I thought my previous post would be my last from Liberia. I did not anticipate having more time on my hands since I completed the requirements for my master’s program! So, perhaps this one will be the final dispatch from this African tour.
This morning I started my day by watching Taiye Selasi (listen to her say her own name in the video — it’s hypnotizing!) expound upon the idea of belonging to a place in her 2014 TEDGlobal talk.
As a younger version of myself, I used to think “I am from nowhere.” I am a bi-racial child of a U.S. Air Force family who moved more when I was a child than many people do their entire lives. My mother is Mexican but was born and raised on the serene and idyllic Gulf Coast of Florida. My father is Canadian-born of British and Canadian descent but was raised from boyhood in the same town where my mother grew up. My parents married in their early twenties and my father joined the Air Force — a career that requires frequent travel, occasional TDY assignments, and relocation within the U.S. and abroad. And no matter where I lived, I was never able to identify exclusively with a group of people because of my diverse background. You can imagine the identity issues this can cause for any individual as we all want so desperately to be recognized and accepted for who we are.
Messages like the one Selasi shares, though, have encouraged me to embrace my complex background and celebrate those experiences for shaping who I am.
I have no memory of the house in which I was born or of the earliest homes where my siblings and I spent our first years. My earliest memories are of visiting my maternal grandparents’ home in Florida: the smell of tangerine peel and the feel of the wooden picnic table where we would have our snacks; the smells of my Mema’s flower garden and my Pepa’s tomato and green bean crops; the imposing shadows and smells of gasoline and grease inside of my Pepa’s shed that seemed monstrously large to me as a little girl; the happiness of splashing with my brother in a grey-metal washtub in which (my mother told me in later years) my Mema would bathe her loyal and loving, miniature, white Pyrenees dog named Prissy; and the sounds of the ceiling fan and the ambient feel of the bedroom where my sister and I would share a bed and swap secrets and stories until we fell asleep.
And although I am not from that particular place in Florida, it is an important part of who I am today. I was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, but I am not from there. I grew up in Florida, South Carolina, England, and Georgia; and each of these places has informed who I have become.
“Where Are You From?”
Recently, my husband and I were at a local restaurant here in Monrovia, Liberia to watch the World Cup Croatia vs. England match. Seating was scarce, and we were squeezed into a table of other foreigners. Everyone was there to watch the game.
There was a break in the action, and I took the opportunity to snap some photos. An older man at our table noticed the mandala-inspired Popsocket on my phone, and asked, “Is that thing for taking selfies?” I laughed and confirmed his supposition. Then we talked for a few minutes about the popularity of selfies — a concept that was lost on him as a man of an older generation.
When that conversation ended, he started a new one with, “So where are you two from?”
“The United States,” I responded, wondering if this would be enough information to elicit the next level of discussion.
“Well, obviously.” He replied, “But where in the U.S.?”
It took me aback that he said, “obviously.” With the mix of expats in areas like this where there is such a heavy international aid presence, we could have been from a number of different places. I supposed, though, that it was my non-regional, American accent that gave us away.
“We’re from Atlanta,” I said as loud as I could over the World Cup broadcast, the din of restaurant noise, and other tables’ conversations.
But even that didn’t feel wholly correct when I said it. Yes, I am most recently from the metro-Atlanta area. (Anyone from the metro-Atlanta area knows it’s just easier to say “Atlanta” when people ask where we are from.) However, in the spirit of Taiye Selasi’s talk, I am local to Suwanee and Sugar Hill, Georgia where I lived and worked for ten years prior to moving abroad.
So, I thought back to a comment my husband made to me about three and a half years into his foreign service career: “It’s getting harder and harder to answer the question ‘Where are you from?’ the longer I’m in foreign service because home is wherever I happen to be.”
“You Leave a Little Piece of Yourself.”
These are the places that shape my experience. My experience is where I’m from.
We’re local where we carry out our rituals and relationships, but how we experience our locality depends in part on our restrictions.
You can take away my passport, but you can’t take away my experience. That I carry within me. Where I’m from comes wherever I go.”
While listening to Selasi’s talk, I appreciated what she explained about the importance of experience in determining where we are from. She broke it down into three Rs: rituals, relationships, and restrictions. “Where do you make your coffee each morning?” “Where do you encounter people on a daily or weekly basis?” she asks.
These questions made me smile upon my own reflection.
Lately, my husband and I have been preparing for our departure from Liberia as his tour here ends, and this has been an emotional experience for me. On one hand, I am excited about our next adventure and all of the challenges and opportunities it will bring. On the other hand, I have a special connection to this continent, I have done meaningful work in Liberia, this was our first post together, and this was our first home as a married couple. It is difficult to leave those roots.
However, I think back to a comment that U.S. Ambassador Christine Elder made at a coffee social she hosted at her home recently. Some of us present were preparing to leave post, and she asked us to say a little about ourselves and what we did while we were in Liberia.
After I spoke, she commented that, “Yes, there is something about this place that gets into people’s hearts. And when you leave, you leave a little piece of yourselves here.”
When she said this, my mind’s eye filled with all of the faces of the students I taught for my after-school STEM enrichment program, the students who attended the digital video conferences I hosted, the teachers and school leaders who I trained in my workshops around the country, the people in the Embassy with whom I interacted, the local vendors who I have come to know and expect to see in specific places every day, the guards of our building compound, and local business owners and workers who are always welcoming and friendly.
I am local to Monrovia, Liberia. A piece of me is here, and I’ll take a piece of it with me when I go.
And like my husband, it is becoming more difficult for me to answer “Where are you from?” because I am (and will be) local to places for which many people have little to no context. Worse still, as Selasi mentions, perhaps they have an oversimplified concept of what that place is: “Tell me you’re from France,” Selasi says, “and I see what, a set of clichés?”
What great, good fortune it is to have such a difficulty, though. And I look forward to the rituals, relationships, and even the restrictions that I will develop and experience as we become locals to many different places.
“My experience is where I’m from. Where I’m from comes wherever I go.”