Living as a foreigner in Turkey is hard enough to explain sometimes, but it gets more complicated when I go on holiday from Turkey to another country.
Where are you from? People ask me this in London, Prague, Paris. The ambiguity of the question in the context strikes me. Yes, I am “from” the US, but the city I just came “from” is Istanbul. Which one is it? The desired answer is of course the US, though I feel that doesn’t accurately represent me and my situation in life. Yet I also feel that going into my whole life story (“I’m from America but I live in Istanbul”) is too ponderous and too “TMI” for transitory interactions.
It’s further complicated by my odd confused loyalties. When some Turkish backpackers ended up in my dorm room in Prague for one night, I felt more in common with them than with the American tourists in the hostel, and I conversed with them more easily than the Americans.
A fresh layer of from-confusion was piled on in the Islamic Art wing of the Louvre last week. A man approached me, first speaking in Italian, then French, then English. “Excuse me,” he said, “Where are you from? Are you from Italy? You have a northern Italian look.” I hesitated. “Well, I’m American, but my family is originally from northern Italy.” It turned out he missed his country and wanted to speak his native language with a fellow Italian. We amicably bid each other farewell and returned to viewing the artifacts. After all, neither of us could be blamed for the ways that the American model of civic identity has screwed up the accuracy of ethnic markers.
Residency, citizenship, ethnicity–it seems complicated keeping these straight and knowing which one is salient in a given context. It sometimes makes me resent the phony superficial ways we judge others. But that’s another issue. As it stands, negotiating different aspects of identity is a fact of life for most. The majority of the world is bilingual or multilingual. Ever increasing numbers flock to countries abroad for different reasons, ending up in hard-to-encapsulate life situations. Basically, I should get used to the ambiguity of not being quite accurately represented in every interaction.
Still, I always feel relief when I return to Istanbul and I don’t have to fear the question “Where are you from.” At least in Istanbul, I know where I am from.