Friday, August 17, 2012

A question of identity

During the summer, scientists like to organize short courses that are a couple of weeks long and are held at small research institutions near a beach or a mountain.  The classes are small, acceptance is tough, and the students come from diverse places around the world.  One morning this week after I gave a lecture at one of these courses, I hung around to chat with some of them over a cup of tea.  I was astonished to hear that about four or five of the students could speak Persian!  Curious to learn more, I inquired about their paths in life.  All were kids of parents who were displaced or otherwise negatively affected by the Iranian revolution in 1978.  The parents had been young intellectuals who had immigrated to the west, and these were their kids, raised with Persian language at home, a different language at school, and two cultures entangled.  What exactly are you when you are born and raised in London, the most important holiday for you is Norooz, and your favorite food is basmati rice with Khorshe Gheymeh?  Your passport says something about your nationality, but where is home?

A few years back, Yo Yo Ma, the famous cellist, talked about this question of identity in an interview with National Public Radio.  Here is what he said:  “I was born in Paris, my parents were from China, and I was brought up mostly in America. When I was young, this was very confusing: everyone said that their culture was best, but I knew they couldn't all be right. I felt that there was an expectation that I would choose to be Chinese or French or American. For many years I bounced among the three, trying on each but never being wholly comfortable. I hoped I wouldn't have to choose, but I didn't know what that meant and how exactly to "not choose." However, the process of trying on each culture taught me something. As I struggled to belong, I came to understand what made each one unique. At that point, I realized that I didn't need to choose one culture to the exclusion of another, but instead I could choose from all three.  The values I selected would become part of who I was, but no one culture needed to win. I could honor the cultural depth and longevity of my Chinese heritage, while feeling just as passionate about the deep artistic traditions of the French, and the American commitment to opportunity and the future.”

Thinking about Yo Yo Ma’s view, I realized that the diversity in the students’ experiences had provided them with options, samples of what different cultures could provide.  But in addition to cultures rooted in geographical locations, they had been exposed to the culture of science.  Science provided a few of the things that countries tend to provide: deep history, myths, inspirational heroes, and sensational legends.  For some students, science was a comfortable community, the closest thing to what they might call home.