Who Do I Say I Am?
“We are at home in the world because we are at home with ourselves.”
You ask me where I am from
And why I am here.
You ask about my life.
I do not know what to say.
This is no time for glib banter.
So I am silent.
You offer me some tea,
a gift of grace,
the solace of this ritual.
I am thankful for
your gesture and
to gather myself and
many miles and
to consider an answer to
and my voice.
I heard a commentator on NPR remark recently that very few people are where they are from anymore. In the expat world, “Where are you from?” is a question asked numerous times every single day. It always gives me pause. How do I answer? Where I was born and grew up? Where we raised our children? Where we own a home? Where we are currently residing and working ? I have different responses, from the shorthand one to the longer narrative, depending on the situation.
Laced in the question “Where are you from” is a deeper one: “Who are you?” The poem above was prompted by a social occasion in a lovely restaurant overlooking Dubai. My husband and I were meeting many new people that night. We knew only one guest, a dynamic, brilliant Lebanese woman who has become a dear friend. She had recently introduced us to an elegant lady who was giving herself a 79th birthday party. Born in Poland, the hostess has lived all over the world, from Ecuador to Cypress to Germany to Ethiopia to Greece to various places in the Middle East. I was seated next to the owner of my favorite art gallery in Dubai . (See the April 5 Post, The Majlis Gallery.) I was delighted to meet her, having heard a bit about her colorful life, which she now divides between Dubai and Cornwall, England, where she teaches sailing. Being impressed by her commitment to preserving the culture of Dubai and to promoting the artists in this area, I was eager to engage her in conversation. Then it was my turn to talk, and I withdrew. Thus, the tea to my rescue.
Reflecting on this later, I realized that this is what is so enlarging – and unnerving- about living in another culture, after your children have grown up, and you are no longer moving in the circle of other mothers, and you have left your neighborhood and your professional community. You have no obvious identity, other than your gender and your nationality, and even your nationality is not necessarily apparent to a stranger. Sometimes your marital status and your profession are quickly evident. But that is it. No one knows one single thing about you and your other life. Your family. Your background. Your lifestyle. Your previous jobs. Your education. Your interests. You are just you. Period. An individual on this earth. A citizen of the world. A pilgrim. One of millions.
This is an invitation to ponder how you define yourself. What are the first words that come out of your mouth? Most of us who are parents- me included- mention our children in the first breath. Then what? For, shocking as it may sound, these people do not want to hear about your children. Okay. My career as an educator? My spiritual and political beliefs? My southern background? My interest in the arts, poetry and literature? My love of nature? Are those my descriptors? You find yourself at a moment of reckoning when you meet someone in a foreign country who asks about your life. What do you tell them? What do you leave out? —And isn’t this the real human journey? To find our way and speak our truths? The search for identity…
Travel and living in different cultures does indeed transform us, but we are still carrying along our essential selves. We are moving in both an outer and an inner landscape. What we experience and observe colors and is colored by who we are. Ultimately, it seems to me, we reside more within ourselves than in any external place. What is in our minds and hearts creates the reality of our lives. Buddha said we are what we think. We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are. And it is in the sudden epiphanies of how we explain ourselves to others, to “foreigners,” that we really get to know ourselves….as we tell our stories.
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