Tag: identity

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I Belong

A few weekends ago, on a Sunday evening, my daughter was preparing her schoolbag for the next day, when I
noticed a sheet of paper on her desk. It was a drawing of a square with several layers, like concentric…squares. I asked her what this was and she explained that, as an assignment for one of the subjects, she had to draw a diagram showing all the communities to which she belongs.
When I looked at what she came up with, I couldn’t help but smile. This was a very rich diagram, if one can call it that. My girl feels that she belongs to one continent, three
countries, four cities and two towns. This, beyond her family, friends and, of course, sports affiliations (should I be worried that she also “belongs” to Lionel Messi?). Even though I would not call our children seasoned expats, at least not yet – having been through a grand total of one international move –, this diagram pointed out (literally) how many layers make up their identity already, at such an early stage in their lives. It doesn’t take much, does it.
I asked her if this means that she feels at home in each one of these places. Without hesitation, she said that she could imagine herself living in any of them, but then quickly added the caveat – in case I got any ideas – that she has a preference for Zurich now
(our current home) and that she’d rather not have to go through another move and leave her friends behind once more. Feeling equally at home in Athens, Vienna, Zurich or even the small town in the south of Austria where her father’s family comes from, was something completely natural for her. She didn’t seem to be concerned with the practicalities of living in each place. More important considerations were familiarity with her surroundings and the presence of people with whom she belonged. Oh yes, and knowing the language.
And this is just what a bicultural child with a relatively stable upbringing perceives and experiences. As we all know, it gets much more complicated. Is this complication a disadvantage? Are we doing our kids a disservice by imposing our itinerant lifestyle on them? Are we condemning them to a life of foreignness and confused identity? I suspect that often we, as parents, agonize more over these questions than they do.
Having multiple homes and multiple allegiances does not seem strange to my daughter because it’s what she has always known. She and most of her friends – children who have multicultural backgrounds or come from families that are leading a globally nomadic life – are born with several affiliations already. The multiplicity of belonging is a fact of life for them. It is something that comes naturally and often goes unquestioned. It is part of who they are. The number of layers is not important here. It doesn’t matter how many homes or communities they are part of. What matters is that there is belonging, that our children (and we, their families) feel grounded, comfortable and at home in each of these communities. As many as these may be, there is space in our heart for all of them.
Besides, if we, as adults, can handle having many homes without feeling like split personalities (well, most of the time), then it should be easier for them, who essentially come into this world “programmed” to be this way – right?
expat, home

Our stories, our roots

A few weeks ago, I entered my neighbourhood café in Athens, laptop in hand, intending to take advantage of an hour free of household-related distractions (lovingly loud
Greek family, adoringly attached toddler) to do some work. The place was full, so I asked an elderly gentleman if I could join him. He was sitting on the couch at the corner, not knowing that it was my favourite spot. He smiled warmly, invitingly. “Of course, please sit down. I just got here as well.” He stood up to go get his coffee from the counter, but his hands were shaking and, on his way back, he spilled a little on the lady who was sitting at the table next to us. He apologized profusely. He was visibly embarrassed. “That’s what happens when you get old…” The lady was really nice about it. “It could happen to anyone,” she said kindly and gave him a big smile. She saw me watching and smiled at me too.
Soon after he sat down, a friend of his entered the café. I guessed that they probably met there every morning because they didn’t look surprised to see each other. Instead of a
greeting, the newcomer started reciting a passage from Plato’s “Republic,” something about the blessing of celibacy in old age. It was meant to be funny and they both laughed. Very naturally, as if they were continuing an unfinished conversation, they started talking about politics, the state of the economy, the state of their country, switching back and forth between the present and “the old days…” Occasionally, they threw in a passage from some Greek literary work or a quote from a historical figure to illustrate how it’s all linked, the then and the now. At some point, this being Greece, there was a brief, light-hearted argument about who would pay for the coffees (“You invited
me last time, now it’s my turn” “No, it was you who invited me! You’re becoming forgetful in your old age”), coming to a peaceful conclusion (“Well, I’ll let you invite me, but only if you agree to officially adopt me”).
I found the whole scene so extraordinarily charming, that I’d forgotten about my work. I was captivated, absorbed by their conversation. A few times I couldn’t help but smile and as they noticed, they smiled back timidly, apologetically, with an almost paternal “So sorry to distract you from your work, my girl;” or “I apologise for my friend. He talks
way too much.”
Eventually, they had to leave because their grandchildren were waiting for them to take them to the playground “now that the weather has warmed up” (it was already 20 degrees Celsius that morning, but for Greek standards not warm enough for children to be out and about).
I wished they’d stay. I felt an unexpected connection with these elderly men. I appreciated where they were coming from. I got their stories. The way they talked and behaved – with dignity, respect, affection – resonated with me. Their words, infused with a sense of rootedness and history spoke to me. I felt that we shared the same values; that their stories were my stories, their roots my roots.
I realised later that I felt more connected to those representatives of another generation than to any of my own. Maybe it was because their stories showed me where
I come from – my life’s trajectory, that of my parents. They knew my story because they are my story. Maybe the older I become, the more interested I am in that aspect of my identity.
I suspect that I managed to hold on to that connection because I left Greece. My link was not eroded by the everyday. I was not disillusioned by current events. I did not rebel or disengage, like young people my age have. Surprisingly, I think that for the same reason – because I left – I am not as connected to my own generation. We haven’t shared the milestones, the victories, the frustrations, the hopes or the disappointments. We don’t share a present or a future. I wasn’t there and, most likely, I won’t be there. As sad as that makes me sometimes, I know that I can always look to the past and find a sense of belonging. Is this just me or are there more who have felt this way?

Rootedness and openness

We took the kids to a “family” concert last weekend, part of a series offered by Zurich’s main concert hall. The theme was Christmas
singing. There were several children’s choirs taking part and a program that extended from folk songs to Christmas carols to classical choral pieces. When I booked the tickets, I thought that this would be a very “Swiss” event, perfect to get into the Christmas spirit of our adopted hometown. I was not expecting to find, featured prominently among the several local community choirs, that of the International School of Zug and Lucerne; and later, wedged in-between the many lovely German and Swiss-German tunes, a section of the concert dedicated to English ones. Not to mention the interspersed orchestral pieces by a Polish composer and a traditional Estonian Christmas song. “Jingle Bells,” Benjamin Britten and “Grüezi wohl, Herr Samichlaus” somehow all fit perfectly together. A slightly different, and perhaps more powerful experience than I had expected.
Before we moved here, I had read about how attached the Swiss are to their homeland; how intensely homesick they get when they are away and how they don’t last long before they succumb to the urge to return. In fact, homesickness as a term was coined
in the 17th century to describe the condition also known as “Swiss illness” (mal du Suisse) – the pain frequently felt by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home, who would pine for their native landscapes. My favourite passage about the particular relationship the Swiss have to their home is from a book called The Geography
of Bliss
by Eric Weiner:

The Swiss are deeply rooted in place. Their passports list the name of their ancestral town. Not their hometown but the town of their roots. Maybe they weren’t born there. Maybe they’ve never even been there. But it is their home. It’s said
that the Swiss only become Swiss upon leaving the country. Until then, they are Genevans or Zurichers, or otherwise defined by wherever they happen to come from.

One would have expected that focus on one’s home and roots would be accompanied by a certain neglect towards the outside; a lack of interest leading to a lack of attention. Nothing like the pure openness that I felt at that Christmas concert. As a foreigner, I was not simply an observer of a beautiful holiday tradition; I was invited to become part of it. I felt included, welcomed, embraced.
Maybe I did not expect that, but it makes absolute sense. Being rooted in place, even if that is a tiny little spot on the map, makes the Swiss feel grounded. It is exactly that rootedness, the confidence and security that it brings – about one’s core identity, among others – that makes one open to the outside. It’s the grounding that makes one willing to acknowledge, include, integrate the foreign (and the foreigner), without worrying that they will somehow dilute or otherwise corrupt that
identity. That’s a big part of why I – and many other foreigners – feel at home here. At that concert, I did not feel any less of a foreigner than I usually do. I did feel, however, that my foreignness is something enriching; something to be appreciated and celebrated.
Holidays can be a confusing time for those of us who have chosen to lead a mobile life. Sometimes we are torn between so many different traditions and customs, that we don’t know which one(s) to choose and when we do, often our choices seem like an incoherent mishmash. Last weekend, the Swiss taught me that might not be such a bad thing after all.
Happy holidays everyone.

The language of foreignness

Last week I read an article on how our personality changes when we speak different languages and it reminded me of a conversation I had years ago. A good friend and I were talking
about our “mobile” life and the challenges of adjusting to different environments every time we moved. I asked her how she felt about having to function in a language other than her native one – she is a Spanish speaker in a German-speaking country. “I get by fine,” she said, being quite fluent in German, “but I am only an adapted version of myself in that language.” Somehow, switching to German managed to turn this lively, assertive, energetic Mediterranean woman into a much tamer, quieter, shy person. I thought of my own French or German persona and how different it was from the Greek one.

The image we project in different languages differs – especially when our level of proficiency differs among those languages. It is not unusual to be more reserved than our usual self when we don’t feel confident enough to express ourselves in a foreign language. My husband often says that his IQ drops by at least 30 points when he speaks French. I feel intellectually challenged when I try to function in a language that I don’t master. While I struggle to make a point and get frustrated when I can’t, someone who does not know me may assume that I don’t actually have a point to make.
The opposite can also happen, though more rarely: we may feel more confident in a language that’s not our own. Another friend of mine discovered that there was a language that fit better with her personality than her native one. Although she came from North America and grew up speaking English and French, after learning Spanish as an adult, she realised that she felt more herself, more genuine in that language than in the ones with which she was raised. So she gravitated towards everything Spanish – both in her professional and personal life – because in that context she felt more connected and more genuine.
When we move around a lot – unless we are perfectly versed in all the languages of the places we move to (which most of us are not) – language is a big part of the foreigner experience. While it might be fun to slip into different characters and switch between personalities depending on the language we speak, it also makes it harder for us to be our true selves all the time. Doesn’t this inability to feel authentic and genuine, make us feel even more foreign? Doesn’t it make adjustment more complicated and challenging? How do we deal with that?
I used to disapprove of people who moved away from their home country only to end up socialising with the same kids of people – from back home or from similar cultures. Greeks seeking out other Greeks; Francophones or Anglo-Saxons clustering together. Typical expats, in my condescending opinion, wasting a unique opportunity to enlarge their horizons and enrich their lives; stagnating rather than moving forward. Then I moved to countries whose language I did not master and, over time, I understood. When you are assembling and disassembling (and reassembling) your life multiple times over, in the process of reinventing yourself, you sometimes lose track of who you are – at the core. So there are moments when you need to be able to feel genuine; to be yourself; when you crave the comfort of authenticity. And for most of us (though there are exceptions, of course), despite our multicultural, multilingual upbringing and multiple exotic experiences, that can only happen in one language. We do not necessarily seek out people who speak our “comfort language” to that we can continue to lead the same life we led back home; we seek them because it feels good to be ourselves from time to time. In our nomadic life, that comfort is essential.