in 2016, it's not about where you're from, it's where you're local

Today so many of us come from all over the world, and live in numerous locations during our lifetimes, rightly calling each one of them home. If we limit people to only being from the place they were born, are we denying them their true identities...

by Dean Kissick
20 July 2016, 4:15pm

Where are you from? Or is that too complicated a question to answer? According to novelist and photographer Taiye Selasi, 36, a much better question would be: where are you a local? On her book tours she grew tired of being described as coming from, variously, England, where she was born; the United States, where she grew up; Ghana, where her father was raised; or Nigeria, where her mother was raised. She realized that each of these descriptions was inaccurate. At times she was also described as "multinational" however, as she recently explained in a TED talk, that didn't really work either: "'But Nike is multinational,' I thought, 'I'm a human being.'"

So many of us come from all around the world, from many places, without feeling like we totally belong in any of them. Speaking for myself: in 1983 I was born in the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a colossal United States military hospital in the West of a then still divided Germany, and because of this I was granted an American passport even though I was born overseas — where does that make me from? I never learned a word of German and moved to Oxfordshire when I was five. On rare occasions I would visit my mom's Japanese parents in Yokohama but never learned to speak Japanese. On rarer occasions I would visit my dad's mother in the States too, but never lived there until moving to Los Angeles last year. I feel like I don't really come from anywhere, and that's totally fine.

So many of us come from all around the world, from many places, without feeling like we totally belong in any of them. 

I relish this feeling of uniqueness — but more and more it's becoming the norm rather than the exception. The fashion designer Ryan Lo says, "I like to consider myself as the special minority in any situation. So in the UK I say to people I am the token Asian-Chinese from Hong Kong among other NEWGEN designers. But when I went to Shanghai Fashion Week last week with Fashion East, I went as a British designer from London. I like the multi-layered identities. It's like Bruce Wayne and Batman — I am both."

The same person can be perceived completely differently in their hometowns, even in this age of advanced globalization. In Los Angeles I'm perceived as British because of my accent, which is considered much more exotic than my half-Japanese appearance. Nonetheless the city feels like home, as does London, where I'm treated more or less like anyone else. However whenever I visit the Dior menswear store in Bicester Village I'm addressed in Chinese, because the specialist Chinese-speaking staff assume I'm a tourist on a shopping splurge. If I visit Japan nobody has any idea what I am. The comedian Aziz Ansari recently took a culinary tour of Southern India and experienced something very similar; he was suddenly in the majority, in terms of his appearance at least, and yet most could tell he didn't live in India, and that he was something of an outsider. "When I flew back to New York later that week," he wrote, "I thought about how strange it was that in total I'd only spent a few months in India over the course of 32 years, never really belonging anywhere. It reminded me of a meal I hadn't thought to record at the time, which I'd eaten on the fly at a KFC in Trivandrum… a basmati bowl topped with popcorn chicken, a peculiar hybrid of two vastly different cultures. Kind of like me."

We are in the midst of a golden age of identity politics, and it's useful to think about where our identities come from in a geographical sense. Selasi thinks we should ask ourselves, "where am I a local?" and that rather than choosing just one place we should choose all the places that we are local. This is her concept of "multi-locality" — that one person can be a local in many places around the world at the same time. "Replacing the language of nationality with the language of locality," she explains, "asks us to shift our focus to where real life occurs. Even that most glorious expression of countryhood, the World Cup, gives us national teams comprised mostly of multi-local players. As a unit of measurement for human experience, the country doesn't quite work." 

So for an illustration of her point we won't have to look any farther than the European Championship this summer in France. The best soccer players — most of whom live in London or Manchester, Madrid or Barcelona, Munich, Paris, Turin — often represent countries where they haven't lived in a long time, in some cases might never have lived. They are national heroes and yet have more in common with their fellow superstar players than their fellow countrymen. This kind of equivalence across borders works the other way, too, for the economically underprivileged. Selasi notes that "a Mexican gardener in Los Angeles and a Nepali housekeeper in Delhi have more in common in terms of rituals and restrictions than nationality implies." She suggests that we answer the question "where are you a local?" according to three criteria: rituals, relationships, restrictions. To begin, take a piece of paper and start writing out a list for each, starting with daily rituals like having a coffee, or going for a jog, or singing in the shower. Where do they take place?

A Mexican gardener in Los Angeles and a Nepali housekeeper in Delhi have more in common in terms of rituals and restrictions than nationality implies.

Next, where are your most important relationships? Which is to say: where are the people that you speak with every week, that form your inner world of emotions? The London-based fashion designer Marta Jakubowski says, "Being born in Poland and having grown up in Germany, it was always quite confusing for me to realize where I'm from. German people called me Polish and Polish people called me German. Moving around a lot made me realize that I like that I'm not attached to a country, and that I can adjust very easily… I don't know if I will ever be able to settle. What I learned is that the people I love are going to be around wherever I go to, and will still be there even after a long time not speaking or seeing each other. I guess that's what I would call my foundation: my friends."

In other words the people and the places that really matter will hopefully still be there even if we're away for a really long time. So many of our relationships are long-distance relationships now — not just with lovers, but with friends and family. The 20th-century rise of telecommunications and then the internet has, of course, made it easier than ever to stay in close contact with others around the world. But sometimes we don't even speak the same language, let alone use the same messaging apps, as those we love the most. I went to Yokohama at the beginning of the year for my grandpa's 100-days-after-death ceremony; shortly before it begun, my tiny Japanese grandma suddenly started speaking to me at length, which was something that had never really happened before. "It's a shame we never had a chance to talk," she said towards the end, and of course I had no idea what she was saying but by then my mom was returning to the room and she translated that part for me. That was the most profound conversation my grandma and I have ever had, and neither of us understood more than a couple words of what the other was saying.

What makes me feel local to Yokohama, a city I know next to nothing about, are the relationships I have there with my family. When he visited Kenya last summer Barack Obama recalled his first visit as a much younger man just out of university, and perhaps he experienced something similar back then too. He said the most important thing he had felt there, and maybe hadn't felt elsewhere, was "a sense of being recognized, being seen... when I came here, in many ways I was a Westerner, I was an American, unfamiliar with my father and his birthplace, really disconnected from half of my heritage. And at that airport, as I was trying to find my luggage, there was a woman there who worked for the airlines, and she was helping fill out the forms, she saw my name and she looked up and she asked if I was related to my father, who she had known. And that was the first time that my name meant something. And that was recognized." His relationship with his father made him a local.

After rituals and relationships come restrictions, and these are not about where you are but where you're not, and where you cannot be — because of passports and visas, immigration laws, war and persecution, availability of work, cost of living, and so on. Three years ago I went to Oxford County Hall for my British citizenship ceremony, which I shared with strangers from all over the world: asylum-seekers from war-torn Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere; Eastern Europeans with young families; Latin Americans who'd fallen in love with somebody over here. Around 40 nationalities were represented in total. During the ceremony there were rousing speeches about democracy, there were pledges of allegiance to the Queen, hands on the Bible, fluttering Union Jacks, pamphlets on the history of Oxfordshire, large urns of hot tea and mixed trays of supermarket own-brand biscuits, a local Tory dignitary booming, "Now go forth and be British!" All of which probably sounds somewhat naff but was actually incredibly moving. It was very much a ceremonial representation of the old model of nationality but if considered through the lens of multi-locality — well it was a lifting of restrictions, a granting of freedom to adopt new localities.

Some of us are multi-local out of choice; others because we have been displaced and might never make it home again, might never really have a home again.

"How could I come from a nation? How can a human being come from a concept?" asked Selasi in her speech. "To me, a country — this thing that could be born, die, expand, contract — hardly seemed the basis for understanding a human being." She points out that countries often disappear, fail, change, appear. For instance, her father was born in the British colony of Gold Coast, which in his lifetime, in 1957, gained its independence and became Ghana.

She notes that the idea of countries as we understand them now, of sovereign statehood, was only adopted around 400 years ago and so concludes, "history was real, cultures were real, but countries were invented." Unfortunately now in 2016 we have a refugee crisis, many refugee crises, because so many countries are determined to keep out people from other countries, no matter how unfortunate they may be. There is a growing idea that we should be separated by arbitrary nationalities rather than bonded by our common humanity and shared experiences: Donald Trump wants to build a wall on the Mexican border; Boris Johnson pulled Britain out of the European Union; boats of refugees are left to drown in the Mediterranean. So many politicians are calling for more restrictions rather than less and that is a crying shame. Some of us are multi-local out of choice; others because we have been displaced and might never make it home again, might never really have a home again.

Where are you a local? In Selasi's case, she says she would like to be introduced the following way: "Taiye Selasi is a human being, like everybody here. She isn't a citizen of the world, but a citizen of worlds. She is a local of New York, Rome, and Accra." So where are your rituals, your relationships, your restrictions? If you write out as three lists on a scrap of paper, you'll draw a sort of map of your identity as a set of places where your most important experiences happen, and that will be your multi-locality. Most of us now are multi-locals, citizens of worlds, global youths — and that is something to be proud of, and something that will hopefully bring us together rather than pull us apart. 


Text Dean Kissick

generation z
taiye selasi