Personal narratives of belonging

A self-reflective essay attempting to map individual identity within the changing geographies of globalization
Aparna Kolar
10 August 2011
Four questions:

It strikes me that most of the recent conversations I have had with the people I meet seem to be rooted in these four core questions of identity: “Who am I? Where am I? Whom do I belong to? Where do I belong?” These conversations are not reflective in themselves, but do expose a growing sense of insecurity that stems from being unable to answer those questions precisely and sans contradictions. Although I feel comfortable in saying ‘I don’t know’, we all have the urge to frame our identity in terms that seem relatively constant, like one’s nation or profession or the organization one works for or one’s religious beliefs. Each of these groupings today are struggling to provide us with the safety cushion of stable identity that we are looking for.

As social animals, we make sense of the world around us by looking at others, by collectively negotiating the rules of interaction, and so forming groups in which to feel secure and protected. However, the degree of affiliation one has towards one’s groups might vary individually to a large degree. For instance, while I have changed my occupation from being a professional dancer, to a programme officer in an arts philanthropy organization, to a student of international business, to now aspiring towards being a researcher in human geography all in the span of twelve years, my partner who has worked with the Dutch corporation Philips for 11 years as a Product Development Engineer clearly must have a stronger sense of professional identity.

Perhaps these varying degrees of affiliation depend upon the ability of a particular group to meet one’s wants and needs, against the choice of belonging to or being interdependent on other groups. And this is where the complexity lies. Most of us today, are directly or indirectly, impacted and interdependent on groups we have been used to thinking of as the “Other”. In a globalizing world, our differing identity groups, be they other religious, cultural, national, academic or formal organizational groups, must come into much closer contact in order to meet our wants and needs.

How do we weave, negotiate, narrate and develop a certain understanding of who we are in this globalising world? A good starting point might be to map my own identity. By tracing the geography of my affiliations, perhaps a clearer answer to those four questions may emerge.

Geographical boundaries of identity:

Asking myself where I belong, I was faced with only more questions than answers. Do I belong to Bangalore where I was born, raised and lived for 25 years? Do I belong to Groningen where I currently live and feel at home? Do I belong to India, my nation, my country of origin? Or do I belong to the Netherlands where I have lived for five very intense years of my life? Or do I belong to all of them at once? Perhaps the search for the ‘roots’ of today’s identity needs to give way to looking at the ‘routes’ I have taken in getting here, given the difficulty in pinning down one grand narrative of nationhood with which I identify.

I definitely belong to India, a region where I can travel, live and work freely, privileges that come with the legal status ‘to be Indian’. I belong to the India that gives me the vocabulary to articulate my identity to others. I belong to the India that is in the imagination of 1.2 billion people. I belong to the India that is in the imagination of everyone else in this world. I belong to the history of the people in this region. And yet I do not feel like I belong to the India that my passport tells me I belong to because of the cultural overlaps I recognise between groups in and outside the formal territories of the nation.

And so, my national identity is personal and operates differently according to the situation, the people I am amongst. This does make me confused at times, especially in situations when I am expected to defend my identity based on my nationality. I stutter and stammer in providing a clear portrait of ‘Indianness’ when asked for it. My national identity has dramatically gained prominence ever since I moved outside the formal territory itself: in situations where I might not identify myself as Indian I am identified as Indian. My nationality takes precedence over my ‘place identity’, my internal sense of embodying the places I have lived, even in my everyday – be it in applying for a legal permit or in discussions with people from other countries. Being Indian has become a stronger aspect of my identity through the process of self-definition in a geographic region that is far from it, and at the same time I identify with the region and its people less and less as an insider, and more and more as an outsider because of that very distance.

I also belong to the Netherlands, a region where I have found my home. It was in this country that I came to live on my own for the first time, and smelt the sweet smell of independence and responsibility. I belong to the Netherlands: a region where I can freely move and where the socio-physical infrastructure is relatively familiar after nearly five years of living here. The flat cycling paths, the highly punctual train system, the language I can now use to start conversations, the ‘afspraak’ system of planning social meetings with colleagues or friends well in advance has started to be what I do, not just whay they do. So then do I feel Dutch? Not in the sense of belonging, of being ‘Dutch’, as some individuals claim so strongly, maybe because I feel that I do not share a long, common history with the people of this region. But will I come to feel Dutch? Is it maybe just a matter of learning the language and living here long enough? Or a matter of fitting into what the State defines as a ‘Dutch’ national? Can value systems be learnt, or is it too far from my core geographic identity? If the latter, would I better fit in with other groups of Indian migrants in the Netherlands? Well. When I stood in line with other Indians living in the Netherlands at the Indian embassy in Den Haag desperately searching for these common traits that one is supposed to share with one’s fellow nationals, I realised that it is not less complicated. The individual histories of each of us standing there varied so dramatically that I was confronted with the complexity of the search. In front of me was a couple who had left the country in the late 1940s during the Partition riots conversing predominantly in Punjabi which I am not fluent in, while behind me was a young teenager born and brought up in the Netherlands who spoke only English and Dutch and had never even visited the country, and here I was in between. If it was only our legal status that was common even that seemed to vary in title, from being an Indian national to a PIO or ‘Person of Indian Origin’. Most importantly it struck me that what brought us different individuals together in this case was not necessarily a similar affiliation to the geographic region of India but our legal obligations in retaining a formal national identity. Nationality seemed less a question of shared traits and more one of functional necessity, and I realised that searching for my Indianness among so-called Indians was not less complicated than searching for Dutchness  among so-called Netherlanders.

If nations and national identity is increasingly complex and abstract in a globalising world, one’s more immediate physical experience of a place must be easier to pin. Do I then belong more to the specificities of Bangalore and Groningen, than to India or the Netherlands?

Yes, I do very much belong to Bangalore, my birthplace and where I grew up for a large part of my life. I belong to the anglicised Bangalore of English-speaking Catholic institutions and churches within which I was formally educated for the first  21 years of my life. But I also have a sense of belonging to the local community I grew up in comprising of a predominantly middle-class, Kannada-speaking neighbourhood where science and myth together weave the daily sense-making, and where people are both individualistic and collectivist depending on the need of the hour. Two languages, two geographies, but the British Cantonment, the old city, the church and the temple are tangible boundaries that become blurred, for me and in me. As a migrant city where many of India’s languages are spoken, I also feel a strong sense of belonging within the multi-cultural, tolerant, cosmopolitan environment of Bangalore. But I do not have a sense of belonging with the physical Bangalore anymore - the streets, the shops, the built environment, its buzzing everyday life - I do not live there anymore so the everyday proximity is missing. I have been away for too long, and the city itself is rapidly changing. I do not anymore share my dreams with those I know in the city, yet I very much carry the city with me wherever I go, manifested in my interactions with people. I find myself carrying the values, rituals and aesthetics of the groups of people I grew up with in the city.

Amidst the dynamic urbanscapes of this rapidly changing city, I don’t belong and yet feel so connected to it. My relationship with Bangalore has become an individual sense-making process, as I become less and less part of the collective activity of belonging and sense-making directly linked to the geography of the city, occurring in the region itself. In a way I belong to my own Bangalore, a place only tangentially linked to my experiences in the larger whole of the city. Today that city, my Bangalore, is much more embedded in my now – in Groningen, a city in the north of the Netherlands.

This brings me to Groningen where I currently live and where I have found my first home outside home if there is a term like this. I do have a sense of belonging with this home, the streets of Groningen and my friends here in the city. Though I do not have a sense of belonging with the people outside of my social network, I feel very much connected to the people in this city who are a physical part of my everyday life. This sense of belonging yet not belonging gives me the sense of being both a foreigner and a local at the same time. One who is engaged but not totally rooted, one who feels connected yet distanced.  

My routes lead through being an Indian searching for her Indianness, clinging on to it  when convenient, but currently feeling at home in the Netherlands - a Bangalorean, ‘being’ in Groningen. This geography of identity has become a process of negotiation. Groups and places do not sit neatly over each other, and my own geography does not square neatly according to an absolute measure of distance and proximity, be that cultural, political or physical. Rather it occurs within a web of varying distances, among people and places changing at varying speeds. The geography of my own identity spills across the political boundaries of nations, onto networks of people who themselves cross cultures. It is located in physical experiences spread spatially across extant routes, and negotiated across a wide range of diverse groups. 

An answer?

This is the story of myself that I carry with me, the framework through which I interact and negotiate with other groups. It is uniquely mine, as for each of us. But it is also mine and yours, because the negotiation is two way: as I define myself in relation to you, you define yourself in relation to me, and we negotiate our identities in relation to all those others. Each one of us, either directly or indirectly, is impacted by the shifting scale and structures of human interaction. This only confronts us more and more with the long-known but long-forgotten condition of human interdependency on each other, whether we like it or not.  I hope that this will lead us away from frameworks of individuality and collectivity that strongly resist and distance fellow human beings into ‘the Other’.

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