Surrounded by green pines and sitting on the red clay along Blue Ridge Lake, I stared into murky green waters. Under the water’s surface, a fish moved between the shade and the sun. She swam above rotting foliage and around a fallen branch. I watched her swim as I was digesting the hour before.
“Where are you from?” The real estate agent asked me. I sense she was trying to size me up rather than have a conversation. I stared at her in mild shock and disbelief while trying to hide my angst. “I live in Atlanta,” I responded with blank eyes. I felt judged and was reluctant to gab.
Inside my head, I meet with my vagabond turmoil. My mixed bag of responses floats in my head. “I am from nowhere. I am from everywhere. A three-continent list would be the beginning of my life story and genealogy.” But really, who has time for all that? Actually, I no longer know where I am from. I am living in a constant state of flux. Identity, ultimately, is a limiting form of identification.
How to Belong in Georgia?
Lately, there is a more significant issue. I no longer know where I belong. I feel like that oil slick hanging in the finger of Blue Ridge Lake- challenging to mix and sprinkled with yellow pollen dust. This theme, where are you from, I have touched on before. In Georgia, and in particular, now, this is a loaded question. I think the more relevant questions are: “Can we get to know each other? Where are we going? How can we work together to get there?”
Today, I am from a place where old lessons mix with an even older desire. Another middle-aged lady asks the same kind of question in the next hour. I looked for a non-BBQ lunch option and saw a well-loved Cuban sandwich shop in downtown Blue Ridge. After discussing the yucca frita, she asked, “What is your nationality?” I told her my ethnicity and that my forefathers are from India originally. She told me I looked Latina, and I grinned in acknowledgment.”How about you?” I asked back. She responded with a short history, “I am Tampanea (from Tampa, Florida). My father was from Spain, and my mother was from Italy. And then, my husband from Cuba. So here I am, arroz con mango.” The expression was perfect! A strange mix of rice and mango. I smiled, and we went on to a chat about Georgia turning blue in 2020. She mentioned that in the mountains of Georgia, there are pockets of people from everywhere. Her words absolutely resonated. I remembered my days of grass-roots campaigning; Atlanta is that salad bowl type of mix.
Our Rich Heritage
After lunch and cortado, I strolled along the train tracks cutting through downtown Blue Ridge. On a parallel street, tucked between strip centers sporting Trump posters, a shop called The Joint caught my attention. The shop includes a Beetle parked out front and psychedelic colored furniture on the grass. Here, I found an Atlanta ex-pat. For a little while, we both lived in Homepark. The Mudcats, a local Atlanta band I followed, played at her wedding. We chatted briefly about Georgia and the changes in Atlanta. Between our old memories and the mountain air, I knew I was related and belonged somehow to the history of this red-blue patchwork state.
Heading back to the Airbnb, I pulled over for an irresistible photo. I spotted a real-life Trump Store behind a McDonald’s in a strip plaza adorned with for lease signs and potholes. Next door to the store stood a Vietnamese-American photo studio, and two doors further down was a Mexican restaurant, Mucho Kaliente. The dim-lit Trump shop sported a flyer for an Indian-American Labor Commissioner. Mr. Bhatt here poses with Trump as he campaigned for “Georgia First” & “America First.” That night, from my country farmstead Airbnb, I wondered how he would balance those with Trump’s racist rhetoric. I simmered on this while my Christian Korean-American host family cooked bibimbap downstairs.
Georgia Roots & Atlanta Dramas
Everybody I encounter in Atlanta is from somewhere else. The only people with ancient knowledge of the land in Georgia were pushed away. That now illicit history traced further back points at the ugly roots of our national story. The reckoning with our past is a step into what we are working towards. That is the only thing that will bring us all together. I am less interested in anyone’s background. I am more interested in their heart and how we can make space for all of us to belong. Atlanta is quickly gentrifying parts of its classic inner-city neighborhoods. Traffic along the 285 Perimeter gets worse annually. The effects of global warming make Atlanta even hotter. There are so many issues that touch all of us. It takes an understanding of where we want to go to work together.
Our Spiritual Evolution
A force moving us towards inclusion and cross-cultural understanding is the process of our spiritual evolution. One of my favorite books, The Road Less Traveled, puts it this way:
The notion that the plane of mankind’s spiritual development is in a process of ascension may hardly seem realistic to a generation disillusioned with the dream of progress. Every-where is war, corruption and pollution. How could one reasonably suggest that the human race is spiritually progressing? Yet that is exactly what I suggest. Our very sense of disillusionment arises from the fact that we expect more of ourselves than our forebears did of themselves. Human behavior that we find repugnant and outrageous today was accepted as a matter of course yesteryear.Dr. Scott Peck
Dr. Peck builds his idea of spiritual development throughout his book. Essentially, energy and intention toward progress grow from individual effort. First, a person works towards putting their spiritual house in order, connecting values with action, purpose, and discipline. That effort is personal progress. From there, people work to bring alignment into their community. They empathize when others are wronged; they work with a sense of purpose in their day-to-day relationships.
We Do Love One Another
We unite against displacement, injustice, or “othering” which we do not suffer because of our spiritual evolution. The situation in Ukraine is an example of this. In western countries, there is a wellspring in support of Ukraine. (Of course, for another post, this support has a sharp edge. Why don’t we feel the same sympathy for the loss of life in Palestine, Syria, and Yemen?) I was in Japan when the world rose in anger against the murder of George Floyd. For a while, the Facebook group I admin-ed was a flood of support, irrespective of race. Later, in Tokyo, many locals and foreigners united for the Black Lives Matter march. In the US, mass shooting occurs regularly. How much longer till we bring together a balance of competing interests in the gun debate?
The very fact that we care about others speaks to our collective spiritual evolution. While the world gets smaller, thanks to technology and transportation, we can move towards a genuinely pluralistic society. We get there by working on what unites us rather than what divides us. A shared future, a shared planet, and healthier public institutions are the steps to make Georgia part of an even better Earth. Just as we seek ways to honor the rights of those we consider “different” from us, we can actively create a sense of belonging. We can work towards belonging regardless of political leanings, ethnic background, and economic class. There are infinite ways in which we can support one another. The goal, I believe, is to find how we are united rather than how we are different.
I feel that some people are born where they belong while it is the fate of others to go in search. The Stoic Philosphers would counsel us to accept with equanimity the state of being we have been endowed with. Belonging may be what they describe as a ‘preferred indifferent’ – that is something that we may choose if it’s in our power to have, but which takes a second place to living virtuously – trying to be as good a human as we are able. I believe we could all get behind this and agree with you Upstream Rose that a focus on what unites us will ultimately serve us better than a focus on difference. Having said that I think it’s natural to be curious about where people are from, and so long as its purpose is not to judge or size up, as it may have been with the real estate agent (got to know your demographic before I know which sales script to slip into!), it can lead to interesting conversations, as it did with the rice/mango lady!
Thank you for your thoughtful comments. The rice mango lady engaged with my in an interesting conversation before her questions. I think that set a nice context for me…. and indeed, I do set off curiosities and have them myself. 😀