Emmanouela is a PhD student in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University. Her academic journey entails studies in Modern Languages (MSt) and Language Education (MSc) and she is passionate about studying the ways in which languages and people evolve over time and through social interaction.
This blog post is inspired by Taiye Selasi’s talk where she urges us to ask people not where they come from, but rather where they are locals. In her inspirational talk, she explains that countries and nations are constructs and that it is not always possible for people to identify with just one country. Countries change; many of them disappear and new ones appear, for a number of reasons including war and politics. Selasi however addresses this issue, not just because defining one’s national identity in absolute terms is often impossible. She goes further than that and argues: ‘What are we really seeking though when we ask where someone comes from? And what are we really seeing when we hear an answer? Here’s one possibility… basically countries represent power. It’s possible that without realizing it we are playing a power game especially in the context of multiethnic countries. As any recent immigrant knows, the question where are you from? or where are you really from? is often code for why are you here.’
Having lived in different places myself, these words definitely resonate with me. I feel that by asking people where they are from instead of what their story is, we implicitly seek to attach labels to them; labels that categorize them as more or less powerful, and labels that other them. Regardless of their journey and life experiences, we search for one word, one fixed notion, that will supposedly tell us all we need to know about them. Personally, I identify as Greek. I do so, however, not because I happened to be born and raised in Greece, which I did, but rather because I identify with the Greek customs and traditions, I have a keen interest in Greek history and language, and I feel that among the various cultures that have influenced me, Greek culture has influenced me the most. At the same time, I recognize that things are not as unambiguous for all people. There are people whose parents do not share the same backgrounds, who are born in one place and raised in another, and there are others who are forced to leave the place they identified as their homeland and struggle to integrate in a new society. Deciding on one’s national identity is not always clear-cut, and in some cases it is impossible. Instead of trying to mentally assign labels to the people we meet, we should offer to hear their story, which may or may not appertain to a singular place.
During the last few months I have been living in Montreal, which is a multicultural (officially intercultural!) place. People from different ethnic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds live together and interact on a daily basis. Pluralism is indeed respected here, and a dialogue among the different ethnicities is maintained. Nonetheless, even in such a place people still ask others: where are you from? (see also ”I’m from Canada…Really!”) only to add the next burning question: when are you going back? Well, going back isn’t always an option. For some, being in Montreal is a choice, the realization of a hope for a better future. For others, however, being here is not a choice. There might not be a place to go back to. Or, in their case, going back might mean going to a place where there is poverty, political hurdles or even war.
Therefore, I feel that it is everyone’s responsibility to consider the other’s life journey before making any judgements. Most importantly, educators have the ethical responsibility to do so. In a world that’s becoming more and more multicultural and multilingual, now more than ever, the educator must ‘teach the whole child’ (Cummins et al., 2005). That is, the educator must affirm all students’ backgrounds by actively choosing to view their linguistic and cultural backgrounds as resources instead of impediments to the educational practice. This brings us to translanguaging pedagogy which places students and their differing backgrounds and life experiences at the core of the learning practice, instead of marginalizing them. Each of us has a story to share, and educators must ensure that their students become confident and that all stories are heard and respected for what they are, even if they do not fall into conventional categories. What’s your story?
 Cummins, J., Bismilla, V., Chow, P., Cohen, S., Giampapa, F., Leoni, L., Sandhu, P. & Sastri, P. (2005). Affirming Identity in Multilingual Classrooms. Educational Leadership, 63(1), pp. 38-43.