I’ve recently come across a book about English language teachers’ identity in Japan. It is a quite interesting piece of research and touches on issues that are pertinent to my own investigation. Since we understand identity as constructed in language, for people who work and have intimate contact with other languages, the question of who you are becomes complex and not easy to answer.
I remember last year I was designing a research questionnaire for teachers and one of my first questions was Where are you from? I then submitted the draft to my supervisors and one of them commented something on these lines:
What does this question mean? What do you want to know? Where the person was born? Or where the person lives? Or where they feel they belong to? Most of us come from many places.
She could not be more spot on, as usual. When people ask me where I’m from I always feel uncomfortable because I know people expect a simple answer, which I cannot really provide. I was born in Brazil from multicultural parents, an unusual combination of Saxon, Nordic and Luso-Spanish blood. I never felt I belonged to the place were I was born because my cultural affiliations are completely alien to it. The first language I learnt was Portuguese, which I hardly ever use if I can help because I don’t think I sound like myself speaking it. The language of my heart is English. My education is English. My cultural influences – literature, music, arts, history, philosophy – are English. My life is in England. So, where am I from?
I don’t think I’m a case apart though – there are many ‘Children of the Empire’ scattered around. I have a friend born in London from eastern European parents; the first language she learnt was the language of her ancestors, and she has now been living in the continent for years. I wonder where she feels she is from. I have another friend who was born in an African country from Asian parents, but who has been living here since she was a little child. Where is she from?
I believe identity is much more than the political state where you happen to be born in. Where you are from is much more a matter of cultural affiliation and allegiance than an accident of birth. Marguerite Yourcenar in Memoirs of Hadrian, puts the following lines in the mouth of the Roman Emperor, who, by the way, was born in what is now Spain, but whose cultural affiliations were all Greek and who had Greece as the country of his heart:
The true birthplace is that wherein for the first time one looks intelligently upon oneself; my first homelands have been books, and to a lesser degree schools.
The problem is that you cannot come up with all this philosophical reasoning when someone on the train just asks you ‘Where are you from?’ They will think you come from Bedlam! I think the next time someone asks me the bloody question I will answer, ‘From a galaxy far far away’.