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Monday, October 26, 2015

My Experience is Where I'm From

Says Taiye Selasi in this brilliant Ted Talk.

Travelling in Japan this weekend I cannot count the number of times we were asked, "Where are you from?" and every time we lied.  Because to say "America" or "France" or to write "Osaka, Japan" on the registration card at the hotel where we stayed isn't exactly false, but it isn't really entirely true, is it?

It seems to me that whatever answer we do give depends on the context - something Selasi doesn't mention.  That in some places things are more pleasant for us if we simply say "France".  We have found this to be true in Japan where feelings about Americans and American culture are ambivalent.

 Identity is, in other words, flexible in our little family.  We can detach and attach at will.  The countries, cultures and  fellow citizens concerned have no power to stop it.  It is independent of passports and national authority because it is a space that is owned largely by the individual with only one  of Selasi's three "R's'' being under the control of the nation-state.

Salasi is resentful of the half-truths/lies told in introductions to her speeches and work, but the flip side of attempts to impose a legible identity on an individual is the manipulation of a fluid identity to one's own purposes.   With multiple experiences, passports, languages, and countries the individual can choose which ones confer the most benefit in any given situation.  This careful selection of identity can be used to connect (positive) or repel (hostile) in any context.

A utilitarian use of identity?  Absolutely and I would argue that it is completely legitimate.  We are not responsible for other people's sterotypes and assumptions.  If someone decides, after hearing "US" or "France", what kind of people we must be, what language we speak, and what our culture is all about, there is very little we can do about it.  But once we perceive that they have made a mental prison for themselves with the bars being the assumptions they cannot break,  then we can dance around their cage.


Anonymous said...

Liked this. Pico Iyer has similar conception.

Inaka Nezumi said...

I think your point about context-sensitivity is important. Identity cannot really even exist in a vacuum. You really have to ask yourself, what is my identity for this purpose? Or in relation to this particular person or group? Maybe identity is like a hologram, which looks different depending on viewing angle.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Andrew, I have wanting to read The Lady and the Monk by Iyer for some time now but there is no ebook version. Is there another of his works that you would recommend?

@Nezumi-san, YES! A little self-reflection here could yield some interesting information. I was talking to a Canadian friend awhile ago and she remarked than when she goes home to Canada she asserts the identity Canadian Abroad. Which made me realize that I did exactly the same thng when I go to the US. Why would we want to do this? Interesting enough, we had very similar reasons.... :-)