As I settle into my seat on an airplane headed to who-knows-where, my friendly seat mate introduces herself. “So, where are you from?” I ask, confused by her wide almond eyes, subtle nose bridge and coloring – her mix of ethnicity was baffling. My eyes, unable to pinpoint a race, resorted to the symbol on her passport for an answer.
I watched the stranger study my face, inquiring about my background. Little did they understand the complexity of their question. Where am you from? I have to pause, too many answers racing behind my eyes. Where I am from does not conclude at the geography of my ancestors, the accent of my voice, or the symbol on my passport. I attend a traveling high school that moves to a different country every trimester. Therefore, I no longer can blurt out the coordinates of my home in Silicon Valley with the utmost of confidence in it being the place I have grown the most, learned the most, and experienced the most.
I am from Bhutan, where I learned governance can include a formula for happiness.
The reality of Gross National Happiness was witnessed through the kindness of the Bhutanese – as genuine as the Tiger Nest Monastery is breathtaking.
I am from the East Coast of the USA, where I learned firsthand the impact of “terrorism.”
I saw a new side of my country while working at the Boston Marathon. The bomb that detonated two blocks from my residence was a cold slap of reality.
I am from India, where I learned to be fluid in chaos.
I learned to thrive in the vibrancy of saris, the taste of biryani, the art of bargaining in the Charminar Bazaar, and the crowded queue at the Golden Temple.
I am from Tanzania, where I realized how little ‘Africa’ needs ‘us’.
After a day of building a school in the hot sun, my peers and I humbled ourselves in our incapability to execute the task. We realized the ignorance of our pre-conceived opinions as the locals took the shovels from our blistered hands.
I am from Japan, where I felt the heart of a people who moved forward but are committed to never forgetting history.
It is futile to try and catch the scent of nuclear waste in face of the flashing lights of Hondori street and the sweet smell of cherry blossoms in the Peace Park; however, the shaking voice of a Hiroshima survivor still rings in my ear as an echo of the ‘Little Boy’ did in hers.
I am from Rwanda, where I sat with a Mountain Gorilla.
Her wise eyes stared purity into mine on that misty morning in a bamboo forest. As the silverback pounded his chest, my own heart did in mine – swelling with wisdom, love, and a lesson nearly inexplicable in words.
I am from New Zealand, where I learned to look up.
A seeming simple change of perspective made me breathe deeper, cleaner and longer. I resolved to never take for granted the spectacular of my surroundings; I slowed down to watch the surf, stars and bioluminescent beings under my fingertips and on the stone ceiling.
I am from Greece, where I learned of my own privilege.
With feta in my mouth, I watched an economy fall apart around me. Just like the clothes worn by beggars on the subway and the buildings across the street from the National Library. I came away seeing so much promise postponed.
Nevertheless, more important that “where are you from?” is “where are you going?” Irony lays in the coincidence: my answer to both questions is the same. “Everywhere” I respond to my seat mate. A shy smile, bright eyes, and a weathered passport are the only indicators to my heart full of stories.
14 year old me in Bhutan © Hannah Cho Photography 2013
All photos are mine unless otherwise stated.