Identity does not fit in boxes

I who came to Latin America intrigued by its history and its mix of cultures and origins, I found in Edu a host that happened to be the perfect incarnation of that diversity. Afro-peruvian father, sino-chilean mother. I asked which culture he identified himself with most. Which is a stupid question, I guess. Or maybe it isn’t, as the answer will differ from one person to another. But I should have known better. People ask me if I feel more Flemish or Walloon all the time. And I do hate that question. Because it implies that you have to choose, that you can’t but feel a little bit more attached to one part of your identity than the other. As if a parent should love one of his children more than the other. It’s never a question of how much. It’s a question of “how”. Origins, as religion, culture, education, etc. are different components of one and the same person. Why should you identify with only one of them? And why do people feel the need to place their peers under one of these identities only, instead of accepting the complexity of it?

I have been fascinated by the question of identity for some years now. Maybe even since I was a teenager, when my father stated that I had a problem with my cultural identity. My friends in Wallonia would call me “La Flamande” – the Flemish one. Some of them even use my Flemish diminutive “Saartje”, meaning “Little Sarah”. In Flanders, on the contrary, they would see me as the Walloon. In both cases, I was made aware of the fact that I was different. Not that I was excluded. However, I sometimes was “de facto” put aside when not sharing the same cultural references and, therefore, not being able to understand or to participate in a conversation. Sometimes it led to frustration but, often, I found it nice to have something that the others didn’t have. That made me unique. Not realizing at the time that everyone else is also unique, each in his own way.

Found through Google images.
Found through Google images.

My reference, when it comes to discussing cultural identity – leaving the very philosophical and essential question of “who am I” aside – is a book written by Amin Maalouf and titled “In the Name of Identity” – “Les identités meurtrières” in French – in which he states that  humanity is made of particular cases, that life itself creates differences and that everyone is complex, unique and irreplaceable. It doesn’t take a genius to see that, of course, and the book has a much more in-depth approach of the question but, nevertheless, as simple as the statement sounds, people tend to forget about it and by declaring that someone is “French”, “Mexican”, “Muslim”, “Orthodox” or “Scottish” think they have said it all, that that alone suffices to explain how a person thinks or acts.

All in all, I guess that with this constant interrogation about how one can define oneself, it is no wonder that I ended up working for a company that specializes in identification, which condenses in a digital file or a document the strict essential information about a person, so that he or she can be recognized by others. Although this has, of course, nothing to do with who people truly are. This cannot be put on paper, can never be thoroughly explained. That can only be experienced. What you share are always only tiny bits of a very complex entity.

Le fils de l'homme - Magritte (1964)
Le fils de l’homme – Magritte (1964)

Part of me feels Walloon, another part Flemish. Then again I live in Brussels and feel attached to the idea of Belgium. I also identify with the rest of European countries, with whom Belgians share a common history – we have been occupied by most of them. Sometimes, though, I feel closer to an African or a South American than to my neighbours or people I have known since I was a child.

In his book, Amin Maalouf quotes the French historian Marc Bloch: ”Men are more the sons of their times than of their fathers”. I have often felt that. So, most of the time, I will claim to be a “world citizen”. I will bear my differences up high while trying to find, inside others, what is bringing us close to each other rather than what will set us apart.

Philosophy generally makes you hungry or thirsty – or is it the other way round and do you get philosophical when gathered around a meal or a drink? In any case, I ended my stay in Lima by completing my culinary discovery of the city. And tried to share some of my own talents in the kitchen. Which are not very extended, I have to admit. In any case, I can hardly say that what Edu got served that day was a perfect example of refined Belgian cuisine. Rather an original mix of recipes I once tried and thought I could make with the local ingredients. I am not always sure I am doing people a favour when grasping pots and pans. A guest once told me that I had served him the most original dinner ever. Not the best one but the most original one for sure. Not sure what I needed to make out of that comment. Creativity vs. talent: 1 – 0.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Pascal says:

    Great article! I do feel the same way…

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