Othering To Belong: Growing Up Multicultural
When I was little all I wanted was to be seen and included. I wanted to be asked my opinion and not told, “obey before complain.” I wanted to be considered good enough to sit in mature conversations and trusted that the spoken words will stay when we leave.
Trust that I could get it done, trust that my age was nothing but a line drawn in the moving sand. Trust that I understood the innuendos in complicated sentences, and not watered-down baby language that demeaned my matured mental age. Trust that I belonged.
Then I grew a bit older - mentally but still small in size. I became the go-to person for a variety of things: sneaking my siblings in and out of the house from midnight to the dew of the morning. Delivering messages in fuller sentences than the half baked words thrown at me. Taking the role of gatekeeper for money, and hiding it so well one day they had to pull me out of class to ask me where I hid it. It was a proud moment for me.
Years later I grew a bit more. But this time the feeling of wanting to be called upon and stay called upon grew alongside me. We became one and leaned on our hopes to remain tethered to each other.
I came to find out needing to be a part of something, someone – to belong, is part of human mature. In fact, we cannot eliminate this desire. It is embedded in the construction of what makes us human. Thus, whether I try to suppress it, shame or guilt myself in wanting to belong, it was not going away because it’s an inevitable human desire. It is normal.
The lights shattered when I learned that it was also normal for others to ask you, “where you are from?” Because in many ways, they are asking you where you belong and from which group they can other you to. It is your signature essentially, but does not have to remain that way. Nor does it mean whatever you sign in your multiculturalism is set in stone. You are fluid in your multicultural wonder.
You are fluid like water. You change as you please and hop in and out of spaces as such.
I was born and raised in Ghana during a crucial stage we cannot bypass – childhood and teen years. For fifteen years all I knew was that I was a girl. My skin colour was not known to me albeit I wore it since birth. We did not talk about such differences. We were all one and that is what I grew up knowing.
Then along came America. I came to the oh so wonderful US of A to find out some hard realities. Not only did I learn I was Black, I learned harshly that I was another kind of Black, African. Yet not African American; but very much African and American. There is a difference. I was the kind of Black people said smelled bad, teased about my accent and shocked I spoke good English. The latter was always a shocker. But not as shocking when they find out I did not have a pet lion nor slept in trees in Ghana.
This kind of Black was shoved in my mind. My "achievement" of speaking English was applauded but shunned when heard with an African accent. There seemed to be no right in this matter. My differences othered me. I did not belong.
Again, I grew some more. I travelled a lot and found myself connecting deeply with the places and people I encountered. The cultures and customs I experienced revolutionized me tremendously. Yet it was not enough to claim it as my own; only enough to feel at home.
My mind heightened, my awareness expanded, and my emotions evolved. I LOVE traveling to the bellies of countries in remote areas many run from - but do not see the authenticity and calmness in such places. That is where I'd rather be. Any day.
Then I was hit again. The blow came when other Ghanaians told me I was not Ghanaian enough. That I spoke with an American accent and thought like one. And for some African friends, who are now acquaintances, I was abandoning them and my background by having and being around White friends.
Their case and my battle meant I had to exclude just to be included. I could not settle with that. It was a painful and a scaring thing to personally experience, and asking me indirectly to practice that was an oppressing tool I refused to do. Like I said, we are now acquaintances.
So... “where do you come from? No where do you really come from, you can’t be from Chicago.” This is the question I have asked myself for over a decade.
Let’s try to answer this question. Nicely.
I am Ghanaian by birth. My childhood and half of teen years were in Ghana. I am American by the crucial adulthood sprout I underwent on US soil for over a decade - and by the deep blue pocket book called a passport. I speak English with an accent. I’ve travelled to twelve-ish countries and lived for long periods of time in six out of those countries. And counting. I feel I belong to them all. I write and speak the British way because that is my colonial history. Yes, I consider pants underwear. My playlist is usually Bollywood with a twist of Afro, Country and Arabic beats. I dance like an African and enjoy watching ballroom dancing. I blend well in conversations about the American culture and referred to as an American only when I travel outside the country – but never within it. Thanks. Most of my friends are international or people who have travelled as much as I have or more. I rather be around such crowds. I also rather eat pho than stand on my feet for hours and cook any African meal. Yet, I will travel far some good Ghanaian Jollof rice with goat meat. Amen! I think in and speak three languages, and all with accents. I code switch when I am around my African American friends, my African crowd and White people. I definitely use the Western way of having intense conversations which starts with “I feel like…” However, my mannerisms generally range from African ways of starting, finishing and continuing a conversation only through sound intonation. I sometimes do the Indian head and hand gestures when around my Indian crowd. It just happens I lived there for four months. In many ways I dress like a Westerner with the occasional twist of African adornments – which always receives the compliments it’s due. I love Indian casual wear. I fit in any space you give me. My travels have taught me to do so. Even though I stand out because of my skin colour and singled out because of my mannerism’s idiosyncrasy. C'est ma vie.
That is what runs through my mind every single time someone asks me “where are really from, you have an accent."
To save both of us from a broil, here is a better, shorter way to answer such a question:
I was born of a woman with the help of a man. I am nerves of memories with a short tolerance to that question you just asked. You mean well, but my response will not feel well.
I dance unconsciously between cultures through my speech and mannerisms. Everything has a story for me. Everything is connected to a nerve which carries a memory. I would rather many things than to educate anyone on the wonderfulness of multiculturalism and how it will teach you about people and belonging, and how that question you just asked is a way to make you feel comfortable and to other me in the process. Consciously or unconsciously, it is happening.
Book a flight.
That is who I am. Everything else is scripted.