Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Finding my identity

He who experiences the unity of life sees his own Self in all beings, and all beings in his own Self, and looks on everything with an impartial eye. ~Buddha

A short time ago, Kenya conducted a census. The census is performed in Kenya every 10 years. Some of the questions asked include: Name, age, education, nationality, tribe, do you have a cell phone/tv/yacht/car/computer, how many bedrooms are in the house, do you use a gas charcoal stove, etc. (Please note that some of these questions were not asked of every person- i.e. yacht, car, computer, etc.)
When I was asked my nationality and tribe I was unsure of how to answer the question properly. I mean in the U.S. it's somewhat easy for me to fill in a bubble saying I'm a Mexican-American. Here it was a tad more weird for me to say that I am an American and that my tribal origin is Mexico. It seemed like the best way to answer the question though with so many generations of forefathers it seems so limited to mention only recent forefathers. Additionally, I am not entirely sure that I find value in the importance of ethnic origin. Does the classification of my ancestry define me solely as being one of "them"? Does it matter where geographically I come from? Does the color of my skin, hair, eyes matter also? Does it matter, or rather, should it matter which 'tribe' or ethnic background I say I am from? After all it is always possible for me to say that I am part Portuguese or Argentinian or Guatemalan and people would most likely accept that as true based on my name.

In Kenya things are a bit different when it comes to ethnic classification. Most frequently, when I meet someone one of the first questions they ask me is which country I come from. I respond "ninatoka nchi ya amerika" which means "i come from the country of america". Sometimes this will lead to another question: where in America? To which I will reply U.S. Once in a while the person will suddenly become ecstatic and make a comment like "Obama!"
At any rate, I am seen as an American and just that. I'm not asked what tribe I come from or anything regarding my ethnic background. If anything, I might be asked where I lived in the US before I came to Kenya.

I was recently emailed from the Washington office to answer a few questions as the office is gathering information and stories from PCVs of Hispanic descent for promotional materials during Hispanic History Month. One of the questions I was asked was "How, if at all, has your background as a Mexican American affected/enhanced/influenced your Peace Corps service?

I wonder the same thing.

I tend to think that having grown up exposed to multiple cultures/sub-cultures and having learned Spanish has definitely made enhanced my abilities to assimilate better with the community. For instance, I am able speak Kiswahili without an accent (I am still learning the pronunciations of af soomaali - commonly known as Somali). Also, possibly influenced by my childhood experiences, I have been able to effectively assimilate into the culture in many ways. The most notable is my understanding of time and how Kenyan time differs from American time (and no I don't mean the time difference ;) ).

Speaking of assimilating, my appearance definitely also assists me in terms of community integration. As my skin complexion is not 'white' many people in the community I reside see me as more of their brother than as an outsider. Add in the fact that I wear a kikoi and you end up with me looking like a person of Arabic descent which works wonders for my community assimilation. Let's also add in that I've been fasting as Ramadan continues (I had to cheat a few times and drink water since I had walked too much but I've been doing well otherwise).
Even with this community integration, I feel its important that I also mention the downside of fitting in all too well. Before I do so, however, I want to add that my difference is vastly different from what African-American PCVs experience in Kenya. They have far more challenges than I've had and I commend them for their ability to withstand the challenges they face and continue with their community development activities.

As for me, I face a very unique challenge. as I look Arabic, I have been mistaken for an Arab on a few occasions which has led police to question me in regards to what I'm doing in Kenya and more specifically in Garissa.
As the conflict in Somalia continues there have been reports in the Daily Nation newspaper that the militant al-Shabab (Al Jazeera has an article explaining who al-Shabab is)has resorted to recruiting youth in Kenya to further their cause. The article I read indicated that the youth may be promised a job with an NGO in or near Somalia. It is no surprise, given this information, that some police officers whom I have not yet made acquaintances with have questioned me. On one particular instance, the questioning occurred at a police station.

At any rate, let's get back to this blog post's topic: identity.

In the recent past I've been considering my identity as a result of the discussions I've had with other teachers as well as articles I've read in the Daily Nation regarding why "tribe" is so important in the census.

Was it appropriate for me to say that my nationality is American and that my 'tribe' is Mexican?
I am still not certain if that was the best way to answer the question. As to the other questions posed earlier: I don't think my skin color/complexion, hair color, and eye color should matter. Nor do I think that the tribe or ethnic background should matter. Perhaps what should matter is the cultural values and beliefs so that we can learn from one another peacefully.

I think that perhaps the most important thing to consider is that we were all born in the same geographic location commonly referred to as Earth. Different groups of people have developed different on Earth and as a result we have different values and different understanding. In the end, we are all human and should treat our fellow human beings with respect and dignity regardless of ethnic background.