Last week I was walking through the greeting card aisle in my local Rite Aid when a man stopped me and asked me if I spoke Polish. He needed help understanding one of the greeting cards written in English.
(I don’t speak Polish.)
This happens more than you might think. Or really, what usually happens is people don’t even ask they just start talking to me in Polish. This is because the neighborhood I live in is predominately Polish. And I guess I look like I could be Polish.
As an isolated incident this is kind of funny. But in a larger context it is very funny. To me at least. I’ll explain.
When I was young I spent time with mostly white people in mostly white places and I never questioned whether or not I belonged. Then, in relative succession I spent one year in Argentina, a few months in southern Mexico, and a year in Madrid (excuse the condensed time line of my life). And by the end of it I was thinking, you know, I don’t really feel like I belong in any of these places. So, I said to myself, maybe I’ll go back to the States for a while. I’ll try living in an American city. Because I am American, I’ll belong there.
It turns out (and you probably already knew this) being American has nothing to do with belonging in New York City. I belong in New York City less than I thought. On the other hand, I think I belonged in Argentina and Madrid more than I gave myself credit for. I’m realizing that nationality has pretty much nothing to do with belonging.
Even differences in language do not necessarily prevent belonging. I confessed to the man at Rite Aid that I did not speak Polish. But he solicited my advice anyway, asking me in broken English if this card would be appropriate for his niece who was graduating. I scanned the card and concluded, yes, this would be a nice card for your niece.
Yes I am a gentrifier in this neighborhood. And whether or not I belong here is a question yet unanswered. But what I do know is that belonging cannot be granted by a government. It is granted by real live people–ones you can see and touch and talk to.