The Three R’s of Our Multilayered Cultural Identity

Where Are You Local?

Countries are a fiction, not a constant absolute. Countries are born, disappear and change borders. History and culture are real and stay, and we live in their midst. Our experiences are formed in this framework; all experience is local to a culture and to a time in history.

Experiences form our identity.

Instead of “Where are you from”, Taiye Selasi wants us to ask: “Where are you local?” (see TED Talk by Taiye Selasi, “Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m local”, October 2014). Ms. Selasi defines where we are local as a place where at least one of these three “R’s” take place:

  • Rituals
  • Relationships with people who shape your emotional experience
  • Restrictions: this is a tough one, some of us are local in a place because, for whatever reason, we cannot live where we lived before.

Due to my accent, I am asked “Where are you from?” regularly. Because there is not just one place I identify with, I have to formulate a brief answer that comprises the multiple “wheres” in me. It turns out slightly different every time.

I was raised in Southern Switzerland by German parents. A lot of my experiences were German while living in an Italian speaking environment. But many of them were Italian too. As part of becoming a Swiss citizen, I had to give up my German passport because no dual citizenship was allowed at the time. I did not feel any different as a consequence; I could say that I was a Swiss national now, but still felt that I had a strong German experience that was different from the Swiss German one many of my college friends had.

My adult life brought me to several European countries. I enjoyed living in each of them, though I felt most at home in Vienna, as it related to my German experience and because it was the place of important life events: marriage and the birth of my first child.

The move to Atlanta, Georgia in my thirties was much different than anticipated. Though I was hoping that it would be leading me back to Switzerland or Germany, a restriction was imposed on me. I had to stay in Atlanta until both my children would be grown. This city had to become a significant part of my identity, and it did. Besides feeling very welcome from the first day, I soon had my second child in Georgia, then worked for American companies, married my second, this time American, husband, got my children through American schools and joined American groups and organizations.

I have lived here longer than anywhere else before and I am an American citizen now. I don’t feel more Swiss than I feel American. My identity is not my accent nor my passport; it is rather my multi-local experience.

by Uta Jürissen Nelson,

a human being and a citizen of worlds, local of Northern Germany, Southern Switzerland, Vienna and Atlanta