In January I found myself somewhere in the middle of France. I was in a BlaBla Car being driven from Lyon to my final destination, Paris. We stopped at a gas station and rest stop. The weather that day was not too cold, not too warm. Not too cloudy, not too sunny. I felt a bit isolated. I do not speak French so I could not really communicate with the other passengers in the car, or the driver. I felt very out of place. I’m in the middle of nowhere. How did I wind up here? I do not belong here.
I had had the feeling before. It crept up on me a few times in the Peace Corps. I remember a failed hitch-hike back from the beach one day left me five miles from León with the sun setting over the Pacific behind me. I’m in the middle of nowhere. I was burglarized out in the jungle of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. I do not belong here. The sensation is not only associated with bad memories. Late afternoon one day I was hopping from stone to stone on a rocky path high up on Telica Volcano. I could see the thunderclouds passing by the city below. I had purpose that day. I was working with a cooperative up on the volcano. They are a remote community of people, and I learned a lot from them about rural life. How did I wind up here?
I’m in the middle of nowhere. How did I wind up here? I do not belong here.
As a human, to feel that you do or do not belong in a certain place implies that we do indeed have an intended place. Everyone human has a hometown and a place they grew up, and they are entitled to belonging there. This idea leads to a lot of ideologies. If we belong in certain places, certain people do not belong there. Those of us who belong can govern and exclude. If we make it to other places it ought to be commemorated. People who do not remain in one place for long are different. They are wanderers, vagrants, lost, or outcasts. In Nicaragua, they are called vagos.
Thinking critically about this dialectic, I reject it. Borders are only lines in sand, and they are usually drawn with blood. These ideologies, borders are archetypes of people who belong and people who are a threat, are promulgated by men who want to maintain control, power, and wealth. These ideas are the vestiges of serfdom and feudalism. Just as women and their bodies do not belong to their families or their husbands, so to are our selves not shackled to any land. It reminds me of Foucault’s concept of biopower and the use of societal discipline to control and subjugate populations.
At that moment in France I belonged there. I was not in the middle of nowhere when I was trudging down the side of the road back to León. My life up to that point had brought me right to that spot. I did belong in the Caribbean jungles, just as much as the people who live there. I was simply preyed on by someone who wanted to exploit me. Walking along the rocky path on Telica should not have been a surreal experience. Instead it should have been affirming of my purpose in the Peace Corps. Anytime you think that you or another person does not belong in a certain place, remember that we are not born with our passports attached to our umbilical cords. They are given to us by governments after we are born. To think otherwise is simply a reflection of the hidden agenda of people in society, not a universal truth. Humans tends to construct the world in the way they want to see it. We see what is in our best interest.
At that moment in France I belonged there.
Throughout my time abroad I fought a battle with my friends about “counting countries.” It is very in vogue these days to keep track of how many countries, outside of your own, you have been to, and use it as a measuring stick of your acculturation. I refuse to tell people how many countries I have been to.
When I matriculated in business school we were asked to send a very brief biographical info sheet for the school’s uses. I just find mine:
As you can see, we had to provide a fun fact. On the first day of orientation the dean had compiled all of the fun facts into categories and used them to introduce the class. There were feats of athleticism, artistic feats, and what I remember the most, was travel. It started with people whose fun fact was that they had been to 10 or more countries. Around 20 or so the dean was throwing people’s names and picture up on the PowerPoint presentation one by one. John has visited 21 countries. Alicia has been to 23 countries [sucks to be John]. Ashley just went to five countries in two weeks and has now visited 25 in her whole life. And so on. I do not remember the name of a single person who was presented that day. I don’t even remember the person who had the most, or how many countries they had been to. I just remember how sad I felt for the people who most proudly identified themselves for what is really a false accomplishment, only to see themselves successively outgunned by all but one of our classmates.
My fun fact … the dean never presented it.
Don’t count countries.
When you count countries, you say that the only thing that matters is having stepped foot in the country. You have made an accomplishment by crossing a border. It speaks nothing of the experiences you have within the borders. Even more so, it betrays a lack of compassion to those people who cannot cross borders. All around the world there are refugees trapped in inhospitable camps, and they do not have any semblance of human rights because they are on the wrong side of a line in the sand. Other people are trapped inside of their country with no way to escape, despite direly needing to do so. Yet we hop from these countries to others and add more stamps to our passports in utter disregard for those people who do not enjoy the same privilege.
By counting countries, we also do a disservice to ourselves. By emphasizing quantity, we race from country to country and miss wonderful experiences inside of the countries that we only stop by. Think about where you live. There are probably many things you want to do, see, and experience. Nevertheless, you have not done all of these things. The same thing happens when we travel. It seems that the longer we stay somewhere the more we realize there is to see and do.
My thoughts here on being and belonging should not be mistaken for ownership or appropriation. Culture is a concept distinct from universal belonging. Culture is something that is developed and shared among people who live together and share certain experiences and background. While borders are artificial, the cultures within them are not and have a lot of true meaning for people. As you travel and as you experience keep this in mind. Only with recognition for cultures around the world will the guardians of borders turn back on building walls and actually begin erasing their lines in the sand.