BELARUS, ALSO KNOWN AS TERRA INCOGNITA

Hanna Karnei - Ecuador


April 29, 2017

In UWC we quickly learned to pick up the names of the countries that were unfamiliar to us and locate them on the world map. I remember I had to look up Swaziland when I found out my roommate is from there. I had a vague idea where Maldives were; neither did I know anything about Ghana. It was the unspoken rule to know where everyone comes from, even if it was just the name of the country and region. Over time, many places I haven’t previously heard about had acquired their own voices through personal stories which always come to me when a country or a place related to the story is mentioned in a random conversation.  

And so I believe that people are ought to be if not well versed in the international affairs, at least have a surface-level understanding of what’s the deal with one or another country and which part of the world it belongs to. When I travel I hold people to this standard, maybe because I regard my nationality as the pillar of my identity and I think many others do too. Being the minority abroad makes me want to be known not as simply a foreigner, or European, but as Belarusian.

Introducing myself, I always say that I am coming from Belarus; and frankly, rarely do I meet people who know what I’m talking about. Often my naiveté leaves me disappointed because for some reason I take someone’s ignorance regarding Belarus as a personal offense. For example in Ecuador, more often than not, people thought that, gringa as I am, I just have troubles pronouncing the name of the country Bielorrusia in Spanish. ‘You mean Rusia, right?’ they would clarify. At this point, if they haven’t yet assumed I’m Russian and interrogated me about Putin, snow and vodka, I do my best explaining the difference between the two countries, and for a couple seconds they sit there staring at me with a blank look. I can only imagine what is going on in their mind; can be anything form ‘Error 404. Sorry! The country you’re looking for cannot be found’ to a genuine interest.

Something really important that I learned in Ecuador is that as much as I have the right to feel uncomfortable when somebody doesn’t have a single idea where I come from, I also have to keep in mind that there is nothing wrong if a person can’t put his finger on my nationality. Because not knowing or seeming to care about the country of origin doesn’t equal to denouncing the nationality. Simple as that, I just have to admit that outside Europe and post-Soviet countries virtually nobody will make their priority to know what small Eastern European country I’m talking about – and I’m glad this no longer offends me or puts me down.

Steadily over time I learn to wear the label of a foreigner-from-god-knows-where with pride. In Ecuador, unlike when I traveled before, moments of complete misunderstanding even made me joyful. I felt excitement every time I realized that for some people I’m a nowhere man coming from terra incognita, a girl who happened to fall from the moon.

In UWC during midnight conversations with my friends in the laundry room, we were in awe of how much in common we have although we were born 10 000 km apart, on different continents. It was there when for the first time I thought that had I not been born in Belarus, I could as happily call my home any other country in the world – be it Cambodia, Costa Rica or Denmark – and have its culture and mentality align with my personal worldview.   

I’ve heard the phrase Global Citizen enough times this year for it to become a cliché; but being a global citizen, or Homo cosmopolites if you wish, does indeed mean a world to me. I want to be comfortable not only in Belarus – it’s a missed opportunity to overlook other destinations which are easily reachable nowadays – but in many places around the world, embracing all the unfamiliar, alien and confusing there. And while I will make sure to always have ties to Belarus, I know I will feel home in many places in the world; and I hope in a decade or two I will be able to look at the map and point at many places I call home.

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Hanna Karnei