An excerpt from my journal with some thoughts on culture, identity, and rootlessness in a big world.
Where are you from?
Another voice asks innocently, not knowing the internal turmoil I face every time this question is asked. I stand stricken for a moment trying to figure out today’s answer. What am I supposed to say? Where I was born? Where I grew up? The place where I feel most at home, but can’t actually stay long term due to visa restrictions?? Why can’t I just say Earth? Aren’t we all just citizens of this tiny planet floating in a vast space vacuum???
I say under my breath, but I haven’t been there for a while…
Actually, it’s been two years since the last time my feet touched the American soil. Memories of my last weeks in the states still sometimes invade my thoughts. Oddly enough they are the most vivid and the rest feel more like a dream than reality. My parallel universe self, the one who grew for five years under the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, exists more as a character in my life than the protagonist. Is that seriously me? I say, looking back at pictures. Why do I look like her, yet have no idea who she is?
For the final two weeks, we waited at the air force base for my dad to finish work. I got lost once walking home after a friend’s mom dropped me off at the entrance to the base, and found myself stumbling around the thin puddles of ice in between the road and sidewalk. Stepping on them with cold toes to create that butterfly effect of cracks which was so simply representative of my life. Every step triggering a chain reaction, every decision opening 100 different paths unknown a second before. I walked for around half an hour before a family of four in a Ford pickup truck stopped and asked if I need a ride somewhere. I thanked them and got in the car. Their two young kids sat in car seats in the back, engrossed in the games on their iPad screens. The parents asked me if I lived on base and where I was going. Nah, I live near Boulder but I’m staying here at the moment. Could you take me the BX?
They dropped me off and told me not to wander around by myself too much, ironically I guess military bases are unsafe for wandering. And that is the last full day I can remember of being in the states. The rest is just a blur until I got off the plane in Mexico.
At the time I think I had a much stronger idea of my culture and identity on this Earth. Even having sold everything and moved out of my family apartment I still felt that I lived in Colorado and was very American. I didn’t start to feel differently for months into world travel.
Now it’s been two years of traveling, and the more days that pass, and the more time I spend building my life outside of the country where I was born, the less I feel connected with what used to be my entire culture and identity.
And that is the reason why when people ask me where I am from I haven’t the slightest clue. Yes, I was born in America. Yes, I lived there for most of my life. And yes, in some senses of the word I grew up there. But I also grew up in Mexico, when I learned just how easy it is to take your life for granted. And I grew up in Thailand, where I learned that the most generous people are the ones with the least to give. And I grew up in Morocco, where one hundred people taught me you should never fear what you do not know. And I grew up in between all of those places in 15 other countries around the world.
There are so many elements of American culture that I just don’t know how to relate to anymore. There’s the surface level concepts like consumerism, fast food culture, and the race to the American dream. And then there are deeper concepts like how a nation of immigrants refuses to include the narratives of almost everyone who actually built this country with their bare hands. Our education system is flawed, there is no work-life balance, the individual is far more important than the family, and it is now acceptable to build a political campaign on bringing others down.
I just don’t know what part of my identity fits into this mixture. Even when I lived in Colorado I lived in a bubble. A tiny and isolated community that just doesn’t represent America as a whole.
So I feel a little bit lost. If I’m not American, what am I? Even if I think Thailand is amazing, I could never be Thai, that’s not realistic. I will always be an outsider in any culture that is not my own, including American culture. People tell me a lot that the thing they fear most about living nomadically is feeling rootless. And that is valid. There are days when I wake up and I forget where I am. I cling to sentimental pieces of rubbish from 20 different countries in an effort to feel connected to something. I take photos. I write in journals. And my backpack works as a pretty solid replacement for a tiny house.
I do all this, but then I remember…I am not rootless. Roots don’t have to be planted in things. They don’t even have to be planted in one place. I plant roots in every person I ever meet, in every place that my feet touch, and most importantly in my family who make everywhere from a tent in the Sahara desert to a high rise in KL feel like where I’m from. Instead of seeking out somewhere or some culture to identify with, I’ll create my own from scratch with all the elements that feel best. A culture that can grow and change with wherever I happen to be. And maybe the next time someone asks me where I’m from, I’ll explain to them what it means to be a global citizen.
Published 12.3.17 from Montenegro