International Stories About Belonging And Identity : Rough Translation From Montréal to Edinburgh, and from São Paulo to Taipei: your stories about belonging, or longing to just be.
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Our Boxes, Ourselves

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Our Boxes, Ourselves

Our Boxes, Ourselves

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GREGORY WARNER, HOST:

You're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner.

Carolina Ramos (ph) was born in Brazil. She spent her first 11 years living in Sao Paulo, and then her family moved to Cambridge in Massachusetts, where she started public school in sixth grade. So much surprised her about her new American school - how colorful everything was, that there was no grammar class, that they had to call teachers by their last names, and...

CAROLINA RAMOS: There were not a lot of white people in my class. Like, it was predominantly people of color. So I want to say midway through the year, we were learning, you know, about the civil rights movement in the U.S. And personally, I had never learned any U.S. history.

WARNER: A history that the other kids, the American kids, have been raised on, she was absorbing for the very first time - Martin Luther King Jr., the Birmingham church bombing, Jim Crow segregation laws and Rosa Parks.

RAMOS: So we were learning about Rosa Parks, and my teacher had us do a very strange activity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAMOS: We were all sitting in a circle in the classroom. And she said, if you would've been able to sit in the front of the bus, stand up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAMOS: I had understood from the lessons that white people could sit in the front of the bus, so I stood up. And the moment that I stood up, another girl in class pointed at me and said, well, Carol, you're not white. And so I stood there, not really knowing what to do because in my head, I was white. I am white in Brazil.

WARNER: The way race is seen in Brazil, it doesn't easily map onto American racial categories. We did a whole podcast on this topic, if you're interested. We won't get into all that here. But the thing to know about Carolina is that her skin was darker than most of her friends in Brazil.

RAMOS: Like, me and my friends, we would put our arms together, you know, to compare, oh, who has, like, the lighter skin or the darker skin. And I would always be the person with the darkest skin.

WARNER: Even her mom would sometimes pinch her cheeks and call her cor de jambo (ph), skin the color of rose apples. But Carolina considered herself white because she'd seen racism in Brazil aimed at other people, and she'd never perceived any racism directed at her.

RAMOS: So I didn't sit down right away. And I also felt kind of embarrassed to think that I had this right that it seemed like I wouldn't have had.

WARNER: If she sat down, she'd feel like an impostor, claiming membership in a group, nonwhite, that she did not feel like she was part of. But if she kept standing, she also felt like a fraud, assuming a privilege that, apparently, at least in America, she did not have.

RAMOS: I just remember being incredibly ashamed at the time, thinking I don't even know who I am.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: This is ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. Awhile back, we asked you a question. Do you check off one set of boxes in one place but identify something completely different overseas or in your own community? Do you feel like you belong to the group that people expect you to belong to? And what would it take to feel like you did?

ZENA DADOUCH: Hi. My name is Zena (ph), and I'm calling from the middle of the cornfields in Illinois.

TOMAS SHERIDAN: Edinburgh, Scotland.

UNIDENTIFIED NPR LISTENER #1: In Myanmar.

UNIDENTIFIED NPR LISTENER #2: I'm originally from Tamil Nadu, a state in Southern India.

UNIDENTIFIED NPR LISTENER #3: In Louisville, Ky., where I work as a doctor.

WARNER: So many of you responded with your stories of not belonging....

LEAH: I grew up abroad. So, you know, we moved from country to country.

WARNER: ...Or belonging somewhere that you didn't feel like you should...

DOREEN NALYAZI: Why do you, like, talk white? Where are your white parents if you sound so white?

WARNER: ...Or questioning whether you should try to belong at all.

KATIE: I'm so sorry. I know I sound very American, but I am from Hong Kong, and I don't relate to your life story.

WARNER: Was it something you desired or deserved?

DADOUCH: Do any of us feel like we belong in a lot of the groups that we're in? And is it a problem or is it just how life is?

WARNER: That is our question in this episode, how you've made sense of your stories of belonging and longing to be and what those stories say about our world. ROUGH TRANSLATION - back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. And today on the show, we're hearing from you.

CHANEL PERREAULT: Hello, ROUGH TRANSLATION team. My name is Chanel. I'm a really big fan of yours up here in Montreal in Quebec, Canada.

WARNER: Chanel sent us this voicemail from Montreal about her experience being Anglophone, which means she's part of the minority of people in Quebec who speak English, not French, as their first language.

PERREAULT: For an example, I have some medical problems, and I have been in and out of hospital before in Montreal. And although my French is fine, I could not tell you how to say or how to describe pain in French like I could in English. And I know that all of my files say that I'm Anglophone, but whenever a doctor would walk into my room, they would begin speaking to me in French.

WARNER: And in these cases, Chanel will take a deep breath and respond in French, knowing that even if she uses the words correctly, her accent will give her away.

PERREAULT: Because in Montreal, especially if you open your mouth and you have a detectable accent in your French, people will switch to English. So even when I speak with my accent, it would be expected that someone would switch.

But people don't. People will speak French to me because my name evokes an image of someone who belongs here. My last name is Perreault - P-E-R-R-E-A-U-L-T. You can tell by the number of letters that it's a very French last name, and it is. And my appearance, too - I'm a tall and rather slender white woman with very blue eyes and a bit of a sharp nose. I look like my grandmother. That's what a lot of people tell me. And that last name, at least I feel, in a sense, brands me as belonging when I don't.

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WARNER: So many of your stories about your identity were stories about your parents and a complicated inheritance. Some of you shared your relief at escaping that heritage.

GOKCE: The country that I was born into, I didn't like the ruling government and how they ruled. And at some point, I think my dad and the government almost became one. Getting away from the government was almost equivalent to getting away from my parents.

WARNER: Others of you weren't exactly sure what culture to free yourself from.

DERY KERETIC: Neither of my parents were really tied to a culture and a place that they were raised. And it led me to think that if you don't learn traditions or culture from your family or your surroundings, then who teaches you that? Or where do you choose to belong to? Or is that even a choice?

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NALYAZI: I mean, it's a feeling of not culturally identifying with the land you're from or the land you're in.

WARNER: Doreen Nalyazi (ph) immigrated from Uganda to the U.S. when she was 7 years old.

NALYAZI: And my parents would go back to Uganda for the summers and bring back our grasshoppers and bring back smoked fish. So, yeah, I would say food was definitely the biggest thing that was retained, as well as, like, watching your cousin's four-hour wedding videos when those finally came in. But other than that, there were few opportunities to be, like, distinctly Ugandan. I felt like I was a person from the continent of Africa.

DEREK ARTHUR, BYLINE: A person from the continent of Africa.

WARNER: That's the voice of our producer Derek Arthur, who spoke to Doreen. Derek is also an African immigrant. He came to the U.S. from Ghana when he was a kid.

ARTHUR: Yeah, I was really excited to talk to Doreen because in her email, she wrote about something that I think about a lot. As a Black immigrant, how do I process my own racial identity in a country where, because of my skin color, I'm assumed to share in a history and a culture that I don't feel I do. In that email, Doreen talked about how she never felt like she fit in with the African American community.

NALYAZI: I remember the awkward moments where my first friends were the other Black kids in my class. But then after some time, those friendships quickly devolved because there was something lacking. Like, I remember getting the questions of, like, why do you, like, talk white? Where are your white parents if you sound so white? It just felt like I'm not part of that community. I guess I'll be friends with the white kids 'cause - I don't know - they're not raising questions about, like, the way my voice sounds and the way that we're communicating or inside jokes that I don't really get.

ARTHUR: A lot of what you're saying sounds very familiar to me.

NALYAZI: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

ARTHUR: It's a very familiar story. So I'm really curious from your point of view, you know, like, how do you feel about that label, that identity, African American?

NALYAZI: I don't know. I think this is the part where my parents also frowned upon and spoke not too highly of the African American community. Like, my parents told me that these people, they do bad things. These people aren't working. And that made it really easy to be OK with distancing myself. I feel like I have to recognize the fact that there's still some internalized, like, racism and ill will about being identified that way. But it's weird to feel like you don't fall into either bucket. So I feel kind of uncomfortable accepting the implications of either identity.

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WARNER: For Doreen and so many of you, school was that first place where you encountered this pressure to reconcile the identity your parents put on you with the way people around you expected you to behave.

RAMOS: I'm never going to forget the moment of this other sixth-grader looking at me and totally changing the way that I think about myself.

WARNER: Carolina is the listener from Brazil who started our show. You remember she stood up in sixth grade in an exercise about Rosa Parks, only to be told by a classmate to sit back down because she wasn't white.

RAMOS: I didn't share this story with anyone until I was a senior in high school, so - what? - five or six years later. And even though I didn't tell this to anyone for so long, I would think about it all the time because then I go back to Brazil, and part of me doesn't see myself as white anymore, even when I'm there, and part of me still sees myself as white when I'm here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAMOS: So I think the fact that I can change races in, you know, seven hours being in a plane goes to show that, yeah, I'm probably going to live in the ambiguity forever. And I'm trying to learn to be OK with that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: But what's wrong with living in ambiguity? That's what one listener wrote in to ask. She spoke to producer Tina Antolini.

TINA ANTOLINI, BYLINE: Diana Jade Caplan Miller (ph) has always been just fine with ambiguity - more than fine. Diana actually used to have fun when people, unprompted, would try to guess her ethnicity.

DIANA JADE CAPLAN MILLER: Like, I enjoyed the game of people guessing where I was from.

ANTOLINI: Where did they think?

MILLER: Oh, my gosh, all over the world. They'd say Turkey, India, Peru, Mexico, not Mexico.

ANTOLINI: Diana was born and raised in Mexico in a small city in Baja California.

MILLER: My dad is half-Mexican and half-Polish, and then my other half is American - like, white American. My mom is third-generation Californian. In Rosarito, there's a lot of kids that have one American parent and one Mexican parent. And a lot of people are bilingual. And I fully felt like I belonged. I thought of myself as white and also as brown or Mexican.

ANTOLINI: It didn't feel like you had to be one or the other. There wasn't dissonance there.

MILLER: Yeah, there wasn't dissonance. And I felt like I was not like half part of two worlds, but like fully part of two worlds.

I was in Mexico City traveling, and I was at this hostel, and there were two Americans there. And one of them - he was Mexican American, and he was struggling with his identity and, like, kind of on this quest to find himself. And I was so puzzled by him.

ANTOLINI: It's not just that Diana thought of herself as fully a member of both identities. She didn't see any friction between the two.

When she was in her late 20s, Diana was working as an outdoor educator. She led backpacking and canoeing trips around national parks in Washington and California. She spent a lot of time out in the sun. During the summer, her skin would tan to a deep brown. In winter, her skin was a shade or two lighter. And if she thought about it, she did notice that she was sometimes treated differently depending on the season. And then one of the organizations she worked for set up this training that everyone had to do.

MILLER: This cultural competency training where we're learning about racial issues in the U.S., and we had to debrief one of the exercises in affinity groups. And so there was the people of color group, and there was the white people group. And they were very reluctant to let me sit in both.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANTOLINI: Diana tries to join both groups. The organizers tell her, no, she should stay with the people of color.

MILLER: And I was so angry I nearly walked out. It was the first time that I was aware of experiencing being excluded based on my skin color because I thought of myself, well, I'm three-quarters white or European and one-quarter, like, Indigenous Mexican. So why is the one-quarter more than the white? And they would say, well, it's because of how you're perceived. And I didn't have the language to explain, well, I'm perceived as white sometimes, like depending on the time of year, depending on who I'm talking to. Like, people don't know I'm Mexican sometimes until I tell them.

ANTOLINI: It's ironic that the thing - that, like, attempt at educating people about being more sensitive to racial issues was forcing you into boxes that you hadn't previously had to choose.

MILLER: Yeah. I kind of, like, took pride in how, like, ethnically ambiguous I was (laughter).

ANTOLINI: The thing is, Diana still enjoys playing that game where people try to place her and guess where she's from.

MILLER: Before I was - you know, learned in cultural competency trainings, oh, I guess that's not something - that's not a game that most other people enjoy playing, so I guess I'll stop playing, too (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Like Diana, some of you admitted that you have quieted the parts of yourself that don't conform. But others of you told us that you have been surprised to find yourself more strongly in the contrast. When people expected you to be one thing, that's the moment you leaned the opposite way.

FLORA YANG: Since I do study ancient Chinese poetry for fun, I've really kind of held onto that root instead of just totally becoming an American.

WARNER: Finding your inner American overseas - that's when ROUGH TRANSLATION continues.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We are back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner.

More and more of us are international migrants. That is, we are living in a different country than the one we were born in. Two hundred sixty million people worldwide fall in this category. And with globalization and climate change and other pressures, this number will grow. And so there are a lot of us having this experience of moving to a new place and finding our identity shifting as well. And yet, from your stories, it's clear that we often feel that this shifting identity is a problem in us.

ARTHUR: Hey, Flora. How are you?

YANG: I'm good. How are you?

WARNER: That's our producer Derek Arthur again, talking to listener Flora Yang (ph).

YANG: So I immigrated to LA from Taiwan when I was 11, and I always felt like I'm more Asian than I'll ever be American just because that's where I was born and that's where I grew up. That's my first language. I still count and do math in Chinese.

And then I recently moved to the Netherlands with my partner. And I have come to realize that when the typical Dutch person - and actually not just Dutch people, but just Europeans in general - when they see an Asian person, they immediately assume this person is from Asia. And what it typically means is that you don't speak English, even, like, and never mind Dutch. And then when they find out that, actually, I do speak English and maybe speak English better than they do...

(LAUGHTER)

YANG: ...Then they're really surprised, and they're like, who are you, you know? But they still see me as, like, an Asian person from Asia, and I guess I am. But then I'm like, what about my American identity? I am just as American. And I would say most of my life, I felt like I was more Asian. And now being in Europe makes me realize that, actually, I am more American than anything else.

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YANG: At this age in my life where I feel like I should already know who I am, like, all of a sudden, I'm faced with a situation where, oh, maybe I don't know who I am. I need to rethink that definition. And I feel kind of lost (laughter) and intrigued.

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SHERIDAN: This is Tomas Sheridan (ph) in Edinburgh, Scotland. My parents have lived all over the place. My whole family history is a mosaic of relocations and migrations. So it wasn't so strange then if one year when I was a kid during the Olympic Games, several athletes on the woman's long-distance race were from countries that my family had connections to.

So who are you cheering for, my dad asked with a smile. Well, I answered, I'm shouting for Ireland because we're Irish. I'm shouting for Italy because I was born here. I'm shouting for Jamaica because Mummy was born there. I'm shouting for the U.S. because she grew up there. And I guess I'm shouting for Great Britain because she has a British passport, and that kind of makes me British, too. His smile faded. You are not British, he said in a flat tone.

My father raised me as a proud Irishman, with romantic stories of Irish rebels fighting British occupation as a staple of my upbringing. Because I'm white and my Italian is flawless, my Italian friends at school would say, you were born here, so you're Italian. Instead, I insisted I was Irish, that I had a passport and a name and a bloodline to prove it.

When time came for university, I decided to go study in Scotland. I ended up sharing a flat with several Irish lads, some from the North, some from the South, some nationalists, some unionists, some in favor of Irish unity, some against. But they could all agree on one thing; I was not Irish. The very suggestion of that, in fact, was a source of great hilarity. And for me, a young man in his 20s feeling he had finally found his people, it was just hurtful.

Almost 20 years later, having married a Hungarian, raising kids in Scotland, I've added to the confused mosaic of my family's national identity. I've moved on to proudly calling myself a citizen of the world. But when I think back on those years, the desire for an identity, the need for belonging, the pain that I felt being rejected by young Irish peers around me, I still feel uneasy. It's like a kid standing at the edge of the playground when he's not been picked to be on the team, putting on a brave face and saying - you know what? - I didn't want to play anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Tomas did not choose to be born to a proud Irishman, and he did not choose to be raised outside of Ireland, but he still felt responsible for that inevitable rejection, a rejection that had little to do with who he is. From your stories, this struggle is a familiar one, trying to fit into an adopted country while upholding your parents' culture. But what about when your parents are seen as the outsiders, so much so that even in the country where you were born, the outsider label sticks to you, too?

NADIA: There's a very derogatory name, laowai. Laowai means old foreigner, outsider. So I've always been called that all my life.

WARNER: So even as a kid you were called old foreigner.

NADIA: Yeah, yeah. Or they would call me the little old foreigner because I was little.

WARNER: That story next time on ROUGH TRANSLATION.

Thank you so much for sharing your stories with us. It has been such a privilege to read your emails and hear your voicemails. We like doing this so much, I would like to ask you one more question, if I could. So many of you seem to be not checking the boxes that other people expect you to check. So what are your creative solutions to that feeling of not quite belonging? Do you seek out international friends? Do you immerse yourself in a totally different culture? Give us your tips, your life hacks, your stories, and we will try to feature them in our next episode, when we continue this theme of belonging and longing to be. You can email us at roughtranslation@npr.org.

This episode was produced and reported by Tina Antolini, Derek Arthur and Justine Yan, edited by Lu Olkowski. Also on staff, Jess Jiang. And thanks so much for the editorial guidance from Diane Arthur, Christina Cala, Robert Krulwich and Sana Krasikov. Our ROUGH TRANSLATION high council includes Neal Carruth, Didi Schanche and Anya Grundmann. Our supervising producer is Nicole Beemsterboer. Our theme music was composed by John Ellis. Additional music from Blue Dot Sessions, with mastering by Isaac Rodrigues (ph).

And, hey, do not wait to send us your stories about how you solve that problem of not quite belonging or checking different boxes. You can email us at roughtranslation@npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NALYAZI: I wasn't expecting a response. It was one of those - I'm going to pretend like it was Friday, but I'm not sure that it was Friday. But I had had a glass of wine, and then it was like a spur-of-the-moment email. So I'm pleasantly surprised that y'all reached out. And this has been fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: I'm Gregory Warner. Back in two weeks with more of your stories on ROUGH TRANSLATION.

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