Identity and Location

Over the past few weeks I have been mulling over a few points brought up by traveling to a different country, and then returning back again to England. The first deals with the nature of identity, and the second with location.

Before coming here I had never really thought too long or seriously about exactly what/who I considered myself to be, or what factors of my environment have made it so. The quintessential extended abroad experience, or so I am told, deals directly with this point: one must get away from the culture and comfortable surroundings that have played a hearty role in one’s development in order to truly understand those elements and factors which have shaped how one thinks about the world. How much of what we consider to be our worldview, perceptions, and personality are dictated by the environment in which we are raised, and the experiences to which we are subjected or actively participate in? This is the question of Identity; one which most people are quite aware of, in one way or another, but do not necessarily pursue.

For my own part, the shifting of social positions (going from one who knows the English language quite well, to one that can barely ask where the bathroom is in French, and am reduced to hand movements in Flemish) has been a delightful (if troubling) exchange. We take for granted our ability to communicate with each other relatively effortlessly, and in doing so devalue the beauty inherent in the language. It is a realization that is best brought out when submersed in an environment that effectively isolates one from any kind of communication. Suddenly the simplest words become the most important – and phrasing increases in value as well. It is no longer an effortless exchange of ideas (or game to develop your ideas well), but rather a struggle and constant concentrated effort to communicate.

Through all of these actions, how do I identify who I am? Truly, I have been commended for my use of English, and laughed at for my ignorance of simple phrases in other languages. I will never again be impatient of, nor think lowly of, someone who is painstakingly trying to speak English and thereby communicate with me – for now I know the feeling. It is altogether likely that that person is quite proficient in communicating in their native tongue, but it is a large mountain to climb to port one’s communication proficiency from one language to the next; a talent to be readily admired.

And now for location. I was presented with a peculiar feeling when returning from Belgium two weeks ago, and even more so from France last week-end: the feeling of relief for returning to somewhere where I was more comfortable. This thought in itself isn’t all that strange, but it was the thoughts that followed that were the more interesting. I found that it is the contrast between being submersed in a place where I felt like a complete foreigner, and being returned to a place where I can understand the road signs, and find my way around that brought out the feeling of relief; the feeling like I was coming home (even though, throughout these thoughts, I was also presented with the obvious disclaimer “You are in England, you putz, not California, you can’t be home”).

It is this cultural contrast that makes me feel more comfortable being in London. It is as if my mind is telling me “Hey, at least here you can ask them to hold all that nasty mayonnaise off of the french fries”, and giving me more confidence in my ability to cope with a lesser cultural contrast (that is, the one between California and England).