The myth of national identity

  • 3Minutes

Off the back of a rousing chat a couple of weeks ago with Growmotely’s Operations Director, Cass Biyang, I ‘dug out’ a TED Talk that a friend had sent me a few years back. It was a talk given by the author Taiye Selasi, in which she breaks open the question that is so often asked: ‘Where are you from?’ As Ms. Selasi explains – with beautiful nuance and grace – this simple, and sometimes innocuous question, can be a difficult question for so many of us to to answer.

This question is problematic for a number of reasons, because – for starters – “as a unit of measurement of human experience, the country doesn’t quite work.”

Why? Well, because:

“All experience is local.”
“All identity is experience.”
“My experience is where I’m from.”

The ideas in this TED Talk resonate with me – and so many of us at Growmotely. Joi Paras – one of our Community Growth leaders – writes in her blog post inspired by this TED Talk, “When people ask me now where I’m from, my automatic response is I’m from the Philippines. But it’s so much more than that.

How do we answer this question in a way that showcases what is really true about us – and our experiences – as human beings?

And perhaps more importantly: how can we replace this question with better questions?

Taiye Selasi suggests asking, “Where are you local to?” For her, the answer is New York, Rome and Accra.

Although this question is certainly more begetting of rich responses than its predecessor, I still see some limits even in this question.

What about places that live inside of us – places we have internalized – but where we are not local to? How do I convey, for example, my kinship with Slovak culture – something I cultivated from spending weekend after weekend with my Slovak friends when I lived in Montpellier, France – when I have only managed to visit Bratislava twice? I am certainly not ‘local’ to any city in Slovakia.

Some further ideas for questions:

What places live inside of you?

Which places on Earth have shaped you the most?

Which cultures and people have shaped you?

Where on Earth does your soul become alive?

Of course, the best question to ask, depends on what it is we are really wanting to understand about a person. What is it that we really want to know when we ask the ‘Where are you from?’ question? It will certainly depend on the asker – and on the context.

Here at Growmotely, we are thinking about these questions and concepts in earnest. We believe that the Future of Work is a place where the concept of ‘country’ is not clung on to so tightly. We see the Future of Work as a place where people across the globe are experiencing fewer restrictions than they have in the past. A future where it becomes easier and easier to go to the place (and places) that light our souls on fire.

Join us in our quest to find richer questions and responses that more accurately showcase who we really are as human beings. 

Join us in our quest to look beyond nationality – and find new ways of defining ourselves and others.


Written by: Vanessa Kettner
Who has been shaped (in part) by: Los Angeles County, Languedoc-Roussillon, Southwest London, Slovak culture, Senegalese culture, and various pockets (e.g. Cedar Falls, Dubuque, Iowa City) of the state of Iowa…
With special thanks to these members of the Growmotely family: Cass Biyang, Sarah Hawley & Joi Paras

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