Yesterday I had the pleasure of watching a Ted talk from Taiye Selasi. She challenges the concept of “where you are from”, which I’ve always found a hard one to answer. She discusses not talking about where you are from, but where you are a local. She uses three Rs to describe experiences. Rituals, relationships, and restrictions. You can check out the full thing here.
Firstly, rituals. What rituals did you grow up with? She says, ‘In what city, or cities, do shop keepers know your face’. Where do you go for coffee? What routines do you have that make up your days? There are a few things we grew up with, that make up part of my rituals. We never put shoes or feet on the table, which in part stems from Maori culture. I didn’t realise how much this was embedded in me, until at work in London one day, someone put their shoes on the benchtop, and I was horrified. Food makes up a big part of people’s rituals. Our family had some interesting ones, like no texting at the table, which used to drive us all insane. I’ve since realised that I’m so grateful we did this. It meant dinner time was family time. And in such a fast paced world, it was nice to have that time together to reflect on our days.
Relationships. What relationships are part of your life that make you who you are? Not just your Facebook friends, but the people who make an impact in your life, whether they are there physically, or on FaceTime half a world away. For me, being able to message and talk to my family back home has made the distance not seem so great. If you learnt some of my closest relationships were with family and friends half a world away, this might lead you to see how independent I’ve become in the last two years.
Restrictions. This would have to be the hardest one, and one which many people do not like to talk about. She asks, “where are you able to live, what passport do you hold, are you restricted by racism?” Some people are born into war-torn countries, and have to flee, never able to return. Some countries that people were born into no longer exist. She illustrates that “this question can take us past, ‘where are you now’, to ‘why aren’t you there, and why?'” Some people are born a female in a country or community that doesn’t allow education, freedom of speech, or choices in life.
I was born in Auckland, but have lived in Tauranga. I studied in Dunedin, and have visited various places all over New Zealand. I’m half Australian. I’m part Scottish, which gives me access to different visas. But if I tell you all this when I meet you, all that you get is preconceived images and reputations. If instead I described my restrictions, I think this would give the most insight as to how I’ve been able to do what I do. I’m a female born into a country with equal opportunities. I had the same education as the males around me, and had access to higher education which was in part through government support. I’ve always been told that my voice and opinion matters, and I’m allowed to speak up for the things I believe in. Being born into my family means I travel on a passport that holds no prejudice. I understand that travel doesn’t always come easy for some. People who I have things in common with, but because of their heritage, are restricted. Because of their situation, are restricted, whether by laws, beliefs, or financial implications.
Selasi argues that “how can a human being come from a concept? History is real, culture is real, but counties were invented”. The concept of countries is only a few hundred years old. Before then, everything was kingdoms and empires. People were only a part of the community around them, because this was all they knew, and, likely, all they would ever explore. Being from New Zealand, I identified as being from the country, because it’s relativity small size and population and definite borders make it easy to feel like the whole place is home. But I mostly identify with Tauranga. With the beaches of the Mount, where I spent many a summer.
It wasn’t until I began travelling that I really began to understand the fluidity of countries and their borders. On of the first places I travelled was Croatia, and my parents said it hadn’t existed when they were here. Travelling through Europe, it has been eye-opening to see how many countries were not countries at all. I felt so ignorant, since I had come from a place that had its boundaries clearly defined, I assumed the world as we know it was organised and rigid, and had been for a long time, and would be for a long time to come.
Perhaps next time you meet someone, you could try introducing yourself in this manner, and seeing what kind of conversation stems from this introduction. Rather than, ‘I’m Kate from New Zealand’ I could try, “I’m Kate, a human. I’m a local in Tauranga, where I grew up with my mum and sisters. Family dinners mean a lot to me, as does time by the sea. I’m able to travel the world because I was born into a country that gave me opportunities, and a lack of prejudice. And I’m learning that everyone’s situation is different’.
I wonder what kind of understanding and similarities we could find if we did this, rather than focussing always on the obvious differences. We might find from this that we have something in common. We might find we are very different, but the fact we can talk about it and accept these differences may bring us closer.