My 45-day guerrilla bicycle trip from Barcelona to Florence alongside two of my dearest friends paved the way to fields blooming with questions rather than to a footpath of concrete answers.
“Well, if you want to be technical, I was born in Tehran in Iran, lived there for a good seven years. After that, I lived in Dubai for four years, which was when my family decided to move to Vancouver, Canada. I’ve lived there for close to 12 years now, but for the last year I’ve lived in Barcelona while completing an exchange program. For the last month I’ve been on a little bicycle adventure starting in Spain and going over to France and Italy,” I would say like an automated reply message during the course of my trip.
The questioner would glance back at me with what must have been feelings of both awe and regret. For a few, it was “incredible” how I stood for so many colours from different corners of the world. But for most, they got the answer they were looking for as soon as I begun to utter the word “Iran”.
They found convenience in the fact that they were able to label me with ease, with comfort, with thinking as little as possible.
What mattered most for these latter minds was convenience. They found convenience in the fact that they were able to label me with ease, with comfort, with thinking as little as possible. This is how the story usually goes. Spot a big fluffy beard, dark facial features, a lot of hair, a slanted accent and tanned skin, and out comes the question: “So, where are you from?”
I don’t mind this at all as I too would ask someone who felt different than me where they were from to feed my own curiosity.
“From Canada,” I usually react without much thought. But here comes the catch: the part where I see the questioner searching, unfulfilled and unsatisfied with my one word answer, waiting for the next best moment to ask me that million-dollar question. “No, what I meant was, where are you really from?” they ask quickly in a way that rids them of all the weight of those words.
Living in Canada for over 12 years has made me nothing less of an expert in these sticky situations. So, I give them my rehearsed spiel. But I don’t let this go easily. From that point onwards, I aim to take control and steer our conversation to corners that makes them confront the very assumptions they had made about me and my identity prior to even meeting me, those subtle categorical interconnections we all hold dear in our minds of how some faces just have to fit into certain spaces and places in this world.
I don’t blame them. Truthfully, thanks to our pop culture’s perpetual drilling of linkages between our identities and certain representations, we are all guilty of carrying mental schemas of all types of identities.
We are all guilty of carrying mental schemas of all types of identities.
To me, thinking of “identity” in the context of travelling leads me to a double-edged sword. On the one hand, travelling compels you to identify with what people already perceive you as in that space…a Canadian, Iranian, male, female, punk, nerd, hippie, or whatever connection you potentially can have with a larger group.
This part roots itself in judgement, in association, in a process of labelling of people you don’t know too much about. And what’s more is that this is normal. Social psychologists have said that one’s own identity begins to form only when a person starts to identify people around them. You are “you” only because the ones around you are busy being “them”. In other words, your identity only makes sense in its relation to the identity of others.
On the other hand, with travelling — and real hardcore down-to-the-ground raw travelling that is — comes a complete suspension of all your schemas; all those big fluffy values you held yourself accountable to and all those self-perpetuating ideas you had of yourself and your identity.
Re-thinking and re-defining my identity shattered all that used to make sense around me. I came to truly live the uncertainty in the notion of identity. I constantly changed identities going from being that displaced Andalucían in the Spanish north, to being the Algerian hoodlum chilling on the French Riviera, to being the rural Sicilian on the rich tip of Italy. But this whole identity business really didn’t matter anymore. It is irrelevant to the bigger picture.
I came to truly live the uncertainty in the notion of identity.
What matters most is what my mind identifies with, and not how my physical attributes are identified. An adventurer, a seeker, a wanderer, a nomad, a spiritual vessel, an unconventional traveller, a student — these are the identities that truly matter.
Elements that add something to you, an intention, a purpose, a point of discussion that almost any other walking creature on this Earth can relate to. This is what identity is, not things that deepen the physical vacuum that hovers around you and the person sitting next to you, but things that distinguish and celebrate the mutuality that exists between two residing streams of consciousness and modes of existence.
So for all my “miscellaneous-looking” readers out there, if you are confronted with the golden question: “But where you are really from?” Do not be intimidated.
Think about it this way: you are interesting-looking enough to have aroused the little curious wiggle that lives in the heads of people around you, those very same wiggles that live for confirmation, validation, and reaffirmation of their mental landscapes in the name of comfort and convenience. Those things are just ignorance and passivity on their end. You just keep calm and shine on my friends.