toby israel, home, travel, costa rica, nationalism
Central America, Nomadism

Don’t Ask me where I’m From, Ask me where Home Is

One balmy evening in Domincal, Costa Rica, two friends and I found ourselves stuck in conversation with a friendly tourist from the United States. Despite the best of intentions, he was boring us all.

We didn’t feel like chatting, and the dance floor was calling. So, when he inevitably asked, “Where are you all from?” we answered in the least gracious way possible:

“I forgot,” said one friend.
“I’m undecided,” said the other.
“I don’t know,” I finished. 

After close to a year living in Costa Rica, we thought our responses were a clever alternative to the repetitive small talk we had come to dread—with tourists and locals alike. Our unfortunate conversation partner doubtless thought we were very rude.

However, our reluctance to answer a seemingly simple question touches on a deeper issue for me, and perhaps for many vagabonds.

I have small talk fatigue. I’m tired of regurgitating the same facts. What’s more, I haven’t lived in the place I grew up (is that where I’m “from”?) for 10 years. I haven’t lived in the pace I receive mail (is that where I’m from?) for five years. It just doesn’t seem like relevant information anymore.

I definitely have small talk fatigue. But that’s only part of the problem.

As someone with vaguely European features, I never had to deal with the “No, where are you really from?” bullsh*t growing up. (That’s another ballgame entirely). But having spent most of my adult life outside the U.S., having a distinct accent in every other language I speak, and being obviously foreign more often than not, I face two questions with higher frequency than could possibly be healthy:

Where are you from? And, why are you here?

I just don’t want to answer these questions anymore. My place of origin is probably the least interesting thing about me. It leads inevitably to more uninteresting questions. Yet it is always, always the first thing we ask. (I am also guilty of this, though more and more I try to catch myself before it slips out). And, if I do answer the question, “ah,” they say, as if now they know everything there is to know about me.

I reject the very premise of the question: that the world is made up of nations, and that we “belong” to the arbitrary borders within which we were born.

I refuse to identify with a nation simply because we have collectively consented to buy into this fiction. I refuse to flaunt my country of origin (utterly accidental, and in no way representative of any personal merit), as if it were something to be proud of.

Do the advantages and disadvantages of our birthplace, the cultural conventions of our upbringing, and the social constructs of our particular place in the world play a large role in shaping our selfhood? Of course. They play a massive role. I will be the first to make this point. But do these factors define us in our entirety? I strive every day to ensure that they do not.

Is it an exceptional privilege to reject a national identity and seek a global one? In a way, yes. Few have the luxury to choose to dissociate from the title on their birth certificate or passport.

Yet, I believe we are all capable of taking a critical look at the structures we have been handed as incontrovertible—at the stories we have been taught as truth. We all have the choice to accept the world given to us…or to deconstruct it, fiction by fiction, and build a new one.

I was born in the United States. I have a U.S. passport.

On the one hand, this tells you everything: my position of privilege, my opportunities for work and education, my background, and cultural references.

But on the other, this tells you nothing about my values, my vision, my spirit, or my heart.

I was born in the U.S., but don’t ask me about that.

toby israel, home, travel, costa rica, nationalism

Ask me, “Where is home?” I will tell you:

Home is Costa Rica, for now.
Home is with my family, wherever they happen to be.
Home is my community—global.
Home was South Africa, Zanzibar, London, and Italy… for a while.
Home is in my body.
Home is a hot shower and a good meal.
Home is wherever I am welcomed—and wherever people are kind, good, and full of love (everywhere).
Home is many, many places, and sometimes it is nowhere at all.

And maybe tomorrow I will tell you something different. Isn’t that so much more interesting?

Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask me where I’m at home. Then, maybe, we can talk about something real.

Originally published on elephant journal.

Image used with permission from Marc Maksim Photography.

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On Going Home

Here I am. London Heathrow International Airport. 1:11pm. Twenty-three degrees Celsius. Gray skies.  Eleven months, 21 countries, one visa problem and one stomach bug ago I set out for my “year”-long journey. My goals? To explore. To learn. To play.  I didn’t want to change the world. And more importantly, I didn’t want to change.  I wasn’t seeking enlightenment, wisdom or self-improvement.  I didn’t go abroad “to find myself” in the Himalayas, and I didn’t travel to discover the secret of life in that elusive elsewhere.
Nonetheless, I did search. And in the clear blue skies of the Himalayas, in the phosphorescent seas of Cambodia, in the jagged black rocks of Sicily and in the cosmopolitan bustle of Berlin, Bangkok and Belgrade I found answers.  Truth, beauty and joy. In the winding, tangential, abstract manner beloved of Buddhist scriptures and Beat poetry, the world answered me. Like a garrulous friend who prattles on without encouragement, the faces and places I encountered over the last 11 months have taught me so much more than I could or would have asked of them.
I will return in much the same condition I left.  Zero piercings, tattoos, or drastic hairstyle changes. A few barely-visible scars. I don’t know if I look or sound like someone who has spent the last year traveling.  I don’t know what such a person is supposed to look like.  I don’t have any brilliant conclusions to offer.  I am less certain of what I want to be doing than I was before starting this trip—whatever I found, it wasn’t direction.  At this moment I mostly feel bewildered. Where am I going now?
I’m going home. I guess. I’m flying to Boston, where I grew up. But since my parents moved to London while I was away, one could argue that I’ve actually just spent the last two weeks “home” here in London. Since I’ve lived and studied in Vermont, and spent a good portion of my summers there, I generally call it home now. And yet it doesn’t feel quite complete.
Home is wherever there are people who love and care about you, and those people are spread out across the globe for me. Home is where you feel welcome and comfortable, and I have felt at home after one day at a Rainbow Gathering in the mountains of Sicily, after one evening with an old friend in Hamburg, after two days with like-minded people in India. When it came time for my parents to sell the house I grew up in, I was somewhere in Southeast Asia and I felt… indifferent. As much as I had loved that house, it was only that: a house. Walls and a floor, paint colors I had helped choose and rooms upon rooms of memories, yes, but just wood and paint after all.  I realized that I had begun to carry “home” with me.  Home was my body. Home was the network of friends, family and strangers that stretched out in a shimmering web to catch me where and if I needed them. Home was laughter, handmade bread, and warmth—home was everywhere and anywhere I wanted it to be.
You could say I’m going back, then, I suppose.  But back to what? To “normal” life? As if this year were somehow removed from the rest of my life, a collection of adventures on which I will look back with longing and nostalgia, which will sustain me as I spend the next several decades sitting behind a cubicle desk speaking with belligerent self-importance of my year abroad. Hate to break it to you, but this is my reality. Truth, beauty, and joy are not temporary ideals, applicable only to some fantasy alternate life with an expiration date; they are a worldview, an optimism and a set of values by which I will, hopefully, continue to live, be it traveling abroad, studying, working, at “home” and “away.”
So no, I am not going back.  I am continuing a journey that is not defined by national boundaries, a search that is not defined by questions, and an adventure that is not circumstantial, but inherent.  This life is an adventure and a journey, full of the potential for truth, beauty and joy. That is neither a secret nor an answer; it is my own personal conviction.
I am going back to the United State with a broken backpack full of dirty clothes and not much else.  I am going back to one of the many places I choose to call home. The answers and the secrets can wait; I have never felt more content—full of joy and gratitude—and that is enough for me.
“Home”-made pizza in Sicily.
Home on my mat.
Feeling at home in my hammock, Don Det, Laos.
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