The hardest question for me to answer when I meet someone is: where are you from. Truly. I was born in Heidelberg, Germany, and grew up in Turin, Italy. I spent my 20s in London, UK, where I graduated and began my professional journey, to then work and live in several other countries. I have Italian origins, but my biological family now lives between the USA and Greece. Some call me Italian. Some English or German. Some others yet, multinational, or a global citizen.
Naturally, I was very intrigued when I recently watched a TED speech by Taiye Selasi (a writer and photographer), as she analyzes exactly that sentiment when it comes to defining origins: countries are not absolute, they are a concept – they appear and disappear.
How can a human being come from a concept? Cultures are real, countries are invented. So what are the ways to redefine who we are as global citizens beyond what is commonly given for granted, in the dialectics between identity and human experience?
The country “we are from” hardly helps us to understand each other as human beings. What we call “country of origin” gives rise to a number of stereotypes about that country that help us “box” a person more easily. But we know, as we are boxing them, that we actually don’t know anything about that person. Think about the the refugee crisis: they’re just “Syrians” or “Iraqis”. Would we want to be categorized that simply? De-humanized, basically, and turned into a body mass that’s invading our regions, which are not even ours, defined by borders and lines that have so drastically changed over time and that we haven’t chosen, once again, to be born and grow up in.
Often coming from a country sounds fancier than another – it’s a question of power. The power that country holds makes us more attractive, we are engineered to think. But do we buy into the ways in which that power is achieved and held?
What makes “home” for me is the experience I live in a certain place, with specific people. I was born in a place I didn’t chose; I grew up in a place I didn’t chose. As an adult, I started to make choices about what I wanted to do with my life, and where I wanted to live, where I wanted to travel to. Go figure, where I feel most at home is neither where I was born, nor where I grew up. Instead, it is in those locales where I had the experiences that most affected me and assisted me in becoming who I am. It’s the people I bonded with, or the smiles I simply looked at, without being seen, that made me feel at home. As Selasi says, my experience is where I’m from. As it happens, in my case it tends to be the Global South.
As it happens, as Norman Mailer said in 1957, it really feels like sometime “we are obliged to meet the tempo of the present and the future with reflexes and rhythms which come from the past; the inefficient and often antiquated nervous circuits of the past strangle our potentiality for responding to new possibilities.”
A reader sent in a very interesting comment, where he highlights how the Stoic philosopher Epictetus dealt with questions of geographical origin.
From the Discourses of Epictetus, Book 1, Chapter 9:
Thanks to reason we can call ourselves sons of Matter Immortal, citizens of the world and fathers of gods (1-6)
[I,9,1] If what the philosophers say about the congenerousness of Matter Immortal and men is true, what else is left to men but the conclusion of Socrates, of never saying to the one who tries to know from what country he is: “I am Athenian” or “I am Corinthian”; but “I am a citizen of the world”? [I,9,2] For why do you say that you are an Athenian, instead of mentioning merely that corner where your body was begot and cast? [I,9,3] Is it not plain that from what is more dominant and includes not only that corner itself but also your whole family and, in short, whence the race of your ancestors has come down to you, from somewhere here you call yourself an Athenian or a Corinthian? [I,9,4] Therefore he who has understood the world’s government and has learned that “the greatest, most dominant and most inclusive of all is the system of men and Matter Immortal and that from It not only the genes of my father and of my grandfather have fallen down but those of all the creatures that on earth are begotten and sprout, and cardinally of the rational creatures; [I,9,5] and that these only are born in order to associate themselves with Zeus, being intertwined with Him by correlation through reason”; [I,9,6] why should he not call himself a citizen of the world? Why not a son of Zeus? Why will he fear anything that happens among men?
– A full translation of the Discourses can be found here: www.epitteto.com