Shifting Sense of Identity – Who Am I Today?

I was born in Japan and moved to the U.S. when I was 6 years old. When in the U.S., I am comfortable being an acculturated, bicultural Chicagoan–but when in another country, I experience an unsettling shift in identity. People see an Asian face and expect me to “be more Japanese,” but other than my shutter-happy fingers and ability to speak the language, I don’t act very much like a stereotypical Japanese traveler. Because many Gozamos readers are multicultural, I think you know what I’m talking about-–it’s much easier when others can put you neatly in one category.

Over Thanksgiving, I met up with two friends in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, a decidedly un-Egyptian resort town full of mostly European tourists (like Cancun is for Americans). This is not my usual style of travel, but I wanted to meet up with my German friend Urte whom I met while traveling in Costa Rica 7 years ago, and I wanted to dive the Red Sea, one of the top 10 scuba dive destinations in the world. Walking down the main promenade lined with restaurants, shisha cafes and tourist trap stores, touts call out to you constantly, inviting you into their establishment. There are typical “Where are you from?” questions, and some venture to guess. When I tell them that I am from the U.S., more than one responded, “But you don’t LOOK American,” to which I respond, “What does an American look like? We have people from all over the world, even Egyptians!”

On the dive boat, fellow divers ask me where I’m from, and I say, “I’m Japanese, but I live in the U.S.” I make mistakes too, assuming that because they speak German, they are from Germany. On my Cairo tour, I met a family who was speaking Spanish, and I asked if they were from Spain. They said, “No, we are Colombian,” with a British accent, and I asked, “But why do you have a British accent?” before I could catch myself (duh, they live in London). But isn’t it interesting that these British-passport carriers identified themselves as Colombian? Why do I caveat my identity with where I live? What do other multicultural people say when asked that question?

About 10 years ago, I came across a magazine article by Pico Iyer that said that with increasing globalization, a group of “global citizens” will emerge who identify more with a global culture rather than by their nationality or the country in which they live. “I am not rooted in a place, I think, so much as in certain values and affiliations and friendships that I carry everywhere I go; my home is both invisible and portable.” I completely identify with this and consider many of my friends to be in this group-–we are multicultural, intellectually curious, and find the differences interesting but know that in many ways, we are more alike than we are different.

On Friday, my friends flew back home to Germany, leaving me alone to decide how to spend my last two days in Egypt. I spent one day in Luxor and another in Cairo, so I did get to see glimpses of the real Egypt in between the highlights of ancient Egypt. Solo travel challenges you like nothing else; in addition to everything that can go wrong, there’s so much in-between time that you have time for some serious introspection. Some people think travel is “running away” from life at home, but I think that traveling is the best way to “go find yourself.” The more I travel, the more I evolve, yet some things stay the same. It’s as if I am collecting interesting people and experiences along the way and adding them to the existing work in progress, the crazy hodgepodge mosaic that is my identity.

Though I look forward to coming home, I am always thinking ahead to My Next Great Adventure. Where will I go next?

4 thoughts on “Shifting Sense of Identity – Who Am I Today?

  1. You hit the nail on the head, Asami. I get this all the time, not just when I travel! From now on, when people ask “What are you?,” I think I’ll tell them I’m a “global citizen,” instead of going into the whole schpiel on being Chinese-Peruvian-American. “Global citizen” sounds so much nicer than “a human,” which is what I sometimes respond, too.

  2. Thanks for your comment! I wondered what other hypenated folks thought about Pico Iyer’s concept of the global citizen. I’m so curious to know what other Gozamos readers think…

  3. Great read Asami! There’s lots of great lit coming our right now about “global citizens”, “third culture kids”, etc. I think it’s really interesting that the “commonality” between global citizens/TKCs who come from different places, is kind of their lack of commonality with others from their own (pick one) culture(s). It seems to create a sense of solidarity, even if they don’t share many of each others’ specific cultural values.

  4. Thanks, Sean! I’m a “fan” of TKC on FB, and incidentally reading “The Global Soul” by Pico Iyer right now. Though the specifics may not match, I think the underlying philosophy of being a global soul a far stronger bond. Please share any recs of great titles you’ve enjoyed on this topic, not only for my benefit but for the entire Gozamos readership!

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