My first several days in Mysore have forced me to pause and think of the labels I wear and the ones I have had to shed in order to step into this life.
My newest label — foreigner — is the one that caused me to truly consider the way that categories for the self are constantly in flux and much more contextual and situational than they are fixed like we like to treat them.
Just 6 months ago, I adorned the labels “wife,” “mother,” and “homeowner” (among others). And as these labels have been shed, new ones have emerged to replace it. “Nomad,” “divorcée,” and “avid walker” are some new ones I am wearing now.
But this big one — foreigner — carries a lot of weight. For one, it’s something that people here in India can see about me long before (or if) they ever talk to me. The Oxford English Dictionary says a foreigner is “A person from another country, esp. one whose language and culture differ from one's own.” And what sticks out in that definition for me is how it is actually more about those who are creating the label, not the self. I never declare myself as foreign; this is done for me. I walk into a store, and the shopkeeper tells me that the items foreigners come in for are in the back. At the restaurant, the waiter asks me how spicy I can handle my food as many foreigners prefer it mild. I chat with an Uber driver and his first question is where I am from.
The labels we wear are often more about how we are being perceived than how we feel about ourselves. In fact, labels are mostly a social tool we use to categorize ourselves for convenience, segregation, or organizing. I think of one label that I wear proudly: lesbian. And lately, I wonder how useful that label is. I am not partnered, I am not dating, I am not visibly queer (to an untrained eye, I suppose). This term is used to organize for lgbtq rights back home, but as a foreigner, is it a useful label for me here? It’s handy when seeking out a partner, but what if that is not something I have any sort of interest in doing any time soon?
At what point do we voluntarily shed the labels that have been placed upon us? How much of this labeling is even voluntary? When I reflect on the various labels I wear and shed, it’s clear to me that I did not come up with most of them. They seemed to be more for the convenience of others — a way for others to figure out what to do with me, how to engage with me, where to put me.
And this brings me to a secondary definition of foreigner from the OED: “A person who is estranged or alienated from something; a person who or thing which is strange or unfamiliar.” I feel like a foreigner amongst my own labels, the old self that I shed and left in pieces scattered in different cities and countries across the globe as I make this journey.
When all the labels are shed, what is left? Who is Gina? Today, I am a foreigner in India, but the moment I choose to leave and find home, what new labels will emerge? In my resistance to this idea, is it possible to re-emerge labeless?
The idea itself feels… foreign.