an expat tries to define his identity


The other day at work I had to fill out a typical bureaucratic piece of paperwork that, among other things, asked my ethnicity. It gave three options: European, Pacific Islander and Other. After some consideration I checked the box next to “European.” Shortly thereafter my boss (a British expat) cracked a little joke about how I checked the wrong box. I cracked a joke back saying that there wasn’t a box for “Yankee”…even though technically (being from Texas) I’m not a Yankee, but few people outside America understand or care about the difference and I gave up bothering to clarify it to them a long time ago. Anyway, technically the Brit was right. I’m not from Europe, but technically he was also wrong, because if you trace my ancestry back far enough my family tree traces back to Europe. So technically, I am of European descent. In fact, if I had to check an ethnicity box on a bureaucratic form in America the “correct” answer would be: “white American of European descent.”

This little episode got me reminiscing on my genealogy. My mother’s side of my family comes from France, but my father’s side is a little more complicated. They come from Haan, a village in Holland near the German border. So you could say that side of my family is Dutch, but the border of Holland and Germany has swayed over the centuries. So depending on which year you trace my family history back to I could either be Dutch or German. This raises the question, how far back do you have to trace your genealogy to find an accurate label for your heritage?

Let’s take the question to its inevitable conclusion. Why not trace your genealogy all the way back? Many (if not most) historians hold that humanity originated in Africa. This means that, technically (and despite my blonde hair and blue eyes), I’m an African American….but that’s still assuming the country I was born in (America) is a critical benchmark for defining one’s identity.

As cut and dry as that measurement seems, many people would still find fault with it. Since culture is based more on the way people live and think than political boundaries, many Texans identify themselves as “Texan” first and “American” second. Even then, what is an American? Everyone in South America is technically American. Canadians live in North America. So they’re American too. And what’s a Native American? The “Indians” who lived here before Europeans invaded came from Asia. So technically, they should be called Asian Americans, but again, if you go back far enough you could technically call them African Americans as well. For that matter if you go back even farther down the evolutionary trail you could say we’re all sea people. If you go even farther back we’re all star dust.

But getting back to the present, the question of my personal cultural identity gets murkier still when you factor in that I spent 7 years in the US military, which has a culture all its own. Many veterans spend so long in the military that they identify primarily as a veteran and view regular US citizens as a group distinctly separate from theirs. I didn’t buy into the system that much…well, maybe a little…but at any rate, I was in the service long enough to adopt a certain amount of military culture. On top of that I was stationed in Italy, Germany and Hawaii for 2-3 years per assignment. Living abroad in those other cultures left an indelible mark on my psyche, and today I wouldn’t be who I am without the experiences I had within those other cultures. If being raised in Texas makes me a Texan then living in Italy, Germany and Hawaii makes me culturally part Italian, German and Hawaiian. However, many of the native people who were born in each of those places viewed me as an unwelcome outsider and wanted me to leave. Should I let their prejudices influence how I’m allowed to define myself?

This is one of the things traveling the world does to you. It forces you to reexamine all the labels and assumptions of identity you were raised to take for granted, and the inevitable conclusion you’re bound to come to in regards to ethnicity is that our place of birth is arbitrary. Who you are is defined by what you’ve experienced, not by the place on your birth certificate. At any rate, the culture that exists in that time and place you were born only exists as it does because countless people have migrated from around the globe to the place you were born after intertwining the knowledge they learned from every person their ancestors have ever come into contact with. They then used that knowledge to help them survive in an ever changing environment, and as their environment changed they changed along with it. So nobody’s culture is the benchmark of reality. It’s like scooping a glass of water out of a river and saying that this glass of water is what a river is supposed to be. And since the river is constantly flowing I couldn’t just say “I’m a Texan” because what it means to be a Texan changes every year as the culture there evolves. So if I were to identify as a Texan I would have to add a conditional statement giving the years I spent in Texas. But if we have to get this surgical about it, we have to ask ourselves, why bother? Why is it so friggin important to find the right box to fit ourselves into and label ourselves with?

The more you travel the world and the longer you live abroad the more you’re inclined to come to the conclusion (hopefully) that our differences are arbitrary. In the end we’re all humans who evolved from the same roots. We’re all one global culture sharing the same physical and intellectual resources. There’s not really any such thing as a Texan or an American or a Kiwi or an Italian or Russian or Fijian. There are only human beings stranded on an absurd, beautiful little dirt ball spiraling around an explosive ball of burning hydrogen gas that’s hurtling through the emptiness of space. To put it simply, we’re all in the same boat. We’re all just human. That’s the most accurate label I can come up with.

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2 Responses

  1. I like this post 🙂 It reminds me of a frustrating mutual rant that an ex-colleague and I had once, when the organisation we were employed by decided to try to prove that it’s make-up matched that of the population it served (Greater London).

    It was a big “equality & diversity” gimmick, as far as we were concerned. Valuable in its own way, but not in the way that data were collected.

    She was born in the UK to a Trinidad national of (Asian) Indian descent, and a half-black Jamaican half-white Brit. She ticked “Black British”. I am white half-British, half-French, but have never lived in France, voted there, held a French passport etc. I ticked “White British”.

    HR were not satisfied with our simple, self-determined answers, probably because there are close to 100 different codes for various ethnicities in UK government, and actual came to our shared office to see if they could get us to tick something more “accurate” – their words, not ours.

    How they knew there might be more to our backgrounds, I don’t know… maybe the survey showed that we were prediominantly white British so they were desperate enough to double-check EVERYONE’S answers!

  2. A fantastic post 🙂

    I also struggle with my identity – whilst I may be British by birth, I am also part Welsh, part French, and part Indian, and I already think of myself as New Zealander by choice…

    I have had a couple of misunderstandings already when people ask “Where are you from?” on hearing my accent, and I say “Lower Hutt… Oh, you mean where do I *come* from?”

    It would be so nice if more people identified themselves as not of being of a particular nation race, but of the human race, as you have stated – the more we identify with everyone in a “we’re all in this together” way, the more likelihood we’ll have a better chance of untangling the mess we have already made of the planet and surviving as a species!

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