Tonic
Stories
October 15, 2012 Random Thoughts

Belonging

The road is for those,

who love it more than the destination.

There is a peace in travelling that only a pilgrim understands. It’s not for everybody, though I do believe everyone should try it. It’s not always safe, but no more dangerous than a monotonous life.

When you travel, you can’t avoid meeting other people. In fact, it is one of the things which make the road more interesting. Travellers coming from all over the world, some travelling the same route as you, going to the same places that you’ve just been to, but sharing experiences which are often very different from yours.

I was traveling for the past two months, which means I got to meet a lot of people; people who were traveling for various reasons. However, introductions were always the same:

 “So, where do you come from?”

“Well, right now I’m coming from Thailand, but I live in India.”

“Hmm … That’s strange; you don’t look Indian at all.”

“Oh, that’s because I’m Mexican.”

“You don’t look Mexican either.”

“It might be because I’m ethnically French.”

At this point the other person would first give me an incredulous stare and then either nod and walk away, looking for someone with whom they can have a truthful conversation, or smile and exclaim;

 “Wow, sounds like an interesting life.”

Does it really? Interestingly, ‘interesting’ isn’t the word I would choose to describe my life. ‘Confusing’? Maybe. If I was in Thailand a good part of this year, my everyday life is in Mumbai,  my family in Mexico city, my ancestors in Strasbourg, my childhood souvenirs in New York, my teenage memories in San Jose, my college years in Paris and my friends scattered all around the world, where do I belong? Where do I really come from?

‘Where do you come from?’ is one of the first questions you ask someone you’ve just met. We are usually defined by the place where we come from, our ‘home’. It’s not because we want to expand our geographical knowledge. It helps us form a mental picture of the person’s state of being. It is the way we decide how to behave around them, and more frequently, how we expect them to behave.

Yes, we are all special and unique, but we can never deny our roots.  Our place of origin defines most of our customs, the way we speak, we dress, we behave, even how we look. Whenever we leave our place (call it neighbourhood, city, state, country, region), we tend to surround ourselves with people who have similar origins. No wonder every big city has its own ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Little India’.  We’ll always feel more comfortable among people who think, act, talk and even eat like us. It’s with them where we feel that we belong.

Our roots give us a sense of belonging. ‘Belonging’, the third level of Abraham Maslow’s Pyramid and an important element in our hierarchy of needs. The need to belong and to be loved, to be affiliated with others and to be accepted. We all need to feel like we have a place which we can call home, where we are important, where people care about us.  We, humans, are not meant to be alone and we are definitely not self-sufficient.

I have spent my entire life being considered a ‘foreigner’. Even in Mexico people speak to me in English instead of Spanish. Yet, I feel at home everywhere I go. I have no problem adapting to other cultures, adopting them as my own. It might be because I don’t really belong anywhere. Having no deep cultural baggage probably makes it easy for me to simply ‘replace’ my customs with new ones every time I relocate.

However, deep inside me, there is a craving to belong somewhere. To be part of a larger group, to be understood, to be around people who understand the way I see the world because they have lived what I have.

Incredibly, after travelling across the seven seas, to a land literally on the other side of the world, to a country I knew nothing about and a culture I barely understood, I finally got the feeling that I belonged somewhere. I know I may never completely understand the traditions, and the stares I get on the street tell me I’ll never look like a local. Nevertheless, maybe I’ll become fluent in the language. I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to write poetry in it, but enough to yell at the rickshaw-wallas when they try to overcharge me.

My heart tells me that I belong to Mumbai, and so I wonder, what is giving me this sense of belonging? Is it the people I’ve met or the sense of freedom I have here? No, that can’t be it. I’ve discovered that in other places before this. Could it be the fact that every single person in this city, when asked ‘Where do you come from?’ gives the same complicated answer as me?

“Where are you from?”

“Well I stay in Mumbai, though I was born in ________. My mother is from _________, but my father’s side of the family hails from __________.”

Finally! I’m surrounded by people like me! People who speak one language during the day, another among friends and a third one when they come home to their families. People who follow traditions their neighbours don’t understand. People who believe in gods their own friends have never heard of. Yet all of them proudly call themselves ‘Mumbaikars’ and all of them channel the fabled ‘spirit-of-Bombay’.

So this is what characterizes us. ‘Us’, something which has never made sense to me before. Us, Mumbaikars, we all belong here, yet not one of us do, in fact because none of us do. We are all the same because we are all so different. We all arrived here at different times, in different ways, but we find ourselves riding the local trains together to work every day, complaining about rickshaw strikes and petrol hikes, and getting wet in the Mumbai monsoon.

Where do I belong? Well, now I know. I belong here, at least for now. I belong in Mumbai, the city that never stops. A city of wanderers. A city which doesn’t give me the satisfaction of reaching a destination, but a city which gives me the happiness of always being on the road.

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