“To say that I came from a country was to say that a country was an absolute, a fixed point in place and time.” This is what writer-photographer Taiye Selasi argues in a 2015 TED talk, Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask me where I’m local. Selasi argues that our notion of statehood is constructed, and our attachment to a country for our identity does not address the multiplicity of human experiences that form our composite identities.
Since the fall of 2016, I have lived in four countries, each with very unique and different cultural outlooks and living arrangements. I’ve been in Toronto (where I am from) to live with my family and work over winter and summer holidays, in New York for my freshman year of school, in London for the fall of 2017, and now in Florence for the spring. In June, I will go back to Canada, and then back to New York in August. As such, travel has become my permanent state and the idea of being static or in one place – even for a week – seems like a way of living that I have forgotten how to navigate. I am never in one place long enough to decorate a “bedroom,” to qualify for a grocery store points card, to bother with buying spices that I won’t ever finish. I have lived out of a medium-sized suitcase for four months and only a backpack for the past two. I have made a new group of friends every season, and then said good-bye just as it felt as though we had gotten over the initial “bonding” phase.
The stress of living in flux is real, and at times I’ve questioned why I put myself through a lifestyle riddled with so many inconsistencies. But the human evolutionary capacity for adaptation is truly a miracle, and over time I have come to understand and accept that “change” is my new notion of “constant.” Now, the idea of getting on a plane and throwing myself into a different language or culture feels more familiar and fixed than the idea of going back to my childhood home does.
I turned 20 this week and it was a big deal for me. Although 18 and 19 grant you access to different legal privileges, like voting, drinking, and being an official ‘adult,’ 20 is more evocative of a new period in life, in which one’s future and identity (we are told) begin to crystallise. In the lead-up to my birthday, I considered how I have changed – not just in terms of my surroundings and my achievements – but in terms of who I am and what I want, over my 20th year. Coincidentally (or maybe not), a lot of these meditations took place in one of my favourite places in the world – Hampstead Heath in London, where I went for a quick getaway last weekend (thanks, 6:00am Ryanair flights), to visit my old haunts and friends; returning to a meaningful place that I had said good-bye to only 5 months ago was cathartic and eye-opening. I thought that I hadn’t grown as much as I had hoped during my time abroad, but I returned to London with a sense of self that wasn’t really there when I had left in December. I feel more curious, more confident, more self-aware, in ways that being alone, travelling, getting off of technology, or taking risks prompt us to become.
While in Hampstead, I stopped in at my favourite bookstore and picked up a novel to take with me as I backpack for 2 weeks at the end of the semester. I chose Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and as I turned it over, I noticed a quotation on the back that seemed to sum up everything I was ruminating on: “I am made and remade continually.”
Toronto. New York. London. Italy. Everywhere I have visited in between. All of these places are parts of the composite, evolving identity and sense of self that I occupy. Change is not a specific event to be precious about or to fear, but something constant, and something that I have learned to embrace this year more than ever.