For my first post, I decided to explore the idea of where a person is from. Having lived between the cultural and linguistic spaces of Senegal and the US, the answer to this question has become less obvious or clear for me. Is where one is from defined by geography, nationality, culture, place of birth, place of residence, language, and other denominations that make one identify with a place as home?
I get asked where I am from at least every time I meet a new person. Frankly, I get annoyed by it once in a while, depending on how the question is asked and when it is asked during a conversation. If it comes up as soon as I speak, I get put off. For me, the listener is trying to define me by my accent. I tend to believe that from that moment, everything that I say is judged by this accent and what the person assumes about Senegal or Africa in general. I do however understand that this question is valid, and its answer is not always easy. Most times, I reply that I am from Senegal. But is it really true?
I was born in Senegal and spent the larger part of my life there. But for fifteen years of my adult life, I have been living and working in the US. I go back to Senegal at the most once a year. Many meaningful events in my life such as post-graduate studies, wedding, the births of my children, and my first real job, happened in the US. Although the majority of my extended family remains in Senegal, most of my friends now reside in the US. On a daily basis, I speak English more than I speak Wolof and French. As a member of the community that I live in, I pay taxes and benefit from institutions like every American. But despite this obvious fact that my life as it is, happens in the US, I do not consider myself as being from America. Neither do I believe that Americans I interact with would define me as “American.”
When I go to Senegal, I sometimes feel that I am not from there either. The country as I knew it has changed. Dakar where I spend most of my time during my visits (Yes, those trips are visits because they are temporary and their purpose is to see my family.) has changed. Many times, I have gotten lost in this city that I knew so well. My family sometimes treats me like a foreigner and care is taken to make me comfortable, explain things to me, and see to it that I have a great visit. My nieces and nephews have grown during my absence and I often meet some of them for the first time. The connections I had with my siblings, although still there, have a different nature. I need to catch up on so many things and no matter how many nights we stay up talking, we will never recover those missed moments. I need help and guidance to reconnect with the community. I forget the names of neighbors and family friends. I spend a lot of time catching up about those who moved away, got married, those who died and which families I needed to visit in order to present condolences. People refer to me as sunu gan gi [our guest] or Americaine bi [the American lady]. I am asked about food allergies and whether my children would eat certain things. A family member once remarked that I speak Wolof with an American accent! This frustrated me and made me conscious of my displacement. Don’t get me wrong, I do not think it is an insult to tell me that I speak Wolof with an American accent, although I don’t believe I do. I think the family member was projecting an assumption that after having spent so much time in the US, I should speak in such a manner. Even if I spoke Wolof with an American accent, there is nothing shameful or wrong about it. My frustration was the effect of how often in America I get asked “Where are you from?” This question implies that I must not be from America. To be told in Senegal that I speak my native language like an American would, also suggests that I am not from Senegal―leaving me without a country.
So in essence, I am a doxadeem, someone who is considered a stranger and whose residency status is temporary. But where is this temporality? Am I a temporary resident of the US or Senegal? Who gets to define this status? I believe I should be the one. Therefore, I choose to live in that very hyphen between the two countries, Senegal (—) America. Living in this space allows me to claim both and get the best of what each country and culture has to offer. I can eat thiebou jen for lunch and pot roast for dinner. I can wear my sër ak taille basse in the morning and change into a suit in the afternoon. The way I cook food or wear clothes might even be hyphenated.
Where are you from readers?