Identity – Where Am I a Local?

“Do you have a Target card?” asks a smiling cashier at check out.

“No, I do not.”

“Would you like to apply for one today?  It will save you an additional 5% on your purchases.”

“No, thank you.  I do not live here.”

“Oh, that is not a problem.  There is a Target everywhere.” 

At this point I am not sure which makes me more sad, the fact that the cashier is unable to imagine a world without Target or that I know what is coming next.  The most dreaded of questions: “Where are you from?”  

For most people, the answer would be straight-forward but not for me.  For me it is complex, confusing and impossible to answer in one word or even one sentence.  My husband and I were born respectively in the U.S. and Poland. Currently, we live in the Republic of Congo. Before, in addition to Poland and the U.S., we resided in Kenya for three years, Uganda for four, Hungary for three and Ghana for two.  Our children grew up overseas with strong connections to the host cultures while rooted in Polish and American traditions.

So, let’s say that since the only house we own is in Lake Tahoe, I graduated from California State University, and both of my children were born in the U.S., I tell the nice Target cashier I am from the U.S..  Because of my accent,  there would be a smirk or a follow up question: “Where are you originally from?”  I still regularly get asked that in the U.S. more than anywhere else in the world.  So, while I am in the States, it is impossible for me to say “I am from the U.S.”.  People won’t be fooled.  It’s hard to feel at home in this situation especially because the “where are you from?” question does not really aim at getting to know me as a person.  Random people do not ask it because they are curious about me.  Countries represent power and my answer allows people to place me on their personal “power scale” and to guess the reason why I might be in the U.S..   

On the other hand, if I answered I was from Poland that would indicate I live there and am going back, which is not the case either.  True, I was born in Poland, Polish is my mother tongue and I go back regularly to visit my family and friends.  But when I travel back, the country that surrounds me is quite unfamiliar.  I am anonymous when I walk around and when I venture on shopping trips.  Current political and cultural references often escape me.  In spite of my strong roots and connections, Poland is no longer the country I left in 2004 and I am no longer the person who left it.  So, what DO I say?  And why is it important to say you are from a country?  Does it convey anything at all about you as a person?  Could a better question be asked?

As I was pondering all this, I came across Talyie Selasie’s TED Talk in which she proposed asking “where are you a local” instead of “where are you from.”  Selasie claims a human being cannot come from a nation, as nations are abstract concepts.  We are from where our formative experiences took place.  All experience is local and all identity is experience, therefore our relationships are not with countries and nations – they are with places where we grew up and where our formative experiences were shaped.  Someone can revoke your passport but no one can take away your experience.  So instead of “where are you from?”, she proposes we ask  “where are you a local?”  When we state where we are locals, we shift our focus from the abstract nation to where real life occurs and our intention is to actually learn something about the person.

In my case, there is an additional split between where I am always a local (Poland, the U.S.), where I am a local at the precise point in time when the question is being asked (Hungary, Ghana, Uganda, Congo), and where I am a local because of strong connections that linger (Kenya).

I am always a local in the small Polish town where my mother and most of my family still live.  I hold a Polish passport and a Polish driver’s licence.  I can walk to my aunt’s house with my eyes closed and I take my shoes off when I come into people’s houses.  I have a good background knowledge of Polish history, literature, music, theater and film.  I observe Polish traditions and customs, I love and regularly cook Polish food.  I taught my children to respect their elders.  As a family, we feel the annual excitement of seeing the first star on and sharing the sacred wafer during Christmas Eve.  I love the four seasons with Spring being the most anticipated, as it brings renewal of motivation, energy and sweet anticipation of summer.  I speak to my Polish friends and family regularly and my kids tell me it is a pleasure to watch me do so, as I fully let go and become a different person. 

I am also a local in a small California town – be it Davis where my kids live, Lake Tahoe where we have a family home, or tiny Shingletown where my father in law lives.  I have an American passport and California driver’s licence.  I love hiking numerous trails around the lake and beyond, camping overnight and letting our dog run on the beach.  I appreciate the zen of baseball and have fond memories of my husband teaching the kids the rules of the game and the appreciation for it.  I look forward to traditions that we made up as a family – reading of “The Night Before Christmas” on Christmas Eve, making lists of our favorite moments each year before New Year’s Eve, and looking through family albums together.  I love skiing and hosting friends in our house.  I have my favorite restaurants, medical providers, shops and all the old and new friends –  the list grows every time we spend time in Tahoe.

I WAS a local in Accra. Our posting in Ghana did a fantastic job introducing us to the rich culture and fabulous people of Africa, making me love this continent from the start.  Accra is where I went to outdoor markets to buy my fresh fruits and veggies and negotiated prices with vendors, who slowly learned to recognize me, and eventually no negotiation was necessary.  It is where I ate delicious bambara beans in a local dive, tasted my first guinea fowl and burnt my mouth with “Red Red” – a local stew that gets one name for its color, and another for its spice.  Ghana is where I took African drumming lesson, witnessed kente weavers work their magic and learned how glass beads are made – my passion for beading began there.  It is where I went on my first walking safari and got hooked on bird watching with Sam, a Ghanaian guide extraordinaire who could hear a parakeet on a tall tree 100 meters away and was able to point my binoculars exactly to the spot where the bird was sitting.  Where I was introduced to CK Mann and African salsa dancing.  Where my children went to their first international school.  Ghana definitely shaped me and my relationship with Africa.  

I WAS a local in Budapest and in Kampala where I had meaningful teaching jobs, explored local cultures, where I traveled, rode horses and learned about local cuisine.

And last but definitely not least, there is Kenya.  Inexplicably, I still feel I AM a local in Nairobi.  The city felt like home when we lived there and it still does, two years later.  New shops, new restaurants, and new businesses pop up almost daily but the heart of the city stays the same. Cosmopolitan, relationships-oriented and ever stimulating.  Whenever I travel to Nairobi I feel the connection,  I feel I am going home.  When I need a haircut, I want to do it with Sini, the master of scissors who managed to always give me a pleasant salon experience and make me feel attractive every time.  When I am stressed and dream of a massage, I think of Mary, who knew exactly where all the knots on my body were and could  patiently and effectively work through them.  When I need help or transport, I think of Hesborn with his huge smile and peculiar humor who became a good friend from the moment I met him, my first month in Nairobi.  Kenyans will do that to you – they will make you love them and miss them two years later.  I think of my huge yard where Nala, our Kenya-born Golden Retriever, could leap over irises and bury valued trinkets, transforming our yard into a dog-toy cemetery.  I think of sitting in our outdoor living room and watching kites sipping water from the bird bath.  I think of our cats, one Hungarian, one Ugandan, killing all sorts of creatures, including a fairly large squirrel and a rat which Saffi (the Hungarian) proudly presented on the porch during one of our dinner parties. In Nairobi, I had my favorite butcher, veggie shop, wine shop, favorite vendors at Maasai markets and a great number of Kenyan and international beautiful people I called my friends.  I was surrounded by people who cared for animals and invested in conservation. More friends came to visit us in Kenya than anywhere else we have lived, and I was proud to share the absolutely ridiculous beauty of the country with each and every one of them.

As Talyie Selasie says in her TED Talk, telling people where we are from does not tell them who we are. To begin our conversations with acknowledgement of the fact that we are all multi-local allows us to find common ground and bring us closer together. 

So, where are you a local?

Find the link to Talyie Selasie’s Ted Talk here:

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