TEL AVIV, Israel — I was sitting at a beachfront café in Tel Aviv when my waitress asked me something that was at once the simplest and profoundest of questions: “Where are you from?”
I’m tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed. It is not a difficult observation for the waitress to make that I am not an Israeli native. And yet I paused for an awfully long time, to the point that the waitress likely wondered if I had even heard her.
I had. But the question, which I had been asked so many times by this point on my two-and-a-half-week journey around the world, from Los Angeles to China to Thailand to Israel to Russia to home, had me spinning.
Our answer to that question changes many times over in life, yet I had never really thought about it. It sent my mind back to a passage from a book Stafford Slick had recommended to me, called Illusions: Adventures of a reluctant Messiah, which I had read on the flight from Los Angeles to China.
“The simplest questions are the most profound. Where were you born? Where is your home? Where are you going? What are you doing? Think about these once in a while, and watch your answers change.”
I had never thought about it at all, and yet, as I took inventory of the past 29 years, my answers had changed quite drastically. As a kid, I was from Roberts Field, a tiny little hamlet in Hampstead, Maryland, with a cul de sac that doubled as a sports arena of made up backyard games. As a high schooler, I was from North Carroll. When I enrolled at the University of Maryland, my answer expanded to Carroll County. When I moved to Florida, my answer expanded still, to being, simply, from Maryland. When I road-tripped to California, where I’ve lived for a little more than five years — five years! — now, my answer has varied, though it has continued to expand, all the way to me identifying as being from the East Coast.
In China, where it was clear I was not Chinese but not immediately clear I am American — many asked if I were German, Australian, Swiss — my perimeter of identity widened still, to being from the United States.
I couldn’t explain this all to the waitress, of course, seeing as she had things to do. But reflecting on all of these changes in where I identify my hometown was an interesting psychological ride for me. I knew, coming into this trip, that it’s crucial to get outside of one’s comfort zone, to be the minority in someone else’s majority, though I never really knew why, other than the oft-recited, surface-level clichés and bromides everyone throws out but that have no real depth to them.
But the further I went outside of the comfort zones I had become so very, yes, comfortable, the less small differences between me and anybody else seemed to matter. It is human nature to seek a tribe, something that is built on similarities, any similarities. When I was in China, what I found is that small to medium differences, differences that could very well delineate the lines between friendship and enemies in the United States, were a non-factor. It didn’t matter if you were republican or democrat, atheist or Christian, dog-lover or cat lady, country fan or metal-loving screamer; if you spoke English, that’s all I needed. You were now my friend, my ally, a member of my tribe.
Much of the time, they didn’t even have to speak English.
When I was stuck in line at the Nanning Airport, in front of me was a Thai player I recognized from the Qinzhou three-star. Neither of us knew if we were actually in the right spot or not in Nanning, but we knew, from height and apparel alone, that we were both beach volleyball players, and that we were probably — maybe, hopefully — going the same direction. We stuck together, as new friends who could not communicate in any traditional manner other than laughing and smiling and hoping we’d end up in the right place.
Had I been in the United States, or anywhere that English was the main language, I don’t think I’d have paid him any mind. It made me recall a fascinating little tidbit from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Tipping Point, where he identified that any group of more than 150 people becomes too big. With that much homogeneity, we begin to fracture, sometimes caustically, violently, into mini-groups, separated by small differences that, when our groups are smaller and we cling to valuable similarities, we’d otherwise ignore.
Sometimes we’re even likely to forget the most major of differences, if we can find but a single shred of sameness. On my last day in Israel, we took a day trip to Jerusalem, home to the holiest of sites of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Countless wars have been fought over the land for that very reason, and wars and strife and conflict still exist. It would only be hours later that we’d be floating around the Dead Sea, the sound of sporadic gunfire providing an uncomfortable soundtrack to an otherwise indelible evening.
And yet it was in Jerusalem, site of some of perhaps the most violent epochs in world history, where I was struck soundly over the head by just how much the same we all are in so many ways. Throughout the streets were people speaking Portuguese, Spanish, French, Hebrew, English, Arabic and likely many other languages I cannot recognize. They came from every corner of the world, and yet they all came to that tiny little city in the Middle East for the same reason: To worship something bigger than them.
A Jewish man who introduced himself as Hillel, for example, approached our group of two Mormons, a Catholic and a Protestant. He shook our hands, said it was so beautiful that we were there, at the Western Wall, the most sacred ground for the Jewish faith. He was beaming that we were there, learning about his faith, learning about the same thing we’re all seeking: Something bigger.
The question, then, of where I am from, isn’t really the one that matters so much, I’ve found. We’re all from different spots. Different neighborhoods. Different cultures. Different backgrounds. Different languages. And yet none of that matters a whole lot. It hardly even matters what in the world we’re worshipping, be it God, Allah, Jesus Christ, Indiana Jones or Wilson The Volleyball, we’re all seeking something more.
Something a little bigger than ourselves.