In a time of defining personal brands, questions of identity can be a bit more fraught for those of us who have emigrated to faraway countries and adopted – or asked to be adopted by – unfamiliar places. Even decades lived in a place different from where one was born aren’t always enough to mitigate the questions one might reflect upon regarding which land(s) can truly be claimed as one’s own. Unsurprisingly then, this rehoming can feel like a process that never comes to completion, because it’s seldom strictly a matter of citizenship. More often, it’s a matter of belonging.
The immigration story has repeatedly been described as one of displacement, lending to a narrative of a dualistic and divided life lived as either a balancing act between places, a split personality of cultures, or in some way grappling with belonging. Writer Ocean Vuong when explaining why his mother renamed him Ocean after moving to the U.S. said “She told me, much later, that she chose Ocean because, like the Pacific Ocean, we don’t truly reside in either the United States or Vietnam; like that expansive stretch of water, I touch both nations but belong solely to neither.” A sentiment that undoubtedly resonates with many immigrants, certainly including this author, a remarkable experience made almost ordinary by its commonness, this innate understanding of not fully being of any particular place. And taking it a step further, wondering not just where in the world one feels they belong from an individual and private perspective, but wondering where in the world would claim one back? Looking searchingly outward to the world for external evidence of acceptance, yearning to be embraced and rooted as fully as one might imagine those who have remained sturdily in a place, might feel.
But what if this sense of unbelonging or imprecisely belonging or belonging a little bit here, a little there, and ultimately nowhere were its own destination? What if within the grappling were a gift? In a podcast about belonging, author Salman Rushdie who was born in India but grew up in Britain, spoke about unbelonging being a good vantage point for a writer “because you feel simultaneously inside and outside of society. You feel that you can feel like an insider so you can describe what the society feels like from the inside, but you also have a bit of you that steps out of it and looks at it from outside the frame, if you like.” Surely, this ongoing conversation with oneself alternating between the intimate perspective of an insider and the birds eye view of an outsider offers at the very least, a gift of insight.
Beyond even a gift, what if within the grappling were a door to somewhere else altogether?
The question feels more relevant in today’s world wide webified existence. We have more access across the globe, softening a sense of distance and borders, making elsewhere familiar in ways we weren’t able to before getting online, as well as making it easier to have an expansive sense of home. All of this to say, those of us who feel we belong nowhere are not necessarily diminished by that fact. Not divided and subsequently conquered or straddling a tightrope between identities.
Perhaps we are enlarged by carrying the possibility of many places as home, and liberated because by bringing our sense of belonging with us we can belong anywhere and adapt to every place, or in the words of Maya Angelou, “You are only free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.” Borrowing from Walt Whitman, perhaps we contain multitudes, undoubtedly making us less neat, less easily defined, but nevertheless more abundant.
Jonas Mekas’s autobiographical documentary Lost Lost Lost chronicles the immigrant experience, with Mekas narrating that since no place was really his home, he had the habit of attaching himself immediately to any place. He would joke: “drop me in the desert and come back next week—and you will find me. I’ll have my roots deep and wide.”
This quality of adaptation, of adapting not just to your immediate circumstance, but to a new way of being and a new way of showing up in the world, feels bigger than questions of place and nationality. It’s an expansive viewpoint that supersedes choosing sides or becoming a muted version of ourselves that would blend in anywhere. Instead, it’s understanding belonging as a spiritual practice. A revelation that we carry belonging within us and can take it with us wherever we go and knowing that no land needs to be broken to unearth our roots because they reside within us. From this new place, that isn’t located on any map, we enter into a depth of experience where the possibility exists of a sweet spot to be found in the openness of being untethered from labels and categories. Because when you consider who decides who belongs, it’s you. No one else.