50% of the time the right answer is “Chicago,” and the other 50% of the time the right answer is “the Philippines!” by the way, you looked great on international day.

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