“Paradox: something that shows contradicting qualities or features.”
Finding one’s identity as someone belonging to two cultures and two nations can be a lifetime struggle. Defining who we are and trying to embrace the widest version of our being, is not easy. The polarities are everchanging, as life takes its course.
Identity, Foreign-ness, Language, Bilingualism, Belonging, Home.
This is a transcript of a presentation given at the SEA Annual Conference 2021, by Paola Pomponi and Serena Fianco. Its colloquial style reflects the initial intention, as it was to be delivered by voice, not written words. Adapting a script that was meant to be read or performed in front of an audience into something that will be part of a publication, proved rather complex. As soon as one starts correcting and adjusting, it becomes clear that the text and the content will inevitably acquire a new identity. From a fleeting performance to a still piece of writing. The first lost in the air as soon as it is delivered, the latter bound to stay in its printed form for an unknown length of time. Yet the ideas that are expressed within it are unchanged. It is interesting to notice this, because the subject of the ensuing article is exactly the volatile nature of identity. How can identity be found and defined when even the description of such quest keeps mutating and developing?
I will start this article by drawing inspiration from Sartre’s famous words “existence precedes essence” (Sartre 1973: 28).
Sartre’s fundamental contribution to existential thought lies in the idea that one’s identity is constituted neither by nature nor by culture, since to “exist” is in itself to constitute such an identity.
In philosophy, identity, from Latin: “identitas” (sameness), is the relation each thing and each person bears only to itself. So, my identity is the relationship I have with myself.
Someone’s personal identity in this sense consists of those properties that “define me as a person” or “make me the person that I am”, and which distinguish me from others.
This personal identity contrasts with ethnic or national identity, which consists roughly of the ethnic group or nation I belong to and the importance that I attach to this. My identity is what makes me different from any other and all the characteristics that make me as such, different from you.
Wise people and self-help books invite us to “be ourselves”. But how can I be myself when that me and that self are struggling and fighting with each other? I think that I will have to invent myself. Or re-invent myself, several times.
I can try to be the one who matches an image I have in my mind, an ideal me that I feel I should be, or I can decide to be the me that nobody recognises, outside other people’s expectations. If I managed to do that, I could make that my strength.
“Existence precedes essence” because we continuously invent ourselves through our actions. If this is the case then, in order to define who I am, I need to look at the actions that constructed that me that is so difficult to capture.
I invite you to accompany me in my journey toward constructing and giving shape to my identity.
It’s a bendy, panoramic trail, not a straight motorway. The destination is somewhere out there, but it feels like it’s moving and getting further rather than nearer.
Who I was
I was born and educated in Italy, until I moved to the UK during my gap year. I was just a normal happy girl, wanting to learn a foreign language because that would have helped find a good job, back home, and allowed me to build my financial independence.
As I arrived in London in the late seventies, I found an incredibly exciting world, where possibilities were open to anyone, local or foreign. The atmosphere was buzzing with music, fashion, punk rockers strolling up and down the Kings Road with their colourful hair styles.
Little boutiques around Chelsea selling extravagant wear, made shopping exciting like a treasure hunt. London was a cosmopolitan city that embraced, really embraced, cultures from the whole world and looked at diversity with an interested and accommodating stance. Being different, back then, was very much in fashion, or more than that, it was a need that most people shared. Nobody wanted to conform or abide to a set stereotype.
I realised that my independence and freedom were here, in this town, and I never returned home.
I freed myself from ways and expectations that my family had on me and I expanded my horizon.
I collected 50p coins to feed the heater in my bedsit and 2p coins to call my family from the red phone box around the corner. I ate noodles and curry and visited the green English countryside, admired the golden stones of Cathedrals and old buildings. I dipped my toe in the freezing sea of Brighton, ate fish and chips in tiny little coastal towns and placed my bets on racehorses.
I had never done any of those things before. Yet when I returned home, the other home, I did not miss any of that, I felt content at the family table and experienced life back there as my normal other life. There was space inside me for both and more.
Who have I become, throughout the years?
I learned the language, had several jobs, moved several flats, set up my own travel business.
I made friends from all walks of life and different countries. I immersed myself in the very British way of life, and even tried to gain a posh accent. Later, I sold my travel agency, bought my own flat, trained as psychotherapist, set up my private practice. I enjoyed my status as an ex-pat and finally truly defined myself as a Londoner.
I kept my close ties with my country of origin. Having a travel agency had allowed me to go back as often as I wished, for very little or no money. I felt indeed privileged. When in Italy I felt Italian, although with a foreign address.
Through my actions I could define myself as Roman-Londoner and it not only felt true, but felt true and accepted by others, in both countries.
Finally, some years back, when my best friend died and was buried in West Brompton Cemetery, I got into the habit of going to visit. There was a bench just in front of her flowery bed and I used to sit there and just be, in the middle of the trees and watching the squirrels run by.
I felt a sense of belonging, attachment not just to her, but to the place and it suddenly dawned on me that I wanted to be buried next to her, that it seemed natural that that should be my final resting place.
I had, in that moment realised that Home is not just where we come from, our birthplace, but that also, and perhaps more importantly, home is what we recognise as our final resting place. We cannot choose the first, but, if we want to, we can choose the second.
I applied for British Nationality and enquired about the cost of buying a plot in West Brompton Cemetery. Don’t get me wrong. What I felt at the time was something natural, obvious, and there was peace inside me, the peace we experience when things are right, when they are as they should be. The actions that followed were needed to identify me as British, as well as Italian, but at the time perhaps a little more British than Italian. I swore allegiance to the Queen with pride, in my foreign accent, and so I acquired my second nationality.
Who am I now?
If I had to define myself in a few words, I would say that I am bi-national bi-lingual, and definitely NOT binary. This, however, is just a limitation of what should truly be a definition of myself.
Going back to my story, it’s only a few years later, yet the whole scenario has changed. The squirrels are still running in West Brompton Cemetery, but the nature is wild and unkept and the bench is rusty and broken.
I am also broken as I had to confront the ultimatum that said: Us/Them. In/out. British/European.
I cannot choose a side, as I am both. I want to build a bridge, but it seems not to be allowed. I cling to my two passports and show them at the airport to the different borders they belong to, worried that for some new regulation or other, I may be rejected.
That specific action now identifies me as a person in search of her identity. I missed my Italian home during the long months of lockdown, I really did. So, as soon as I could, I flew to Rome and stayed for three months. “Back home”, I thought.
I found peace and nurture in my Italian country house where I would spend my weekends. There is a nice garden there and a thick wood of poplars at the end of which a crystal-clear stream flows by. I sat looking at the stream. The sound of water flowing, music to accompany my thoughts and I found myself wishing that my ashes would be dispersed in it.
I know that in that moment I had chosen, again, my final home. Gone was the up-coming negotiation of a West Brompton Cemetery plot, in came ashes in the stream.
I had just changed my perception of home. And if that sounds like a solution to the problem, well, there is more to come.
Who am I in the perception of others?
We are relational beings. It is not possible to define our identity without taking in consideration the world around us, unless we lived alone in a cave.
Taking a look outside ourselves is the next step to really understand who we are, or who we want to be, in relation to others. Once we enlarge that view, we can be surprised to find that the landscape is rather different from what we know and what we expected.
In Rome I felt roman, and I felt at ease and relaxed inside. Until I had to realise something I had not experienced before, perhaps because my visits had been too short in the past.
It all became clear in the preparation for the European Football Finals. Italy vs. England.
I don’t care about football, but this time suddenly I realised that friends and people around me looked at me as “The English”. “She’s English” some would say smiling. “She’s English” others would say with a challenging look. “I am not!” I would say, but I was not heard.
The simple act of having to justify or defend myself, struck me like a painful blow.
I watched the game alone, and frankly I supported both teams. But I had to be alone in watching a match that was no longer about football, but about me. I was angry at the comments from the winners to the losers in the days that followed. I felt isolated, unsafe and very sad.
Identity is also decided by the way people around us perceive us. Not just by what we feel we are.
Had I chosen to run in the streets with an Italian flag in my hand, celebrating Italian victory, would I have been perceived as Italian? Maybe. Yet that was not me, so I didn’t.
So then, what am I? Am I allowed to be more than just one or the other? Does it have to be binary, this belonging?
The reality has a precise name: Diversity. I am perceived as different in both places, and I don’t like that. My presence may be tolerated, but that’s not what I want. I wish I could explain my situation to people, but they could not possibly understand unless they had somehow shared a similar experience and that rarely happens.
So, I really struggled, and not only because of the football, but also because I was puzzled by some strange questions people asked, like; “What do you eat in London?”, “How do you stand the grey London weather, don’t you miss the sunshine?” or “How is Betty?” Betty? As if I were close friends with the Queen. (I then realised they all watch The Crown in Italy). “What’s it like to be out of Europe?” assuming that I wanted out of Europe, being, in their eyes English and as such a Brexiteer, a sort of traitor.
I noticed the look of others as I probably mispronounced some Italian word, language also changes and develops during time, and I need to continuously update my vocabulary. At other times I could not think of some Italian world and said it in English, which of course confirmed my diversity.
Language, food, fashion, habits, they also somehow belong here or there, and I need to adjust, all the time, both here and there, if I want to be perceived as one of them. It is tiring.
Who do I want to be?
Before I can live with other people, I’ve got to live with myself. When I worry about being accepted, I lose myself. My identity cannot be found or fabricated but it emerges from within if only I had the courage to let go.
For many years, before my last trip, I did not have to think about my identity, perhaps there was no need. The need arises when someone or something creates a fracture and defines the “us and them”. Then one must choose and that is when the problem starts.
Perhaps, if I wanted to be positive about it, I could say that when, four years ago, the fracture was created, I finally had an opportunity of losing myself in that choice, a choice I did not want to make and that made me undertake the journey that takes me here today, full of question marks and wishful thinking.
Obviously, when I talk of fracture, I refer to Brexit, the big “B” in my life. I did not choose it, did not want to belong to one team or the other, just like with the football. I want to be part of both. But unfortunately, this is complicated.
Trying to appease others by seeming similar only works temporarily and going to the opposite end, to prove one as a rebel or outsider, is a tiring project. Seeking some kind or armistice in this battle seems impossible. So, what am I left with? How am I to hang on to my identity if I have none?
And… is it possible that I am fighting the wrong battle? If that were so, where is the way out of the battlefield?
I go back to memories of vivid green in the quiet English countryside or the immense extension of bright yellow mustard fields. The golden light at sundown, in the magical evening mist of old villages and I sense a quiet inside. Then I turn around and I see the bright light of sunny days in the other place, the lively voicing coming from the street downstairs, the hooting of impatient drivers who hoot because they simply like hooting and I feel a sense of tenderness for that other part of me, and the two, for a moment, seem perfectly balanced.
The job is done when there is a feeling of serenity inside. I am not there yet but getting closer.
Sartre’s intuition is that identity is determined by actions, not the other way round.
But I think here is more to that. Identity is also determined by the emotions that create our actions, it generates from within. Identity stems from an initial emotion, how I feel now, and it guides the journey to a final emotion, how I want to feel when I get there. The map is an emotional map.
Back in Italy during the summer, sitting by that stream, I spent time listening to music. My favourite music, Bach piano concertos. It helped me look inside, stay within, in a silent space.
Music does that to me.
I particularly enjoy listening to Glenn Gould playing Bach. What I mostly appreciate in the style of his piano playing is the clear and precise rendering of each and every note. It is the slow tempo, the pause between notes that makes the music connect with the innermost part of me.
In a famous quote, attributed to Claude Debussy, he stated that “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between them.”. In music, the various parts that create the final sound are not the individual notes, but the connection between them.
The connection between two notes is not a note. It is not a sound, either. So, if it is not a sound, what can it be? Obviously, silence. What one is listening to is the silence.
It is what in musical terms is called rest, the silence that allows the movement from one note to the next. That is what creates the melody. No silence, no melody. Silence provides the listener with an opportunity for self-reflection. Even getting lost in daydreaming. Different parts of the brain are stimulated, and self-awareness and mindfulness increase in that silent space.
So, it suddenly struck me that if I am to find that me that escapes me, if I must create a relationship or a connection between the different expressions of me, perhaps what I need is rest. I need to stay put for a while and allow silence. I need to look inside rather than outside and come to a resolution. I need to build a bridge from within, that will allow me to move from one side to the other and back and then forward again.
Out of that silence that I discovered inside myself, I suddenly realised something.
Going back to “Existence precedes Essence”, I realised that I have, so far, concentrated on the third word of that sentence, Essence, intended as the actions and emotions that define me, but that I had not really stopped and contemplated the first word: Existence.
Now that I think of it, existence always precedes essence. I am my existence. I am as far as I exist. Existence happens before anything else can happen. Existence has no gender, no state, no language, no skin colour. It does not belong to any specific culture. Existence simply is.
We can’t see it or touch it, we cannot take a picture of it, yet it is there from beginning to end. Existence is also there for everyone else in the world, exactly in the same way. We all experience our existence, and it is what is common to all of us.
So, if existence cannot be defined or described, why am I spending so much energy to try and do just that? The bridge I want to build is, in fact already there, it always was, but perhaps I took no notice.
What connects me and defines me, is simply my existence, in all its contradictions, variables and paradoxes. Existence is the raw material that allows me to take shape. Existence is the raw material that allows everyone else around, and everything else around, to be there.
Like the silence between the notes, existence, silently, allows the relationship between other existences to produce the melody or life. Or the cacophony of life, at times.
So simply because I exist and in so far as I exist, I can be a me that does not belong here or there and that does belong here and there. And perhaps to other here and there’s.
I can be me who can change and fluctuate, decide freely how I feel on a certain moment and without having to name it geographically or culturally.
I can simply feel whatever it is me. I don’t have to choose between black or white, in or out.
I can be a whole rainbow, with colours shifting and changing position every moment. Because that is how I experience my existence.
I am a paradox. I am me, and the negation of me, whenever, however. I am
Sartre, J.-P. (1973) Existentialism and Humanism (trans. P. Mairet). London: Methuen (First published 1946)