From somewhere, elsewhere, nowhere

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 13.09.2019

The question is simple: “Where are you from?”

And yet, the answer rarely is. Often it is a lie, a fib, or a five-minute explanation. The answer can be a street, a village, a town, a city, a region, or a country. It can be specific (“Fairbanks, Alaska!”) or general (“about thirty minutes north of London”). You might say it plainly, or proudly, or apologetically. It might need adjusting after a hasty estimation of the asker’s origin and knowledge of geography: some situations call for a simple “Europe” while others deserve the intense and full-on “Weilwerdangerstrooss, Weiswampesch!”

With all its merry quagmires of internationality, Luxembourg is naturally the best place to study the responses to this question. Vince’s parents are Australian but the family moved to Walfer when he was seven; he attended an international school and speaks only English. Beatrice was born and raised in Howald, spoke French at home, moved abroad at age eighteen, and remembers almost no Luxembourgish anymore. Amelia was born in Esch shortly after her family moved from Lisbon; she went to public school, speaks six languages fluently, and has visited Portugal only twice in her life.

Where are these people from?

None of them has an easy answer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they feel conflicted about it. Indeed, no matter your backstory, one culture might claim you more strongly than another. Perhaps Amelia identifies as Luxembourgish, while her brother gravitates towards being Portuguese. It happens all the time in this country. While neither sibling can escape their dual-culture background, of course, they also cannot be denied their various attunements. Then again, perhaps they do feel uncertain about it, and need to answer the question with a small monologue.

The examples above all contain some duality, allowing a sort of choice, if desired, of one dominant origin place. If you don’t identify with one culture, perhaps the other can act as a refuge. However, while everybody is free to react against a hometown, birthplace, or family culture, not everybody has several to choose from. Some cultural identities are circumstantially unambiguous. When one of these is rejected, there is nowhere to run—so what happens?

Sometimes, it can get ugly. For instance, in the United States we have a character known as the coastal self-exile. Imagine a teenager eager to quit his native, one-horse town, abandon his flyover state altogether, and move to New York City or California. It’s one of our favorite American tropes: a plain countryperson is transformed by the stardust of the big city. But this transformation is often understood by its object as being total, as if those first eighteen years of life never happened. He wants to forget them, to deny them. In fact, an entire lexicon of hedging language exists to help him avoid the word “from” when answering the dreaded origin question: I’m a California boy, I’m a Los Angelino, I’ve got Cali in my veins, bro. Be warned: all of these people are from Ohio and they’re all psychopaths.

Coastal self-exiles are merely one type of the identity-conflicted; plenty of less obnoxious citizens are struggling too. You certainly don’t have to be an immigrant or a third-culture kid—a child raised in a country foreign to its parents—to experience ambiguity in your identity. Many elements can confuse things, like ancestry, living abroad, or friends from overseas. Despite having only one Ojibwe grandparent, a classmate of mine took wholly to Native American life. For others, there is no reason at all: a thundercloud of ennui simply gathers over you during childhood, obliging you to completely change environments. For all of these types, assuming you’re sane enough not to run off and “become” a New Yorker, describing where you’re from is a delicate chore: there may be a clear answer in the solid terms of childhood circumstances, but emotional ties elsewhere entangle everything. Here, you get a lot of buts: “I’m from Canada, but…”

In Luxembourg, due to all the third-culture kids, expats, frontaliers, and natives back from abroad, the mists of foreignness are pervasive. Everyone is used to long backstories and ambiguous nonsense, while having a doggedly simple answer is all the more meaningful for being rarer. Ultimately, the high level of fluency on this topic means that having a tricky story of identity is almost normative. Luxembourgers who studied at francophone universities are even at subtle odds, identity-wise, with those whose studies were in German. Out of all this emerges a fascinating sort of inverted xenophobia: a fear of those who lack internationality, be it in origins, familiarity, or attitude.

At first, you might see the problems in all this, that Luxembourgish identity is threatened by so much internationality or that language confusion holds back education and relations. These worries notwithstanding, you can also see how the country is far from diluted or anonymized… you can see how individual cultures are tested and brightened, swirling into striking patterns that morph like clouds drifting across a single sky.

Jeffrey Palms
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