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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

In Other Words: Venn Diagrams and Where We Are From

By Chuck Keller

Okay. You meet someone for the first time. The questions are predictably the same. “What’s your name? What do you do? Where are you from?” And we answer them so easily because we are searching for some commonality.

But that last question is worth examining because where we are from reveals much about who we are and how we want to present ourselves - especially when we travel. We really are curious about how other people live.

Abby Hills, a 2010 HHS grad, is spending the year in Vietnam. So when she was asked where she was from, she didn’t know quite how to answer such a seemingly simple question.

“You would assume that it is an easy question to answer. And for most of my life, I have to admit that this has seemed like a pretty easy question…. I am a white woman who is the daughter of middle class, educated parents. I grew up in a small town in Kentucky that did not boast about its diversity because it was basically non-existent. One of the boys at my church who moved to the U.S with his mother and younger brother from Ghana used to joke that ‘Fort Thomas is 97.5% white and 2.5% black- my mom and I are the 2% and my younger brother is the .5%’ …The point I am trying to make is that I have had the luxury of always understanding the people around me because they looked like me, because they spoke my language, because they shared a similar religion, and because they shared a common culture with me.” 

That’s true. We use a shorthand to identify not only where we are from but to also project some sense of identity.  Our sense of place carries information - true and false. But then Abby moved to Colorado for school and eventually became a resident there. But was she still from Fort Thomas, Kentucky?

“But then I moved to Colorado. I was out on my own and I created a whole other world for myself - one in which I came to love every corner of that space. People would ask me where I was from, and I would jokingly (but really being a bit serious) reference the spin off of the famous CO ‘Native’ bumper stickers- ‘I’m not a native, but I got here as fast as I could.’ After 5 years, I finally changed my driver’s license, the plates on my car, and all my official mail - and weirdly enough, even though it was only a few pieces of paper, it felt like a huge deal. I felt like on that day my answer to the question changed - I was officially a Colorado girl. 

My parents came to recognize it too. When traveling in Boston this summer, a group was on a scavenger hunt and asked where we were all from- my dad pointed to himself and my mom and responded, ‘Well, we’re from Kentucky, but our daughters are from Ohio and Colorado.’ I remember not thinking twice about it until later that day….- It seemed like a perfectly correct response and only later did I realize how long it must’ve taken them to accept that transition. A simple answer, a powerful moment (for me, at least).”

I understand that. I tell people that I am from Kentucky, but that line runs backwards to Ohio, to Colorado, and to Kansas. Like so many others in town, we all share a zigzag lineage that brought us to where we are.  We feel a bit out of place for a while but then we make a life where we are and soon we belong.

“And then I moved to Vietnam….and I had to figure out what my answer to this question was going to be….In our first two weeks of training in Thailand, we were given an awesome presentation by one of the VIA (Volunteers in Asia) Myanmar fellows that was all about ‘Identity.’ This question- ‘Where are you from?’ - can be a major headache for the people of Myanmar, a country which has been strung together by a name but contains many different ethnic groups and minorities. Identifying yourself as a part of these certain groups can be beneficial in some cases (i.e. if the people you are with are also a part of the same group) or incredibly detrimental in other cases (if the people you are with are a part of a group that has complete opposite ideals and values as your own). 

Because of this, the question takes on many meanings - Where you are you from can mean - what region of the country you come from or what group you associate with or where your ancestors are from.  It becomes this convoluted and confusing question. How do you answer a question that seems so simple, but in reality serves as a cornerstone of your identity?”

So Abby is sometimes reluctant to identify herself as being from the United States because of the history and memory of the war. But she says the more I answered the question, the more confident I became in knowing that people here [in Vietnam] don’t really have an opinion as to countries they do and do not like; they only have interest in learning about someone who comes from a place so different that they can hardly imagine it.

For many of the Vietnamese people I've met, how they go about their lives is influenced by one question above all else - how will this affect my family? Because most of them are from a small farming town and because this country is filled with people who have always thought of themselves as a collective and not as individuals, their decisions are influenced just by the answer to this question.

They have an incredibly hard time understanding firstly how I could go to university so far from my family, and secondly how I could come all the way around the world for a year without them. They interact with me and always keep this thought in mind - they are incredibly kind and wonderful to me, but at the end of the day they still recognize that I am a strange person to them, and very different from the community they come from.

I've learned so much already and a lot of it is hard to put into clear and concise terms. One lesson is this: even though we have such different cultures throughout the world, even though the languages we speak, the food we eat, the traditions we celebrate are all different, there are still things that connect us all as people. I think we sometimes lose sight of this these days because we will hear a single story about a group of people…. These stories make us forget that these people are more similar to us than different from us. In the end, most of us just want to find happiness in the small things. We want to have a good job, a loving family, and food on the table. I've loved hearing about and learning about my coworkers and students lives here in Vietnam because I keep finding so many similarities between their goals and my own! It's truly incredible.

And there it is. In the Venn diagram of similarities and differences, our circle of similarities is much, much larger than our differences.

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