Last month, I hosted the discussion at our Article Club in Gurgaon (set up by my ingenious friend Emma to cater to those of us who don’t have the discipline, attention span or time to read a book a month) where we debated this question.
I was born and raised in Malaysia to Chinese parents, whose ancestors emigrated from China several generations before. I spent my later formative years in Australia and that’s the nationality I most identify with. As an adult, I moved to England, married a British man and naturalised as a British citizen. I now live in India. This makes me a Malaysian-Chinese British-Australian Indian resident. As an expat living in India, I have had the privilege of meeting people of countless nationalities, ethnicities and life journeys.
I am often mistaken for a local when in India. Due to my ethnicity, I share similar physical traits as someone from the North East of India. In our travels in Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet, local people often approached me and spoke in their native language. I am not from these places yet I felt at home when I was there. Recently I attended the wedding of two very dear friends. I met them both when I first moved to London from Melbourne years ago. She had moved to London from Mauritius and he from Germany. We became fast friends. Eventually he moved to Austria for work, I moved to India with my husband and later they both moved to South Africa. The wedding was in Italy. The 60 guests had traveled from 22 countries.
Graeme and I traveled to Rome after the wedding. It was always one of my travel regrets that I’d never been and as expected, Rome was awe-inspiring. Imagine a tiny state about the size of England spreading and conquering western and southern Europe and North Africa. Whilst this was not by far the largest colonial takeover (that honour belongs to Great Britain), it was all done before the invention of firearms and other technological advances used to suppress and occupy a foreign land.
The Roman army conscripted and recruited its men from all over its empire. Peregrini, non-citizens, made up 90% of the legions. They were men from modern-day France, Spain, England, Egypt, Syria and Iraq, although many would have never set eyes on the capital of the empire they served. Imagine the melting pot of cultures and customs in those camps. Hence the pattern of migration we see today isn’t a modern phenomenon. This question would have been asked back then. It’s easy enough for us to describe a place now by saying Paris or London or New York or Mumbai but imagine the words they would have used to describe their homelands in those times. There were no newspapers, no travel posters, no internet. When stationed in England, how would you have described to a fellow soldier what your hometown in an Egyptian village looked like?
Fast forward to today. We live in a world where borders pose fewer barriers to the pursuit of opportunity and adventure, where most of us are not living in countries where we were born, where the ease of travel has broadened the mind and enriched the diversity of our relationships and where the Internet and mass media enables anyone to travel virtually, even if not in real life. It is harder and more unacceptable to tell where someone is from by just looking at them. I travel to experience life in other places, to eat local food, re-live the history and figure out how local customs make people the way they are, and I can’t help but become increasingly convinced that we are all the same at our the basest level. Because of this, it is now less important to me where someone is from, instead I find myself more interested in where they have been, how they got there and what experiences they have to share from their journey. Taiye Selasi talks about asking “Where are you local?” instead. I think this is one fair substitute.
So, where have you been? What are your experiences? Where are you local? Tell me your story.
Oh, and our Italy holiday was absolutely amazing.