Where once I was generally classified as ‘Southern’, hailing as I do from Atlanta, Georgia, being labeled ‘American’ is a broad and amorphous identifier. It wasn’t until I relocated halfway around the world from the US to Switzerland and became an immigrant that I began to examine my understanding of origin, the importance of national identity, and how it impacts a person’s definition of self. I’m compelled to study anew the attitudes toward and policies regarding foreigners in my home country because I am subjected to those of my adopted one.
My husband is no stranger to ex- and repatriation, and has helped me navigate my way through the murky waters of voluntary displacement. Though his parents are American, he was born in Hong Kong and lived there for 14 years. His father lives in Hong Kong still, for longer now than he hasn’t. When my husband was born in 1980, Hong Kong was a British colony. For a period of time, until China assumed sovereignty, he could hold dual US/British citizenship. In the 1997 handover, though, the rules became muddled and, on paper at least, he is just American. Like me.
Until I expatriated, the word ‘border’ in my mind was synonymous with the separation between the US and Mexico or Canada. Border equaled a dichotomy. Here versus there. Us and them. This or that. And always distinguished by distance. Some citizens live a lifetime and never encounter a border or cross over into another country. This ingrained oppositional connotation I attached to the notion of borders surely has something to do with the fraught nature of immigration in the US. For a country called a melting pot of cultures, founded by immigrants, and where very few are truly native, it appears to have strayed from its pledge to embrace the tired, the poor and huddled masses from whichever land.
In as tiny a country as this, abutted by no less than five others, with almost as many official languages, it’s no wonder that all my previously held notions of borders and belonging, all understanding of ‘we’ and ‘they’, have been reordered and considerably complicated.
Living in such close proximity to so many different cultures, languages, geographies and political systems, the detail of where people come from seems both more and less significant. The proximity of so many other nations does not at all diminish the Swiss identity—perhaps it necessarily strengthens it—but the reality and immediacy of otherness is ever-present here. Those ‘others’ are geographically much closer than in many countries around the world, especially the US. Here, anyone can travel a couple of hours in any direction and become an outsider.
Grappling with the intricacies and paradoxes of identity while trying my utmost to assimilate to Swiss life, I went and got pregnant. The notion of ‘me’ versus ‘you’ and ‘native’ versus ‘foreign’ took yet another hairpin turn into the unknown. The idea of borders becomes further complicated when you are a Matryoshka doll of a human. ‘Other’ takes on new meaning when your body has been colonized by an additional being. The delineations between me and my daughter are those of membranes: cellular and so clinical when compared to the barriers that exist between people and places on a map or in history books. Figuring where I end and she begins, or vice versa, is pure science. Humans, organs and tissue have walls and borders; the flow of blood between us, however, is limitless.
Yet in two months’ time, when she emerges from my body as an entirely separate entity, she will naturally be of this place, while I hail from another. Her birthplace will be here, while mine will ever remain there. Her native language or languages will be manifold while mine, frustratingly, remain singular.
After her physical freedom from the boundaries of my body, will she be like a colony to me? Does the dominion of a parent ever end? And how much influence will my own nationality have upon hers? I feel like a Trojan horse sneaking my spawn into this foreign land, one which I love and wish to remain in. But many an immigrant knows that even as you adopt a country as yours, that country may not take you in return. By being born here, she isn’t granted citizenship, yet she will be formed by this place. On paper, she will be American, but what will she know of America?
One day she will likely think of where she came from, perhaps with regard to where she is going, and I hope she has the rare opportunity to choose where she wishes to be. My smuggled cargo of a child will develop allegiances of her own, which I can neither predict nor dictate. The question of belonging may get lost between the lines, but I’m starting to think that the answer is never finite anyway. Maybe it is best left just out of reach, in the no man’s land that exists amid a multiplicity of tidy conclusions.