Where I am From

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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. Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 4.28.35 PM

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.

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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.

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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.

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14 year old me in Bhutan © Hannah Cho Photography 2013

 

All photos are mine unless otherwise stated.