Musings on identity and meaning of 'home'

There really is not more fundamental question, is there? Except, perhaps, "Why am I here?"

There really is not more fundamental question, is there? Except, perhaps, “Why am I here?”

I enjoyed Ms Ying Tianyi’s article very much (“Ethnic Chinese from abroad ask: Who am I?”, Shanghai Daily, August 16), and empathized with the many people she spoke with.

And, like so many of the stories in the Shanghai Daily, and in the opinion pieces, as I finished it I temporarily placed my Kindle in my lap and mused over that question, “Who am I”?

Jesus of Nazareth was recorded as asking a similar question — “Who do men say that I am?” — which is also related to one’s identity.

After all, if there is a substantial rift between what I think of myself as being and what others think of me, I clearly have a problem.

Ever since I was a boy, the question “Who am I?” was also paired with “Who do I want to be?”

They really go together as we tend to become what we want to be, which is why it is so important that we receive the correct ethical and moral training very early in life.

It is all too evident that a vast number of prominent people, at least in my country, clearly did not have such training. “Identity politics” is something of an item in the US today; from my perspective it is another form of the obnoxious label of a few years ago, the “Me Generation.”

Part of the reason my country is in such a mess is that, for decades, people have been pursuing a politics of “what’s in it for me?” rather than “what’s best for us?” It is interesting, too, to muse a bit on what ethnicity or nationality really has to do with “who I am.”

Definition of Americanness

For example, I could accurately be called “an American” — or, more precisely, “a citizen of the United States” — because that is both where I live and the name of the polity where I reside.

However, I am certainly not the kind of “American” that so many on the Right call for: suspicious of, if not hostile towards, “outsiders” or, more specifically, people of color and of different faiths. Nor am I an unthinking nationalist for whom “America is number one!”

So, identifying myself as, or having others see me as, “American” can be quite problematic.

And, while I am an Irish-American by descent, that really does not tell another person very much about “who I am.”

Because both of my dad’s parents died before he was 10, and my mother’s parents never spoke of their heritage to me (I was very young when they died), I have no memory at all about Irish ways, customs, or experiences other than what I have learned through my studies.

I do not speak a word of Gaelic, nor did my mother sing Irish lullabies to me as she rocked me to sleep when young.

Probably the greatest molder of my being — aside from the principle forming element of my wonderful and loving parents — was the Catholic Church.

But, even there, if one’s knowledge of the Catholic Church comes primarily from recent decades then that identifier would tell you very little about my own beliefs and values.

For today’s Church has largely turned away from the broad approach to social justice that was hammered into me in high school and college by laypersons and religious leaders who were all deeply committed to a more just and equal society.

Their ethical principles were much closer to those of socialist ideals than to individualistic capitalism.

In truth, knowing “who I am” is both an ongoing, life-long process and, I have sadly learned, also a process of increasingly not belonging to communities of which I once saw myself as being part: There are a great many of my fellow citizens that I would never choose to support. My Irishness is largely a figure of speech, and even my Catholic-ness more of the past than the present.

Sweet home, Iowa

Maybe at base, and here I cycle back to Ms Ying’s article, who I am is most closely identified with where I was born and raised.

I will always consider myself an Iowan; its rich, black earth, waving fields of grain in the summer, and the fierce blizzard whiteness and biting cold of winter, are deep in my memory and my heart.

I remember how two years ago, when I returned there for my brother-in-law’s funeral, I had no sooner stepped out of the plane than I smelled Iowa: the rich perfume of growing things, and the familiar humid warmth of the land the Native Americans called “the land between two rivers.”

In my heart, I knew I was home, even if only for a brief time.

And, when one day the question of “who am I?” is one of the past, I will rest beneath that rich soil — home, and with “my people,” at last.

The author is a retired US statesman.


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