I was exhausted. It was yet another argument about where I was from, arguments that I was beginning to call “Arguments of Origin” – perhaps so that they sounded more academic and less fraught with emotion.
But the reality was, they were fraught with emotion.
This particular argument started out as a benign comment by a friend to something I had posted online. I don’t even remember the original post, but it was about belonging and my connection to my childhood home – Pakistan. In the post I called Pakistan “home.”
“But it’s not really home for you.” she stated matter-of-factly.
“I’m not sure what you mean.” I said “I grew up there, so yes, it was my childhood home.”
“But you’re not from there.” she was not going to let this go.
Fair enough, but it really depends on what “from there” means.
I tried to put a different lens onto the conversation. “Well – where do you say you are from.” “That’s easy” she named a small town in one of the New England states. “Okay, why do you call that town home?” “Well, I grew up there.”
The defense rests their case.
When I returned to Pakistan in 2010, I got to walk through the house we had lived in during my junior and senior years of high school. A tsunami of memories came over me as I walked through the large front rooms, around the verandah, and finally stopped in front of my bedroom door. As I pressed my face against the window, looking into the room where I had spent winter vacations, I gasped. There on the bed was the comforter that my mom and I had picked out so many years before. The previously bright green, pink, yellow, and blue patterns had faded through the years, but there was no mistaking it. I never thought something as simple as a comforter could bring on such a profound sense of belonging. It was, after all, an inanimate object. But in that moment, it was confirmation of a life that I had lived, a life relegated to stories, photo albums, and memories captured in the cerebral cortex of my brain.
Despite 18 years of life packed into old passports, photo albums, old journals, and letters that my mom kept through the years, in many people’s eyes I have no right to say that Pakistan was home, even less rights to saying that I am from Pakistan. My rights to the country are defined by outsiders who tell me who I am and where I am from.
It brings up many emotions and deep empathy for the many around me who, in this era of massive displacement, struggle silently in the same way.
In a beautiful essay called “Reconciling with Less Home: Between Haiti and Me” Martina Fouquet writes:
The real question is who determines where we belong?Martina Fouquet in Catapult Magazine
Perhaps what people don’t realize about their challenges to our concepts of home and where we say we are from are that the challenges act like a knife cutting to the core of who we are. The knife cuts deep, and we are left with our own origin questions, self-doubt raising its ugly head telling us once again that we don’t really belong. The internal dialogue that we thought we had silenced so long ago emerges once again, loud and accusatory: “You don’t really belong. You aren’t Pakistani. You left years ago.”
“But that’s not really home for you” or “That’s not where you’re really from” viewed as benign statements to many presents as a challenge to personhood and origin to another.
I don’t know what the answer is to arguments of origin, other than reminding myself once again that no one gets to tell any of us where home is. It is uniquely ours to determine where and why. Our stories may not fit into tidy boxes that connect within the experiences of others, but that’s not a problem we need to solve or a burden we need to bear.
Despite awkward questions, arguments, and discussions on home and origin, the paradoxical gift of this journey is that sometimes less home becomes more home, our lives richer for the multiple places we are privileged to call home.