Hi, my name is Cris, and I’m a universal foreigner.
That means that I don’t identify as any nationality, and not in a hippie, Mother Gaia way (like I’ve heard it sounds). I honestly don’t have cultural attachments neither to the geographic coordinates where I was born nor to “the place where I grew up” or “where my parents are from”.
I know this drives some people mad. I don’t care much about these people. If you can spend 15 minutes of your chill travels or hard-earned vacations asking me “but WHERE are you from? Where were you BORN? What PASSPORT do you have?”, getting gradually angry and not being able to move on with your life until you extract “the answer” from me like you were from Homeland Office, you have problems. I also don’t care about people who hear me say that and immediately sigh, roll their eyes and walk away, but I respect them more, because at least they are valuing their own time, and mine.
I’m completely aware that some people have patriotic feelings. I don’t. And I don’t try to convince them to change their mind, but more often than not, I meet someone who will try to convince me that I need to feel proud of a country, generally one that corresponds to their idea of what my skin tone and accent means to them.
To some people, it’s almost impolite not to feel an emotional attachment to the country where you were born, and – careful! – if this country doesn’t “correspond” to some ethnicity, then to their grandparents’ country. The typical “No, where are you FROMMM-A” question, that follows when someone is being singled out for their ethnic appearance, even if they and their parents were born in the same place as the one who asks.
And even to some people who are “cool” about accepting someone’s patriotic feeling being from wherever they choose, this “wherever” tends to need to be either the country where you were born or the country where “your ancestors come from”. There isn’t an option for not feeling like you belong to these cultures at all.
I don’t find silly that your attachment to a land represents your childhood memories, or an identity that gives you a sense of belonging to a group that shares a set of common cultural elements. That food, that music, that slang, represent your group, your tribe. It’s fair that you feel a nostalgic attachment, and I get that.
It’s what makes people say “Oh, you’re so… [French, German, Japanese, etc]”. And that is really ok, if you feel proud of being recognized by this set of cultural elements.
But what happens when you don’t?
What happens when people express their disappointment at you because you don’t act the way they expect people “from your country” to act? What happens when people try to crowbar these cultural characteristics in you once they learned where you were born, completely disregarding what they actually have in front of them? You know, like saying:
– “What kind of Spanish person is vegetarian?”, or
– “It will never work out between you two, because Slavic men and Latina women are too different?”, or
– “Sorry, you won’t understand because you’re not British”, or
– “Oh, you’re SO Brazilian, I have a Brazilian gay friend who’s just like you, so dramatic” (when you’re actually telling someone that you were bullied in school), or
– I have an Italian friend, I need to introduce you to her, you’re gonna love her! (and why not introduce me to a Polish, Ukrainian or Turkish friend that I may also love, and who said I will love your friend just because both of us were born within the borders of Italy?)
I once was at an expat party in Barcelona, and a girl literally said that she was only asking where I was from to know what I was all about. I kid you not. She told me she was Austrian, and all I still know about her with this piece of information is that she was born in Austria, and on a different note, that she’s annoyingly narrow-minded.
No, you can’t know what ANYONE is “all about” when you have access to the information of where they were born. You can’t even try and guess their personality, favorite food, level of intelligence, the way they are in bed, or their emotional responses.
You may even say your culture defines who you are. Whatever that means 1.
But nothing, from any of the countries and languages and cultures that formed part of my childhood, be it physically or just ideologically, define who I am. Me, Cris. I just can’t have this feeling of saying “this is me, this is my country”.
And I don’t think “just saying the country” explains it either, even if it satisfies your disinterested box-ticking curiosity. When you’re backpacking, for instance, and people ask where you’re from, they imagine you were born in that country, studied in that country, left to travel, and then at some point you’ll be returning to that country, where all your friends and family are. And it’s reasonable, because most people are like this. When you’re working abroad, and people ask where you’re from, they imagine you left that country to work here – and at most, that you went to uni here before – but that you still hang out in a community where everyone speaks your mother language, that at least at home you speak your mother language. And it’s reasonable, because most people are like this.
But some people aren’t.
I speak 5 and a half languages. 3 can be considered “mother tongues”, but the 4th is my favorite and I’m better at it than languages 2 and 3. I use more slang in language 4 than in language 1. I don’t even know what the new slang in language 1 is anymore. I dream and think in English, in case that was your next question.
My dad was born in a place that currently wants to separate and become it’s own nation. It’s a bilingual region per se, with it’s own identity issues. My mum is from another region where the same 2 languages are spoken, but that doesn’t want to separate. I was born in another country, but went to a school from a 3rd country. We had to sing their anthem every Monday and had classes in that language. It just happened to be in the neighborhood, and my mum was a teacher there, so it was easier for her to take me to school as a kid. I have lived in 4 countries so far. 3 of them not as a digital nomad, but as a full-on student, professional and taxpayer. I always had attachments to other countries, that I can’t claim as being part of, because I haven’t grown up there, and my parents are not from there. But it’s an attachment by choice. Like when you say friends are the family that you choose.
I know there are plenty of people like me out there. Some call themselves citizens of the world. I once saw “universal foreigner”, and I though it defined me better.
In a time and age when people who don’t identify as their assigned gender are being more and more accepted, it wouldn’t be that hard to accept people who don’t identify as the nationality they were assigned either.
Nothing to do with being hippie. But in a way, no one should care.
Note: Although I completely understand patriotism that relates to your memories and identity, I have my reservations about that patriotism that is only there as an unconscious need to be proud of something, when you don’t have much to be proud of yourself in terms of stuff that YOU have accomplished. There is nothing to be proud of in the place in the world where you were RANDOMLY born and did NOTHING to get this result.
Australian comedian Alex Williamson in a brilliant piece about “choosing where you’d like to be born before life begins” – and also refugees, but that’s a different issue :).
And if you study a bit of history, you know that borders are artificial, anyway, most of them created by mere political reasons, to gather land, power and subjects around ONE guy.
That is maybe a hippie thought, after all.
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