Where are you from?
Whenever I fly, I always try to get a window seat.
Looking out at the world from that high vantage point has always had a magical effect on me.
I’ve been fortunate in being able to travel from a very early age. My father worked for an airline, and his staff discounts and annual free tickets brought air travel into our financial reach! So, by the time I was 10 years old, I had visited almost as many countries and taken three or four times as many flights.
There is something about the ‘view from above’ that always gives me a sense of perspective I can’t seem to get from anywhere else. I think it is the idea of being ‘nowhere’ when you’re up there – not in any particular ‘place’, not in a specific country. And that is the most liberating sensation I know.
I moved from India to the U.S. at the age of 17 to go to college, and then to the U.K. after I graduated. Being an immigrant, particularly at a young age, can play havoc with your (already shaky and developing) sense of self.
To this day, when someone asks me where I’m from, I never know what I’m going to say. It depends on who is asking and where I am. When my new college roommate asked me this question in 1995, it was ‘India’. When I met another Indian student on campus the next day, it was ‘Bombay’ (the old name for Mumbai, my city of birth). When I moved to London in 1999, I was ‘from America’ and when I go back to India now, I’m ‘from London’. (Unless, of course, I’m talking to someone from Delhi… :)).
This is a triviality in some senses – because on the surface, it is just about how we choose to answer everyone’s favourite question in social situations. But for me this also reflects something deeper about who we are, and who we become, when we move across borders. For some of us who make these physical transitions, there is something of a ‘loss of place’ in our psyche that never really recovers.
I love living in London, and feel as much of a Londoner as the next person on the tube, complaining about the rush hour (‘we have higher standards for transporting cattle in this country’) and knowing exactly where the doors open on the Northern line platform at London Bridge station. Yet, I often get asked where I’m from when I meet new people. (And the classic, ‘but where are you really from?’ when I say London). I don’t take offence at that because I know where the curiosity and confusion comes from – and I have the same curiosity and confusion towards myself at times.
But it always raises this question for me: what do people really want to know – does my place of birth tell them something about me that they can’t know otherwise?
As immigrants, we don’t consciously seek to adapt our way of speaking, thinking, or being according to where we are – or perhaps some of it is a conscious adjustment to help the transition – but in my opinion, most of it happens unconsciously, and in subtle ways. It’s not just about picking up local linguistic accents or culinary preferences (though that is a part of it), it’s about the miniscule ways in which our way of writing our personal narrative shifts. It’s like the way in which your eyes slowly weaken as you age, and you don’t really know it’s happening until you get them tested one day and put on new glasses. Did I ever see this clearly before?
For example: Here, in the West, I am the central character of my personal narrative – but elsewhere, I am part of a wider cobweb of characters and connections, and a bigger story.
I was talking to an old friend from India, who has kids the same age as mine, and we were talking about living in the West, childcare pressures, and how we juggle work and home – she said, “in the U.K. you have this idea of ‘primary carer’ and each child has one or two, but in India, each child has at least five ‘primary carers’ who are equally important: parents, grandparents, uncles/ aunties and sometimes nannies, who become a part of the family”. I know this, and this is how I grew up, and yet my own childrens’ stories are now being written with space only for two primary carers in their life.
And then there is the loss of clarity of your past. I sometimes speak with people I went to school with, who I may not have seen in one or two decades. Some have moved to other places, like I have, but the ones who stayed in Mumbai always seem to have much clearer memories of our shared experiences – they remember the names of teachers I had long forgotten and of events that took place when we were in school. Perhaps staying in the same environment and seeing the same surrounding cues (like driving past the old school gate whilst going to work) helps to preserve and solidify those memories whereas moving away physically from the place they occurred has pushed them back into the darker recesses of my mind. Or perhaps more of my mental space has been taken up by newer experiences and surroundings.
Whatever the reason, it is always puzzling and interesting (and a little unsettling) when I have these conversations and am reminded of the pieces of my personal history that have become lost, or faded partially, from me moving away.
The crucial point of crossing, however, is not about geography. It’s that point at which you become – in the mind – no longer ‘from there’ and instead, ‘from here’. For some, it happens straight away – as soon as they cross the threshold in the Immigration queue. For others – when they obtain the new passport.
I was never really able to pinpoint whether or when it happened for me.
I sometimes say (in trying to be rational) that my mental turning point was when I had lived away from my place of birth longer than I had actually lived there before I moved (which happened for me a few years ago). I say that that is when my mind caught up with my body in crossing that border. But the truth is, my mind refuses to conform to where my body takes it and so I am always dancing on the boundary, playing with being on this side and that, and refusing to be defined or pigeon-holed by place.
It has been an exciting journey – and I wouldn’t have it any other way, because I have always been an ‘explorer’ at heart. I count myself lucky to have discovered new places and friends, and experienced different ways of living and thinking – this has made my sense of self more complicated but also richer.
Yet, I have to live (as we all do), with not knowing what I would have been, or what I would have seen, or rather, how I would have seen, had I not crossed those borders.
Often when I’m overwhelmed or rushed with everyday stresses, I close my eyes and take myself back to the view from above – to being in the airplane, looking out at the tiny houses, away from everything. Being nowhere. Where I can just be me.
Paradoxically, it takes being thousands of miles away from the earth to make me feel truly grounded.
Pooja Sachdev is a coach, counsellor, business psychologist, and founder of Rewire Consulting. Specialising in diversity & inclusion, gender at work, culture, employee engagement and wellbeing, Rewire help people and organisations to fulfil their potential.
Pooja is the co-authour of 'Rewire: A Radical Approach to Tackling Diversity and Difference' (published by Bloomsbury in 2015), which was described by the FT as "the most refreshing approach to diversity I have read" (Nov 4, 2015).
Read this and more essays like this on the theme of 'Crossing Borders' in the latest issue of EDGY IDEAS, the journal of Analytic Network Coaching