Where Do You Come From?
A new kind of being may be coming to light–a citizen of this International Empire–made up of fusions (and confusions) we had not seen before: a “Global Soul”. . . . This creature could be a person who had grown up in many cultures all at once–and so lived in the cracks between them. — Pico Iyer, The Global Soul
I’ve seen the future of the world, and it is Dubai. The futuristic-looking ads for the city confidently claim, “Dubai, city of now.” Centuries before oil was discovered, the trade center trafficked in pearls and the re-export of international goods, the population unfazed by brokers from around the world coming and going on camels and in Arab dhows. And then came the jetliners.
My Wharton professor Eric Clemons taught me that geography is destiny. Dubai proves it. Two thirds of the world’s population lives within eight hours flying time from the city. You can fly to 260 destinations directly from Dubai. This year, 81 million people (equal to the entire population of Germany) will fly through Dubai International Airport–the busiest airport for international passenger traffic in the world. And when they finish expanding the Al Maktoum airport, in Dubai World Central nearby, 120 million people (equal to the population of Japan) will fly through that airport.
Emirates Airlines operates four of the longest flights in the world, picking you up in San Francisco, LA, Houston, or Dallas, and dropping you off almost 16 hours later inside the giant shopping mall that is the Dubai International Airport. In the airport concourse, the fascinating mix begins–Indian businessmen and Russian models, Bangladeshi chefs and Polish construction engineers, Korean waitresses and Brazilian hairdressers, English nannies and South African tourists. In this giant experiment of global displacement, you hear hundreds of passengers, disgorged from their planes, speaking Malayalam, Mandarin, and Malay, voices rising above the din, competing with Telugu, Tagalog, and Turkish. A Burj Al Babel of biblical proportions.
Lives cross in unusual ways at the airport. The princess-ling from Beijing, clutching her Hilde Palladino Gadino bag, is excitedly on her way to the Burj Al Arab, where the Royal Suite rents for upward of $13,000 a night. The English teenager from Nottingham with her $9.00 Quechua rucksack is also excited about going to the same hotel. For the next six months, she’ll change linen there as an intern in the housekeeping department while she finishes her hotel management diploma. I note wryly that a hundred years ago in the outer reaches of the British Empire on the Shanghai Bund, their great grandmothers’ roles would have been the reverse.
A group of Russians dressed in the pure white clothing one sees in an Indian ashram rush mindfully to catch their connection to Moscow, making sure they don’t get lost, as only their leader speaks English. Indeed, they’re returning from their trip in search of God at the Brahma Kumaris headquarters on Mount Abu in Rajasthan. Meanwhile, a group of Malayalees from Kerala, India, all dressed in the same travel agency-emblazoned red caps, crisscross the terminal looking for their San Francisco connection. It’s their first trip to America. While this group is from the the land of many gods, spirituality is probably not their focus. Their tour guide, who is leading them with a signaling flag, will no doubt tell them that immigrants such as Sergey Brin (Russian) and Jan Koum (Ukrainian) moved to America, later dropped out of college to start companies like Google and WhatsApp, and went on to create wealth greater than the GDP of Kerala.
I’m in Dubai on a layover, transitioning between San Francisco and Kathmandu, on my way to a volunteer project with a group of my colleagues from Google and a group from Salesforce. During my 24 hours between flights, I’m riveted by my experience. In the cultural nexus of Dubai, I encounter compelling human stories of who came from where and why they’ve come. Orazaim, the chirpy receptionist at the Hyatt Place Dubai Al Rigga hotel, left her family behind in Astana, Kazakhstan. She says she searched on the Internet to find an employment agency that hired Kazakhs for placement in Dubai. Sibin, from Thrissur in Kerala, India, where my parents live, carries my bags to my room and banters to me in Malayalam. Kamal, the Pashtun limo driver, offers to play music as he ferries us to the 360 Degrees restaurant and bar, and responds to my request by playing Pakistani Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, remixed by the Asian underground scene in the form of Talvin Singh. Naimee, our waitress at the Hyatt Place, came all the way from Korea.
At the Dubai Mall, Murali asks me in Malayalam if I would like the butter pecan or mint chocolate chip ice cream. He speaks in the very familiar accent of Kollengode, which is right next to the ancestral paddies of my own family’s roots. I take my mint chocolate chip cone and go in search of my friends, who said they’d be dining at the Mall but did not specify the restaurant. The Dubai Mall, I discover as I hunt for my friends, is a mega-city. I search among a bewildering array of restaurants–from The Texas Roadhouse to Rosa Mexicano, The Cheesecake Factory to The Noodle Factory. I cross continents as I walk from California Pizza Kitchen to Eataly to Entrecote Cafe de Paris. A global gourmet orgy.
Later at the Jumeirah beach resort, two Romanian girls in short skirts and high heels agree to take our picture with the iconic sails of Burj Al Arab shimmering in the background. At the 360 Degrees bar and disco, I watch Brazilian casanovas and Italian lotharios trying to chat up the same girls. Everyone sips vodka cocktails, and converses in what I know is English but sounds more like Russian, Portuguese, or Italian, with a hint of English underneath–a medley of lyrical accents.
I start wondering about this juxtaposition of national, linguistic, and cultural identities. How Dubai is a microcosm of what the world is going to soon look like. And the time-tested introductory handshake of “Where are you from?” suddenly takes on a complex hue, often rendered meaningless. “It’s complicated” is often the best answer.
Dubai strikes me as unusual in two ways. First, during multiple visits, I’ve rarely encountered a UAE national. And even when I think I’ve finally met one, he or she turns out to be from Egypt, Lebanon, or Jordan. It’s almost as if from out of nowhere, a city emerged in the Arab desert one full moon night and the flights started landing from Kozhikode, Kuala Lumpur, and Kinshasa, bringing in the new residents. Almost everyone I meet is in a state of continuous partial displacement. They know they’ll leave one day for another place or to go back to where they boarded those flights. Everyone is in a state of impermanence and without any sense of moorings or local history.
I’m reminded of Pico Iyer’s “Global Soul.” I think of three people I’ve encountered in the past few days whom I consider true Global Souls. One, I said goodbye to back at my office. Two, I’m traveling with to Kathmandu.
Aprajita Jain, not on this trip with us, is a teammate at work. She was born in Los Angeles to Indian Marwari Jain parents, who had migrated from India to Germany in the mid-’70s, when they identified an opportunity to move their diamond and gemstone trading business to a town called Idar-Oberstein, near Frankfurt. They made the trip to LA from Germany for their daughter’s birth because Aprajita’s maternal grandparents were settled in California, and in India, it’s tradition for your first child to be born at the mother’s parents’ home. Culturally and linguistically isolated in Germany, Aprajita’s family retreated into the comfort of the familiar–eating home-cooked vegetarian Indian food while watching Bollywood movies. To this day, Aprajita has a deep interest in Bollywood, and I often see her at the Bollywood class at the Danceplex in the Googleplex.
Growing up in Germany, Aprajita led a perfectly balanced dual life. In school, she was one of the few non-German students. With German as her medium of education, she not only learned geography and math, but she rapidly learned French and English. At home, she spoke Hindi with her parents, who taught her to read and write Devanagari script.
Recently, we were in a meeting with a group of senior German clients. At one point, I asked Aprajita to present a case study. I asked her in a carefully rehearsed sentence, “Können sie bitte in Deutsch präsentieren?” “Sicher,” she responded cheerfully. Without skipping a beat she started explaining advanced digital business ideas in fluid German. Eyes widened and jaws dropped as the German-speaking audience tried to fit together the context of this young woman with the Indian face and polysyllabic Indian name speaking in fluid German at a tech company in Silicon Valley.
I meet Shazana Manji at the Dubai Mall after I finally locate my group at the Wafi Gourmet, where they’re enjoying Lebanese food. I slide into a chair next to Shazana, whom I have not met. She’s traveling with us to Nepal. “So where are you from?” I ask the familiar cultural slotting question.
“I’m from San Francisco, but that’s just where I live and work. I was born and raised in Toronto.”
“But where are you really from, or where are your parents from?” I press on looking for some sense of the familiar.
“My mother is from East Africa but of Indian descent. My father is Pakistani and Portuguese, and they met in London.”
“So where do you identify yourself from the most?”
“East Africa,” she tells me confidently.
I sit in silence and stare at this woman with the Indian face and the polysyllabic Indian name because she has not lived a single day in East Africa or even visited there. And none of my friends from Kenya, Tanzania, or Ethiopia would look at her and say, “Yes, she is from our part of the world.”
Amrit Dhir is one of my colleagues on the trip to Nepal. His name literally means nectar and brave. He grew up in Los Angeles, and was raised by his Punjabi parents. He spoke Punjabi until he was three years old and began school, at which point, his mother stopped speaking her native language with him because, as the story goes, Amrit ran home from school, crying that his teacher couldn’t understand him when he told her he needed to go to the bathroom. After that, he spoke only English. A year-long teaching stint in New Delhi and another in Bangalore, led to a decent proficiency in Hindi, which greatly helps with his understanding of Punjabi.
Amrit studied at Maastricht University at the intersection of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany, where the Meuse River meets the Jeker River. He converses in German, he’s comfortable with Dutch, and somewhere along the way, he taught himself Russian and Spanish. With delight, I watched this young man with the Indian face and the polysyllabic Indian name weave in and out of conversations fluidly, speaking to the Pakistani taxi driver in Hindi; chatting with an Azerbaijani woman in Russian while checking into our hotel, reciting a silly Russian children’s poem about an elephant that made her giggle; and then startling a group of Spanish tourists by asking them in Spanish to take our picture.
All three of my friends, I realize, comfortably live in the gaps between cultures, neither burdened by an identity that is not theirs, nor feeling particularly rootless and castaway because they don’t have one.
On US government forms, where you’re asked to identify your ethnicity, there are six choices–Latino, Asian, Native American or Alaska Native, Black or African American, Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and White–which is the boring government version of, “Where are you really, really from?” I can see Aprajita, Shazana, and Amrit looking for a seventh and eighth option:
● Sometimes, none of the above
● Sometimes, some of the above
It may be time for the world to acknowledge that these questions are increasingly meaningless and “Human Being, Planet Earth” may be the only identifier that matters.
Follow Gopi Kallayil on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GopiKallayil