Illustration by VectorMine/Shutterstock
In a transformed world, Negin Farsad asks: What does it mean to be well-traveled?
I guess if I had to put a label to it, I’d call myself a Global Citizen; you know, if push came to shove. Or si la poussée vient à pousser. See? I just dropped some French, and yet I’m primarily writing in English. How Global Citizen of me!
If I was your bougie everywoman, the type who went to college, did a semester abroad, backpacked around Europe, watched French films at independent cinemas, and in a pinch, could recall, and even correctly pronounce, the name of the German chancellor, you’d call me a Global Citizen. A woman who’s sensitive to the plight of rural Hondurans and doesn’t confuse them with other Central Americans. Who understands the difference between a crumpet and an English muffin. A woman who gets it.
That woman may be a Global Citizen, but she is the Global Citizen from an era of American life when only certain types were privileged enough to be well-traveled.
What makes me a Global Citizen is that I was raised to love a place I didn’t spend much time in. That I was taught to feel belonging in two countries.
Parts of me are that woman—the college, the semester abroad, followed by the teaching English abroad, followed by the cashiering and waiting tables abroad. I do see snooty foreign films, and I do feel a pang of recognition when I look at a crumpet. I see you crumpet, I know who you are. But I’m not the every-bougie-woman you may have conjured, because I’m also Iranian and Muslim and the daughter of immigrants. I was raised not just bilingual but trilingual—my parents are from a pesky part of Iran that neighbors Azerbaijan. In that region, you speak not only Farsi but also Azeri. That’s right, I speak all the useful, marketable languages. I’m your bougie everywoman doused in saffron.
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I represent an intersection of a thousand things: the Iranian, the American, the Azeri. I’ve lived in Paris, London, on the East Coast, on the West Coast, in the desert, and in the snow. Maybe all of that makes me a Global Citizen. But that’s not really it. What makes me a Global Citizen is that I was raised to love a place I didn’t spend much time in. That I was taught to feel belonging in two countries. Throughout my life, that feeling of belonging has spilled over to nearly everywhere and everyone.
My earliest memory of an international flight didn’t have the glamour of “travel.” I was going to see family in Iran, because that’s where they all were. For me it was the equivalent of visiting the in-laws in Sheboygan. There were no mai tai cocktails or flower leis to welcome us. Instead we were greeted with an announcement on the flight reminding the ladies that before they left the plane, they had to wear the hijab—to cover their hair and the contours of their bodies in accordance with the rules of the Islamic Republic. My mom would whip out a chador and groan. I was a kid, so I didn’t think much of it.
Iran looked different, and yes, a little scary. But still, I had the best times there. Iran was fun! I had so much family, and they constantly threw parties and gave me candy. What more could a kid want? We would go to Iran for many summers and I loved it. I loved this place that was so different and so much more restrictive and yet none of that mattered.
Now I’m married to a Black man—his mother was white and his estranged father was Black. They’re both deceased. He has experienced homelessness, lived a middle-class life, and glimpsed the finer things. His background is similarly a thousand things: It’s American, Polish, Catholic, agnostic, and of course some African heritage he’ll never quite know.
Together, we made a kid, who’s now a toddler, who has my thousand things and his thousand things, which means I have to start doing math.
I expect her to love the many thousand things that make her a person. Places she hasn’t seen yet and places she may never see. In fact, she contains too many ingredients to start excluding points on the globe. Instead, she’ll have to embrace them all.
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Her first international trip was to Morocco, at just two months old. Her dad is an actor and was on the set of the TV show Homeland. While we were in Morocco, locals kept saying she looked so Moroccan. That she was surely one of them. It made me happy that they were so willing to claim her. We became instant family in those moments. She has that ethnically ambiguous face where she can easily blend into so many countries. But it’s not just thick eyebrows and brown skin—she’s actually made of so many countries.
Our family doesn’t naturally fit on the cover of any country’s travel brochure. Sometimes we look like we’re from the place, sometimes we look like weird sideways versions, sometimes we’re in Finland. So we build a new category: We belong everywhere we go. We don’t ask. We just assume we belong and hope it sticks.
And of course it will. Because my baby shares her Muslim background with more than a billion people scattered around the world; she shares her African background with billions, too; she shares her Americanness with hundreds of millions. It would be too much for her to gerrymander the places that don’t contain her. She has to be empathetic to their shortcomings, proud of their achievements, and worried for their collective future.
I expect her to love the many thousand things that make her a person. Places she hasn’t seen yet and places she may never see.
Because my daughter is that kind of Global Citizen. She has to travel more thoughtfully. She has to plan long voyages where she can not just see people, but know them. She has to care about the air and the water and the erosion. She has to see places as not just a collection of monuments but as a continuum, and she has to know that when she touches that continuum, she changes it. So she has to be careful with that power. She has to imbue it with love.
But nearly all of us in America fit this description. We’ve each got a thousand things behind us. We’re hyphenated by race, ethnicity, religion—and those are just the obvious ones. We’re also hyphenated by education, sports team, mustard preference, pet selection, and whether or not we believe in bedazzling T-shirts. Some Americans quarantined to jazz and others to Bollywood. Black people marched for Black Lives Matter and Filipino people marched for Black Lives Matter. Our calls to action this year—this century—cross generations, cultures, races, and classes.
So of all the people, in all the world, it should be easy for us to be this kind of Global Citizen—the kind that arrives in a country with care.
After all that 2020 has heaped on us, I believe that global spark is still with us. Even in the people who bedazzle their T-shirts.
>>Next: Travel Has Changed—So Must We
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