The International Welcome Party on Sept. 13 was no doubt the epitome of multiculturalism. Students representing several nationalities, including Saudi Arabian, Colombian, Indian and American, converged on the dance floor to learn steps from each other, make new friends and socialize without words.
Spontaneous, random and even confusing at times, the dances fostered understanding and appreciation of the cultural diversity that characterizes MU. For domestic students, it was an opportunity to experience the world without leaving campus. For international students, it was a platform to share their cultures with the rest of the university. For me, it was an invitation to reconsider my definition of assimilation.
In my 19 years on this planet, I have had the opportunity to live in six different cities and in four different countries. The intensity of my national identification has fluctuated throughout the years, with some periods of fervent pride and others of cynicism and disillusionment where I often asked myself why on Earth nationalities even exist. I pride myself on my ability to adapt to different places, which is in part due to my weak attachment to my country of origin.
Let me put this in perspective: It gets old to be known as “that kid from _X_ country” when you have been a foreigner since you were ten years old. Eventually, I got over my initial reluctance to adopt the local accent and alter my customs, and I started to slowly blend in. This might sound odd, but going unnoticed becomes increasingly attractive when you have always stood out for reasons over which you have little control, such as your nationality.
Now, the rationale behind assimilation (“blending in”) has nothing to do with convenience. It isn’t just about avoiding questions or awkward interactions. After all, I was rarely negatively profiled or discriminated against; in most cases, people were genuinely interested in my background. In fact, being from another country generates almost instant interest, which has no doubt greatly benefited my social life.
The issue arises when the conversation does not go beyond my origin. No questions about my hobbies, my major or even about how I do my hair. No questions about who I am, but only about how I should be because of where I am from.
Assimilation is justified by a simple idea: Blend in to stand out. This is not a senseless oxymoron. It is simply a desire to be known and appreciated for your individual characteristics, not just for the place where you are from. All other things that could set you apart (accent, customs and so on) being equal, or at least similar, personal traits become more evident, allowing you to retain a sense of individuality you thought you had lost.
Coming to the U.S. was my opportunity to consolidate that label-free personality. “Where are you from?” is usually the third or fourth question I am asked, not the first, and I find that quite pleasing. But last Friday, my notion of individuality dissociated from national identity was put into question at the International Welcome Party.
After getting a henna tattoo in Arabic on my arm, eating Thai, Bangladeshi and Indian food, and admiring all the traditional dresses, I wondered why I wasn’t showcasing my own country’s cultural richness. I realized maybe I have blended in too well — to the point where I forgot about my own roots.
It is interesting how other cultures lead you to rediscover and cherish your own background, helping you realize that national and personal identities do not necessarily have to clash. Being witness to the cultural pride of others renewed my sense of Colombian-ness, if that’s even a thing. (And if it isn’t, I’m making it one.) It brought me back to a state when talking about my country of origin is a pleasure, not a nuisance.
By chance, the International Welcome Party led me to meeting some fellow Colombians, and we even joked about starting MU’s first and only Colombian Students Association. Who knows? Maybe we will. Maybe next year I will wear a garabato dress, cook some arepas, and teach people how to dance cumbia, to represent the country that not only was I born in but that always receives me with open arms and warm songs even when I dare to neglect it.
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