Notes about the expat life


Where are you from? I remember when that was a simple, straight-forward question.

For most of my life I could hold up my right hand and point to a place on my palm, because Michigan – well, the lower peninsula – is shaped like a mitten. Everyone from Michigan would know exactly where I was from. The southwest corner of the state, of course.

When I ask where someone is from today, there’s no telling what I might hear.

At a youth group event last Friday night, we played a game which required us to divide into four teams, and so we divided up by continents and passports. People with passports from Asian countries were on one team, people with passports from African countries were on another, etc. I played for the American team.

On my team, for example, was a young man who was born in Paraguay, lives currently in Switzerland, but has a U.S. passport.  Poor kid, except, as it turns out, that’s not such an unusual story.

Youth groups always find a way to leave someone feeling left out, and Friday night that person was the lonely, left-out teenager with an Australian passport. I forget now which team she joined, but trauma was avoided and everything turned out all right.

But there we were, with all of our cultural stereotypes on full display. The Americans and Asians fought hard to win, as though the World Cup itself was at stake, while the Africans and Europeans talked among themselves, ate the snacks, and appeared to have a good time.

Speaking of the World Cup, where are these guys from? Does anyone even care? The player who kicked the winning goal for Switzerland a few nights ago is Albanian. The coach of the U.S. team is German. Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the best players in the world today, is Portuguese but plays for Real Madrid, a Spanish team.

I want the U.S. team to do well of course, though it was clear (I thought) when we played the German team that we are not yet among the elite teams in the world. And because I’m living in Switzerland, this tiny land of only eight million people, I find myself cheering for the Swiss team too. (The whole country goes nuts when they win.) And surprisingly, I also feel a tiny bit of allegiance to the team from the Netherlands. Go orange!

So, where are you from?

I told the youth group Friday night – during the “let’s all be serious now and talk about our faith” portion of the evening – that these days we need to think more deeply than ever before about our identity. We are more than our passports tell us about ourselves.

For me, I told the youth, that means being a child of God. I have been baptized. I have an identity that transcends nationalities and languages and skin colors and even World Cup teams.

I know where I am from.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.
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