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I have arrived back in Holland, my home and land of my birth, but the country that sits in its place is completely foreign to me.
So I am back home. Everybody says so, so I must be. I do recognise this country, but it is like I am looking into a carnival mirror: everything is slightly out of whack and distorted. People speak the language I grew up with, but some words are daggy now, or have even changed meaning. Supermarkets look the same, but sell spelt spaghetti instead of good old-fashioned cabbage stew. I have also suddenly turned into an old person. Years ago, the Dutch government embarked on a mission to embed lines of poetry into hundreds of footpaths. A little education and art while you rush from home to work; a great initiative. Around the corner from where I am staying, there are two. Both of them were written by people I knew, had drinks with, interviewed as a journalist. They are also both dead, and mostly forgotten by my young countrymen, and women. It is a sobering reminder of one’s own mortality and temporary place in the world.
I am especially focused on these thoughts because somewhere in the next week or so I will become a grandmother. My amazing daughter is “at full sail”, as my Australian husband says, and in her first floor apartment in Amsterdam a blow-up bath is waiting for the home delivery of my granddaughter. So people keep asking the question: what about me? Yes, we know you’ve been living in Australia for ten years now and have got a life there. But surely now, with a child coming, you will come back? Because this is where home is, this is where you belong, this is who you are. My identity, they say, is Dutch, right? Right?!
I throw up the practical arguments. Relationship, work, friends, climate, nature even. I joke that I long for a “Beam me up, Scotty”-type device, which will allow me to take care of my granddaughter once a week and live in Australia the rest of the time. Both are true; the quip more than the rational claims, as is usually the case. What I fail to explain, because I haven’t really figured this one out myself, is that something in my identity has shifted. Ten years in Australia have changed the fabric of who I am. Slightly, maybe, but enough to no longer fit the Ingeborg-shaped place there was for me in Holland. I could probably get used to the spelt spaghetti, but my eye, now set to Australian sensibilities, will never again be able to see this society in an uncomplicatedly Dutch way. It is like the letter you get and read: once you’ve read it, you can never un-read it. What you know and see can never be unknown and unseen. Whether I like it or not, I have become, as have many millions of people in the world, a mongrel, an in-betweener, somebody with a two-tone identity.
Since the 1970s, identity has become the organising principle of choice. According to identity politics, we are supposed to have a distinct identity, which fits into a discrete group. But, we don’t, really. We are not one thing only.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not complaining. It is a simple consequence of a choice I made. And I was fortunate, because for me it was a choice, not something I was forced into. A few days ago I was watching Mo Farah win gold at the Rio Olympics. Twice. As he has developed a habit of doing. It has earned him calls to receive knighthood and he has been called Britain’s greatest ever athlete. Farah is a fellow mongrel, I am proud to say. He was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, but brought to London by his father to escape the 1980s civil war in the country. He was eight, could not speak a word of English and had to leave his twin brother Hassan behind. He was bullied at school and was dipping into depression when he was taken in hand by his PE teacher. Farah worked like crazy and realised that he “hated losing”. He’s got four gold Olympic medals now, one for every one of his children, he said proudly after the finish of the last race. Number two was an American, and that must have felt good too, because Farah gets stopped by US Customs all the time. Black, a Muslim: must be a terrorist, surely? But then, that American was a mongrel too: Kenyan-born Paul Kipkemoi Chelimo.
Then there are mongrels of a different shape. Hande Kader had a mixed-up identity not because of where she was born but how. She was a Turkish transgender person, who was raped and then burnt to death in Istanbul a few days ago. Tonight there will be a vigil for her here in Amsterdam, and no doubt in many other places in the world. Kader was 23 when she was murdered, but during her short life she managed to put the precarious state of the Turkish LGBTQ community firmly on the map.
I am not comparing myself to Mo Farah or Hande Kader. That would be ridiculous. I am a white woman who made a choice and is now thinking about the consequences, that is all. The point I am trying to make is about identity. The going dictionary definition of identity is that it revolves around “the characteristics determining who or what a person is”. It has to do with “the continuity of a person through time”, something that makes us “definable and recognisable”. Since the 1970s, identity has become the organising principle of choice. According to identity politics, we all belong to a group. The American magazine The Atlantic recently even claimed that the Republic Party will become the organisation focused on “white identity politics”, whatever that is.
So we are supposed to have a distinct identity, which fits into a discrete group. But, we don’t, really. Let me be presumptuous and speak for a lot of us mongrels in the world: we are not one thing only. We can’t be, because we are shape-shifters, whether we want to be or not. A little bit of the old, some of the new and something that is ours alone. No group for that, apart from the great big diaspora of mutts, of cross-breeds, who are mentally or physically mixed. It hurts, sometimes, like when your granddaughter is about to be born and you know she won’t grow up living next door. That hurts a lot. But it is what it is, as the saying goes…no crying over spilt milk.
Or lost identity.