I believe that I come from someplace.
This isn’t always how I felt. When I was growing up, I felt divorced from a sense of grander culture. I am an American mutt and I didn’t feel like I had a long-standing tradition backing up why I did things the way that I did. The disadvantage to being from a country of people continuously melting into and away from one another is that I grew up, I thought, lacking a sense of deeper roots, of tradition, of culture, and of place.
This changed when, at 21, I joined the Peace Corps, and found myself suddenly in Cameroon, a wonderfully warm and welcoming country. I was greeted with curiosity – what could I teach them about my own culture, as they strove to help me learn and live in theirs. Then, people asked me all the time, “Where are you from?” “What is it like there?” “How do you do things there?”
So, how do you answer that? Am I from New Mexico and West Texas, where my family has lived for five generations? Am I from Richland, Washington, where I was born and lived on an apple farm for five years? Or am I from Denver, Colorado, where I lived from the time I was 8 until I left home for Cameroon at 21?
Yes, I am. I am from each of these places. New Mexico has contributed my love of culture, my pharalitos at Christmas, and my laid back, “manana” work ethic. Washington and the farm taught me about independence, wide open spaces, and the joy of watching things grow. Colorado gave me my love of the mountains, the value of nature, and the joy of education. And now, now that I am back from two years in Cameroon, I will also tell you that I am from Njinikom, North West Province, Cameroon, where I learned to put my community first, to respect and embrace the unknown, and to not force my life into neat patterns that can be anticipated, but to instead be open to the possibilities as they come before me. I am the granddaughter of devout Christians, the daughter of free-thinking Buddhists, the sister of agnostics, and the aunt of one tiny boy who has yet to discover the history and culture and place that he comes from, and what his path will be within it. It is part of my job to help him see all the value of where we all come from.
It is not a place I can point to on a map, and perhaps it is not a tidy culture, easily labeled and packaged, but instead, a place I know within my heart, a home wherever I feel my shared heritage connect me with my fellow travelers.