“It’s like, you can’t tell people they don’t belong in America. America was made up only a few hundred years ago– I mean America isn’t even a thing!”
I am oversimplifying my views on national identity to a woman I have met just a few hours before on a walking tour of Old Delhi, India.
She laughs. She has already mentioned being born in Spain and going on to live in several other places including London, Paris, New York, and Santiago. She speaks Spanish with her mother, who is also on the tour with us. I try to piece together the pieces from what she’s told me– “So you are… Chilean, American, and Spanish?”
“Yes,” she says, “I was born in Madrid to Chilean parents, but I was raised in New Jersey. It wasn’t until I moved to Chile while working for the UN that I realised that, no, actually when it comes down to it, I am American.” I tell her I was also raised in New Jersey, and when I tell her where she knows it exactly. “Near Short Hills Mall!” she exclaims.
We are walking around the Red Fort now. Built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, it combines aspects of Timurid and Persian design with otherwise traditional Mughal design elements, combinations that would continue to be mixed and perfected until becoming trademarks of Indian architecture. Once over, the Red Fort was home to the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which now presides in the Tower of London as part of the British Crown Jewels (the British Crown has always maintained it was obtained legally; several countries, including India, disagree). “I decided to move back to New Jersey partly because my parents are there, and partly because Chile is so far from the rest of the world. But it’s also the sort of country people don’t leave, which makes it really difficult to ingratiate yourself into. I was getting to the point where I had to decide if I wanted that, if I wanted to really commit to Chile and to stay and to try and really become Chilean. And I decided the answer was no.”
When we leave the Red Fort, we go our separate ways, wishing each other luck. It seems everyone is in India thinking in some ways about their identity, their opportunities; who they want to be and have the chance to become. A Filipino-Canadian woman on our tour is about to begin a yoga retreat run by monks in a remote part of India. “I was overwhelmed at work,” she tells me. “All the women– all of whom I got on with– were concerned with what handbags they carried, their clothes, how many hours they were putting in. It was getting to be too much.”
A few days later Sam and I are in Agra, having just been to the Taj Mahal. Our guide has brought us unknowingly to a shop that sells marble inlaid with carefully filed pieces of precious stones in intricate designs, much like those that adorn the famous mausoleum. I’m immediately suspicious– we didn’t ask to be brought here and it’s a cheeky trick if you ask me– but our salesperson Sunny is charming and interested and immediately puts us at ease.
“Which one of you is more English?” he asks us at one point. Sam and I look at each other, wondering if it’s a trick question. “Sam?” I suggest, not sure if that’s the right answer. “He’s lived all his life in London, whereas I’ve had a good run in the States.”
Sunny shrugs. “See, I would have said you’re more English,” he says to me, before looking back at Sam, “I’d have guessed you were more eastern.” Sam confirms that his ancestors are a mix of Russians and Irish. “Aha, see,” says Sunny, vindicated. “I see a lot of people in this job, from all over the world.” At this stage in history I’m sure that every one of us is a different combination of a multitude of places. You can rarely tell where, and you can never guess the whole story. To get at that, you have to go, explore, ask.