Where you’re really from and who you really are
People always ask: ‘where are you from?’ as if the brief answer you give were shorthand for the greater part of who you really were.
Yet nations are artificial concepts that disguise and obscure the true connections or divisions between their citizens.
If I say I am from Britain, this conjures images of cricket, good manners, cups of tea and green fields. Yet many people here never visit the countryside, prefer coffee, find cricket insufferably dull and have no respect for others whatsoever.
It is a false label that weakly serves the purpose of defining an individual relative to others. Often it makes some people seem exotic and others seem boring, some seem important and others seem lowly. Perhaps this is why it persists: as a kind of social weapon wielded by those that have most to gain from slapping beneficial labels on themselves whilst branding derogatory ones on to others.
“I’m from Paris. You’re from Grimsby.” I guarantee that the automatic comparison in your head between these two people is not an equal one. Yet the person from Paris could be the most boorish idiot you ever met and the one from Grimsby the sexiest, most exciting person that you will ever encounter.
So what can we use instead?
Well, writer Taiye Selasi suggests in her TED talk that by boiling things down to the communities we spend our lives in rather than the nations, regions or cities we define ourselves with, we are likely to get a truer picture.
There are three things she believes better define a person than ‘where they are from’:
- Rituals: the habits, activities and patterns of our behaviour
- Relationships: the people (no matter how far away they live) who make up the larger part of our weekly emotional lives
- Restrictions: the ways in which our lives are limited (by money, by prejudice, by misfortune etc)
She suggests that we should think in terms of where we are ‘local’ rather than the name of the town or country we are from.
The idea of being local to a place brings out the true meaning of who we are: the collection of our experiences.
I am not from ‘Britain’, ‘England’ or ‘Warrington’. I am from ‘Woolston’, a small part of Warrington where I lived during the 80’s and 90’s’. I went to high school there, I competed at sport there and, for roughly 19 years, for good or ill, it formed the basis of most of my life experiences.
That tells you far more about where I am from because it immediately links any conversation to my actual experiences rather than leaving generic assumptions hanging in the air.
Photo credit: Thomas Hawk
Where the hell is that?!
At first the idea seems daft; what is the value of saying you are from a small part of a town I may not have heard of? But it forces you to explain (and me to listen to) what it meant for you to go about your daily life in such a place through the language of ritual, relationship with others and the restrictions that defined your day to day experiences.
Two people from opposite ends of the globe could have far more in common than vast numbers in their own country if judged by this idea of locality. A Doctor in Las Vegas probably has more in common with another Doctor in Mumbai than they do with a street sweeper in their own city.
It also explains why sport bonds people together (ritual), why films can reach billions with emotional tales of family, forgiveness and redemption (relationships) and why a common cause can cross cultural and national divides when it speaks to a shared experience of conquering adversity (restrictions).
Most importantly, it frames a simple getting-to-know-you question in a way that highlights what really connects us together instead of what makes us different and separate.
Have Your Say
So: where are you local?
What are the places and communities that made you who you are?
Comments, as always, are welcome.
Or you can email your view to Foolosophy@peteburnett.net