Identity overlap while being on the move

For a slice of the global population that is geographically mobile, at times even settling down in a ‘foreign’ land, the idea of a motherland is watered down. as plurality kicks in, your ‘origins’ get blurred

By Simran Sodhi

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Published: Sat 27 Nov 2021, 9:04 PM

Where is home? Is it the place where we were born and grew up — or is it the place where we moved to as adults and struggled to make a life? As more and more people today cross the seas and geographical boundaries in search of a better life or sometimes to be with their loved ones, home then becomes an overlap of memories past and present.

As individuals, we carry the memories of these places as part of our identity. Having been born in a particular culture, having spoken a certain language and enjoyed its nuances, the ‘other’ or the new lands, with time, also become a part of our identity. So are we then better off and more liberal and accepting of differences or does that lead to a clash internally of the value systems and cultures that one encounters?

For Inka Stahlhofen and her husband Volker, who are German but are today living in India — and who have also lived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for some years — this overlap of identities has been at play for the last few years now.

Inka is a registered nurse and her husband an engineer, and as Stahlhofen points out, “It is a mixed cultural identity, but a German national identity. I took the chance to expand my horizons. In my opinion, it is not possible to live abroad without opening the mind to the ‘foreign’ country in every aspect. You cannot expect that it will be the same as in your own country. You have to adjust and you have to tolerate and accept the new habits, people, everything, and then you get a lot of benefits, it changes your mind, your thoughts and you are more open for everything. You will change and become more tolerant.”

But she is a bit unsure of whether this leads to the creation of more liberal individuals or not. “This is quite tricky to answer. People who travel and live and work in other countries will probably adopt a more liberal outlook but those who are not travelling or live always in the same place will get more confused.”

Also, it makes a difference if people in a country have work and an income and enough money to cover their needs. “They are then most probably more

open-minded about foreign people, because they are not afraid that they will miss something that a ‘foreigner’ gets.”

‘If you are born as an Indian or German or anything else, you will be that forever’

The fear of foreigners or different cultures manifests in people in different ways, Inka says, while giving a few examples. As a nurse, she’s come across those who would tell her that what made them jittery was, for example, a new neighbour because he belonged to a different culture or race or spoke a different language. In Germany, for example, “A lot of older people told me that when they went into a hospital, nobody seemed to be able to speak German anymore since they are all foreign doctors and nurses. Or when you enter an elevator in a mall and you are the only German. And even in some areas of a big city when your kids ask you, in which country are we since they hear only foreign languages around them?” Add to this mix, she said the cultural aspect where one finds it strange to see women dressed conservatively in Western countries and, at the same time strange, you find women dressed in modern outfits in seemingly ‘conservative’ places. “If all people are open minded and interested in new cultures and there is respect from all sides then one will get to see more liberal individuals, but a lot needs to be done before we reach that state,” she said.

For Inka, the question of identity and how it gets questioned repeatedly in an immigrant experience is not an easy answer. “Identity could be both: cultural [language, customs, traditions, moral values] and national. In my opinion, cultural identity is not fixed; if you are open-minded, then you can change and learn a lot; but national identity, how I understand it, you cannot change easily. It is your background, your origin. If you are born as an Indian or German or anything else, you will be that forever. That’s why people abroad always try to gather together with same nationalities. They feel understood. If we could break up this habit, it would be easier to liberalise people.”

For her, as a German, the national identity is critical, and yet uber patriotism is somehow disliked — as a throwback to history, that invariably links the country with the Nazi regime; it is often confused with nationalism. On the contrary, in India, for instance, “it is normal to love your homeland, to be proud of your country and you can say it loudly, by raising the flag and singing the national anthem. I heard and read a lot of times, people saying here [in India] that I am proud to be an Indian. But if you were to talk and do these things in Germany, you will often be derided as being a Nazi.”

Inka agrees that with all this overlap of cultures, home takes on a different meaning and how even though while not living in Germany, a part of her will always be German. And yet, “home is different if you have overlapping identities; I feel at home where my household is and where my loved ones are. I can adjust much faster in a place to call it my home.”

She has family and friends living “back home” and “we visit Germany quite often. So, we are connected in that sense. But on the other side, we have lost a lot of acquaintances and we are not really in the system [social security, benefits etc] anymore. By heart I am and always will be connected to my homeland.”

This struggle to adjust to new cultures and people is something one encounters in literature repeatedly. One writer who wrote extensively on the issue of diaspora and the immigrant experience was VS Naipaul. His own identity was an overlap of Indian, Trinidad and British influences and his writings bear the mark of a man who has lived through what he wrote.

In one of his works, A Bend in the River, he wrote, “But the airplane is a wonderful thing. You are still in one place when you arrive at the other. The airplane is faster than the heart. You arrive quickly and you leave quickly. You don’t grieve too much. And there is something else about the airplane. You can go back many times to the same place. And something strange happens if you go back often enough. You stop grieving for the past. You see that the past is something in your mind alone, that it doesn’t exist in real life. You trample on the past, you crush it. In the beginning, it is like trampling on a garden. In the end, you are just walking on ground. That is the way we have to learn to live now. The past is here. He touched his heart. It isn’t there. And he pointed at the dusty road.”

Family ties and overlapping personal identities

Guillermina O’Hara, a homemaker and a full-time mom, is an Argentinian married to a Britisher and living in London today; her identity remains strongly Argentinian but, at the same time, her life in London has been an enriching experience. “I identify as an Argentinian but now living here [in London] has been a different experience, something like a British import, and it’s an incredible mix of cultures,” she says.

She adds that to London and living there has made her a more liberal, tolerant individual. “When people move around, it makes them more liberal… not confused. You also get to compare as to what works in one country and doesn’t in another.” Like Inka, Guillermina agrees that national identity remains at the very base level of our multiple identities, even as we cross cultures and continents for work and love. “Identity for me at the first level is national so I am Argentinian, but today I hold a British passport so I have many British ingredients within me… but still I am more strongly Argentinian. My eldest son was born here in Britain but, curiously, he feels Argentinian and when people ask him his nationality he says Argentinian and I have to tell him that he is a British. My daughter, on the other hand, feels totally British,” she laughs.

Guillermina points out that maybe it is her strong family ties that make her feel Argentinian even now. “I feel very connected to Argentina and the reason I think is because my entire family lives there. Whatever happens in Argentina, politically and culturally, has an impact on me. I watch the news to see what is happening there and if there is something wrong, I get very worried. I have Argentinian friends who don’t feel that connected to their country and they are surprised at me. But at the same time, whenever I go back, it’s a pleasure to visit but I am also very well settled here now and feel very enriched for having lived here in Britain.”

‘You can feel isolated and lonely in the country of your birth and heritage’

Freya Jaffar, a businesswoman who lives in the UAE, has her origins in Pakistan but was born and raised in London. Life for her has been a mix of her British identity, her roots in Pakistan and now her life in the UAE. “I was born and raised in London. I moved to Abu Dhabi in 2008. But, as a child, I was always on a plane going back and forth between countries so I feel very much connected to all but I think culturally I’m more British in many ways,” she says.

Freya points out that people are still divided on the question of whether our experiences of living in new, different cultures make us more liberal or not, but she feels fortunate to have found friends of different nationalities in the UAE. “In the UAE, my experience has been a positive one where I can count friends from all nationalities.”

For her, identity tends to move more towards the cultural component of our lives. “Identity is more ‘culturally’ related for me — as we can live anywhere in the world but we carry certain customs with us.”

Home, as she points out, is what you make of it. “But it’s [also] what you make of your life. It’s all about human connections… for instance, you can feel isolated and lonely in the country of your birth and heritage. So, I think home is where you make the best of it and get involved with the community.”

She adds that, “Pakistan is part of my heritage but I have never lived there... I guess it doesn’t really enter the equation. But the UK versus Abu Dhabi toss-up? To be honest, they are so different but then I am quite adaptable so I don’t really feel disconnected [from either]. Over time, however, I feel like Abu Dhabi is more home to me than any other place.”

Being culturally involved with one’s heritage

Hollywood actor Andy Garcia who is (originally) Cuban and has carved a name for himself in the global film industry talked about his connection with Cuba philosophically in an interview to “Well, you know I was born [in Cuba] and I spent the first five and a half years of my life there, but I’ve been very involved culturally with my heritage. I dedicated really all my life [to] its history and its music because it’s something that I’m very connected to. So, that is the perspective that I bring — my connection to it and I guess my understanding of what that world was like in the ‘50s. My parents grew up in that era and I grew up in an exile [Cuban] community, which was always profoundly nostalgic and loving and filled with memories from that time period. That stimulated my own interest in it and to this day I still continue to have a profound connection to that era, the 1940s and ‘50s in Cuba. I left when I was a child, but in my subconscious I sort of lived it as an adult. Through the people who lived [it], sort of through osmosis and hearing their stories and music, you’re able to kind of imagine yourself living in that era and understanding its beauties and its tragedies,” he said.

This movement of people across nations and cultures may throw challenges for most of us. The comfort of a certain way of living is challenged by another set of attire, language and sometimes cuisine. It brings to the fore our fear of the ‘other’ and we debate in our minds as we accept and reject bits and pieces of new societies. Some of us feel lost and some feel liberated.

But since movement is life itself — as is change — maybe we do create ‘global’ citizens who embrace more than they reject.

(Simran Sodhi is a journalist and author based in New Delhi, India.)

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