Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

On labels, art and otherness

I come from three countries. I cringe every time I have to mention it. I am sure by now my fellow classmates at Chula must as well, as they have heard it many a time. I cringe either because of the totally confused look I know it will trigger on my interlocutor’s face, or because of the ensuing question, often asked with an ounce of scepticism. “No but where are you REALLY from? Where are you roots?” Well I really come from three countries. I have grown up in all three, have family in all three, went to school in all three, speak all three languages and call all three home. In the end, I often resort to a combination of two, according to the mood of the day. It helps overcome an otherwise perplexing impasse.

I have struggled with labels. Often called a “global citizen” by those who wish to look beyond the national lens, sometimes referred to as a “TCK” (third culture kid), I don’t recognize myself in any of these portrayals. I’m even more at loss when asked, then, to name the best identifier myself. A short one preferably. Why can’t I just be Asmara-who-is-Brazilian-Lebanese-and-French-currently-living-in-Berlin-working-on-Yemen-and-moving-to-Cairo. Granted it is a bit long. But at least it is accurate.

It is not so much the label itself that bothers me but the necessity to have a qualifier before engaging with a person. As if some ground rules were needed before an exchange could actually take place. I experienced the same feeling of uneasiness during our trip to Mae Sot. The field study was meant to expose us to situations of cross-border movements of people between Myanmar and Thailand. In that specific instance, nationality was established from the get-go as most were Burmese nationals having come to Thailand in search of a better haven. As such, an added layer of qualifiers became necessary. The first question asked of a person of Burmese origin was whether he or she was a refugee, a migrant, a legal one, or one with an illegal status. The qualifier became yet again the main identifier, leading all too often to single story narratives on what they must have been going through. The few people we met whose legal situation we did not actually know -only their current occupation- were quickly asked in which category they initially fell. It felt as if we were dispossessing them of their individual stories.

In our ongoing peacebuilding training at Chula, we have already had several discussions on the single story. We have learned to ask where somebody is a local of over where they are from. We all agreed with it. And yet, we still continue introducing ourselves to every new instructor by telling them our name, our country of “origin” and our profession. Our Chula face sheet summarizes about the same.

Yet, in the quest for constant qualifiers one episode came as a true relief, levelling the playing field, putting set identities in brackets for a moment. And it came triggered by other fellows. What a breath of fresh, yet intense, air it was. This moment was particularly powerful because it required us to resort to “otherness”. We were asked to leave our identities for the time of an exercise and “feel” as others would.

At that point in time, we were no longer expected to feel, think and act according to where we “came” from (well probably still a bit but not explicitly) or to what our profession was. Instead, and for an albeit short moment, we left all the above aside to imagine other people’s lives, that of refugees, anywhere in the world, in the multitude of contexts in which they live. As part of the exercise, a smaller group of us would lead the rest of the class into a heuristic and sensory experience where art and poetry became the language of peacebuilding. While initially intimidated, the class quickly rallied and conveyed exile, forced migration, departure, oppression, despair, but also hope, through movement, expression and acting. The tension and attention levels in the class were palpable. They were fragile, humble and authentic. We were transported somewhere different than where our usual selves feel comfortable. Well, we were not our usual selves.

Interestingly, everyone thoroughly partook in the ensuing poetry writing activity and each, and every one of us was compelled to read their piece. Each waited for his/her turn. The shy and the less shy all volunteered. All listened. 21 pieces were read. Yet, no one could imprint the mark of a country on them. For one moment, one short moment, for the first time, I could rid myself of labels, put by me, put by others or decided by the rules of an arbitrary game. I saw my fellow classmates through a lens that added yet another layer of complexity to the formidable combination of experiences each one had brought along.

On my way home, invigorated by this experience, I smiled. I felt ready to tackle the next day introduction, asking myself what nationalities I would pick this time and share with the new instructor. Maybe I’d resort back to mentioning all three, owning more than ever the elicitive model of engagement introduced to us by Nabil Oudeh. But most importantly, I’ll resort whenever possible to the practice of creative arts and non-verbal communication in an attempt to overcome the limitations brought on every one of us by the use and abuse of labels.

Asmara Achcar, Lebanon-France-Brazil
Rotary Peace Fellow- Class 20


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