What am I

Dear Baby Girl, The other day you asked me, "Mama, what am I?" and I knew this was the kind of question that upends shelves full of books on the matter.

So I said, "You mean, a girl?" even though I knew that wasn't what you were asking. I was stalling.

You said, "No, I mean, like what country?" and this clumsily worded question had the power to stretch me and search me and wring me out like a wet dishrag.

Because the question you asked me was without precedence. The question of what country are you. One minute we were clipping your fingernails and the next moment you are asking me about geography.

At the time, I answered something like, "You're American."

But given more time to let the question marinade, I thought you should know that the question is not mine to answer.

You see, my bright daughter, the answer is yours to define.

Do you know what a country is? A country is a sovereign nation, a place defined by borders, marked by mountains, valleys, plateaus, bodies of water. Countries reside on invisible latitudes and lines of longitude. Their climates are often dictated by these lines. I know this is all a bit advanced for you right now. But countries have come to be because of countless decisions. Decisions to go to war to fight for territories large or small. Decisions to establish peace and neutrality. Decisions to rule over or surrender. Decisions to outlaw or make free.

So the question of what country you are might seem irrelevant for a sweet faced creature as yourself, whose mass is not defined by invisible lines, whose gross national product is not a measured in per capita. But if you were a country, I hope you would be the kind that stands strong along its borders, that knows what values define her, that builds a just government and sustains a vibrant economy and encourages innovation. I know you would be a beautiful country, with an ever-changing climate. You would be one that uses her resources wisely, that participates, that gives, that shows up to solve the problem when no other country can or will.

And if we are really honest here, the question of what country you are was probably more about a place of origin, right? You were asking me what nationality you were. Probably because someone asked what country you were from, probably because that person thought that nationality and ethnicity were the same thing. Probably because that person thinks Asians should only have brown eyes and black hair, probably because that person doesn't know what that we're all multi-ethnic anyway.

These are big words, aren't they? They are big words that represent complex ideas and experiences. What I have learned in 32 years of studying these ideas and experiencing them in a way that is more armchair sociologist than it is academic, is that the complexity is The Story. And it is always about the story. A story is a process that becomes a narrative and the ending might be a whole new beginning of another story. You are writing your own story and it is not mine to tell.

The next time someone asks you what country you are, you can tell him that you are still writing the story about that one.

Or. Or you can just skitter off and sharpen your colored pencils like you did the other night when I stood with a nail clipper in my hand and a question dangling like a retro phone off the hook.