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When the news from the other side of the world echoes in your heart

I have a friend at church from South Sudan. She watches the world news through the lens of how will this impact “my country” as she refers to her homeland. I listen to her prayer requests and am reminded what a sheltered, comfortable, American life I lead. My friend’s heart is tethered to South Sudan. The turmoil, the everyday life, the people, the family.

Yesterday was a big vote. Not here in the U.S., we had our day on Tuesday. And CNN-type pundits talked for hours, which collectively added up to days worth of noise, on the results and what they meant for our free nation. No, the vote that captured my heart this week was on the other side of the world. Some have called it a vote. Others a mock election. A straw poll. An independence referendum. A civil disobedience. No matter. What’s important to me is it happened in Catalonia, Spain. The question at stake: Is Catalonia really part of Spain? (You can read about it here.)

Perhaps you’ve heard of Barcelona or perhaps you’ve visited the beautiful jewel. It is Catalonia’s famous big city and major postcard producer. This corner of the world is a part of my personal story, and more deeply and intensely a part of my DNA. The first time I was introduced to this notion that I might be Catalan rather than Spanish I was nine-years old in Barcelona.

“Back in the kitchen, I watched as he chopped onions. Cooking wasn’t a talent I’d imagined in my father, but it sat well with me. It sounded domestic, caregiving. On our way to his apartment that day, my mother had explained that paella is a traditional Spanish dish. But as he stirred the rice, he instructed me that this paella was made with seafood because his was a Catalan recipe. He held up a shrimp as proof. From Catalonia, the province that surrounds Barcelona, butting up to the sea and to France.

“We are Catalan, not Spanish,” he explained. We? He was putting me in a category with himself. I liked it.

“No, we are not Spanish.” His face scrunched as he said it, the very thought creating distaste. “Borders. They don’t mean anything.”

I thought we were in Spain. I was confused, but I listened intently.

“We are Catalan. We speak a language no one else in the world speaks.”

Years later he would tell me the Mediterranean is the cultural center of the world. “Look at all of the best food, music, and art,” he would say. “It comes from the countries that surround the Mediterranean.”
Maybe artists are always self-focused, or maybe having people treat you like a celebrity shapes your personality, but I would later see these comments about the center of the world as further evidence of his outlook on where he stood in it.

But standing there in his kitchen, I didn’t understand what he was saying. I hung on to every word anyway, hoping for clues to where I fit into the “we,” and held my questions in for later pondering. How did I, the bubble-gum-chewing, Muppets-loving, tennis-shoe-wearing American girl fit into this larger “we”?

“We will separate from Spain one day.” He nodded as he said it, agreeing with himself. I got the feeling I didn’t need to be there for him to have this one-sided conversation.”

From The Artist’s Daughter: A Memoir, Alexandra Kuykendall, Revell Books 2013

And yesterday the discussion of independence was brought in front of the rest of the world. I found my heart racing, my tears swelling. Centuries of history that still is part of my DNA years despite the ocean that stands between my driveway and the events. Still trying to figure out where I fit into this “we”. Because that American girl has grown into an even more American woman. A minivan driving, Target shopping, yoga pants wearing stereotype.

Except this weekend I was reminded that I might not be as sheltered as I tell myself because my heart is tethered to another place in the world. Perhaps not as intensely as my friend from South Sudan. There’s no question “my country” is the red white and blue. It’s the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon and Hollywood. Like all things most dear in my life, it’s not perfect and I claim it as mine.

But for so many of us, most of us really, we only need to go a few generations back to find our immigrant roots. In a sense I’m a first-generation American, I had a parent who never lived on U.S. soil. I suspect I’m not the only one who pays closer attention when the world news is talking about another place, trying to figure out where I fit into the “we”. I scan the internet for news, pray for peaceful dialogue and recognize part of this American’s experience is to have my heart shaped by a place an ocean and a continent away.

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