This week, the NY Times published an excellent article about how trans and bi and poly-ambi-omni- we're all becoming. We live in an era now where identities no longer fit into neat boxes. “We’re all becoming one another,” writer Wesley Morris says. "Well, we are. And we’re not." The piece happened to coincide with my children’s school’s UN week, a five day celebration of multiculturalism during which each family is asked to present on their home culture. This is no easy task for my children who have parents from America and India, grew up in China, and now live in Singapore.
So, in the spirit of the very times Morris observed we’re living in, I tried to get creative. “Can I do Chindmerica?” I asked my son’s kindergarten teacher. “I’ll bring in Goji Berry New York Cheesecake.”
She wrote back a tactful email that I retranslated as: “No. They’re five. Stick with something on a map."
I found her answer depressing and limiting. And as an expat, it seemed almost downright old-fashioned to claim a single-place answer to the “where are you from” question.
But I accepted the challenge like the Asian parent of a student I want teachers to like. Then I tossed the problem back to my son like an American. “So pick?” Did he want to go with his childhood memories, his family members, his favorite foods?
“I don’t know. America,” Avik said.
“Okay great.” I said, “Where in America? New York, LA, D.C., Pennsylvania?” Pennsylvania is where I grew up and still visit my mom. The other places are homes to other close family.
“Um….” he said.
The clock ticked. I started to wonder if the question might be too broad for him. “Where Uncle Ravi lives, Naani lives, Aunt Shelly lives, or Aunt Chand?”
“Hmmm….” he said. Maybe this wasn’t the way to choose either.
“Okay, they make red velvet cupcakes in New York and Hershey’s chocolate in the other.”
“Hershey’s!” he said. “Can you bring M&M’s to school?”
And we had a winner. Except, I couldn’t help but taste the artificiality of the whole exercise.
For the next three days, I tried to bolster the presentation content to a meaningful level. The Constitution was drafted in Pennsylvania. The official insect is the firefly, which I used to collect in jars to make lanterns. The Liberty Bell cracked after its first use.
“Cool, right?” I asked my son.
“Did you buy the chocolate?”
“Yes. Don't worry.”
The whole thing felt like a waste of time. The day of, I resented having to go to school when I could've done a dozen other errands.
Plus, I was a charlatan about to present a half-truth to my son. Here’s where you’re from Avik, except you’ve never lived there. But it’s clearly super important because I’ve made a poster about it filled with things you’ve never actually seen. So be sure to feel something about Pennsylvania when you’re done, some tugging at your roots.
I started the presentation with reluctance in my throat. I even paused for a brief moment to ask the kids to tell me if they were from more than one place. Hands shot up. One girl was from Belgium and America. Another was from Japan and China. Another was from…. It seemed we were getting somewhere for a moment. Yes, exactly, I wanted to say. Who cares about where you’re from anymore? Let’s talk about the identities you're claiming.
Until a little girl in the back got on a roll. About three minutes into her soliloquy, I tried to tell her that she and I could have a one-on-one later. She quipped, “I’m not finished!” and continued her life story. Finally, the teacher mercifully called time on her and gave me a look that seemed to say stick to Pennsylvania.
So I did for the most part. At the end, I veered creatively off script again but it was towards Avik this time. I asked him to tell his class why he loved Pennsylvania, besides chocolate. We hadn’t rehearsed this and I was really curious what he’d come up with under pressure. Sledding at Christmas? Swimming in the summer?
To my great surprise, he picked something much deeper than I anticipated. He told everyone he loves doing mosaics with his grandmother, and my heart melted. So he had connected with something there, the very creative and love-filled experience of doing something special with my artist mother. It was a great answer.
Later that afternoon, we were invited to a play date with a family I’d met only briefly. The host mercifully gave me a glass of wine and we sat down to chat. Eventually the conversation came around to where we were from (as people inevitably do regardless).
She told me she was from Delaware, a little state that borders Pennsylvania. For expats, this feels akin to someone saying they graduated from your same high school, just a different year. Suddenly that same “category” I’d resisted all day became the very foundation for our conversation. We knew the same places, missed the same seasons, and more. I walked out feeling more Pennsylvanian than I had in years.
So in the end I think that, while Morris has indeed observed a forward-looking trend, most of us adults are all still living between eras where identities are loosening but not altogether freewheeling. There is also a surprising comfort in having a few boxes into which I immediately fit, and I shouldn’t be so quick to abandon, judge away, or hold that back from my children.
Photo by Ravi K. Jolly. Find him on Flickr!
Some Fun Related Links:
Is the Question "Where are you from?" Outdated? on my blog.
"How to Piss off a Third Culture Kid." by C-M "Spike" Daeley, MatadorNetwork.com.
"At Home Abroad / Third Culture Kids : Nowhere to call home but I like being a global nomad" by Anne-Sophie Bolon, nytimes.com.