What Does Nationality Mean Today?


Where Are You From? This innocuous question, frequently asked during our travels has led me to ponder, possibly too deeply, what national identity means. So today I’m going to indulge in a little navel-gazing on this subject – feel free to check out now if this is not your cup of tea.

When someone asks me “Where are you from?”, I usually reply “I’m Irish, but I live in Seattle”. The typical response is something like “I thought you were American” usually said in the tone of “I knew it was Colonel Mustard in the Library with the candlestick” since I, accent-chameleon that I am, have only a shadow of a brogue left in my speech. (I have lived in the US for the past fifteen years and I have US citizenship.)

We’ve met other expats with similar life stories on our travels. On a winery tour in Argentina, we met a friendly German who told us he was from Hamburg only to later share that he’d been living in Brazil for over forty years. On the same tour we met a much older couple with the sharpest New York accents that I have ever heard. It turns out that the wife was born in and had lived her whole life in that great city but her husband was Argentinian and had immigrated to New York in his twenties. He didn’t correct our initial assumption that he was American. I can attest that sometimes I don’t correct people either since, for a brief conversation with someone you may never meet again, the explanation is just not worth the hassle.

But, my nationality is not my accent. It is not where I choose to live, work, vote and pay taxes (and unlike some, I do vote and I value the right to do so). I will likely never describe myself as American because, being an expat, I don’t consider myself American.

All of which has led me to consider, what does cause me to identify myself as Irish? It’s hardly language since the only Gaelic I know is the little I learned in school. Music and literature are important in Ireland and there are plenty of both in our house but books and songs alone seem insubstantial. Guinness does not a cultural tradition make and Ireland has great seafood but nothing like the strong culinary identity of say, France. I think it’s fair to say that national customs are important but nebulous. The weight of any one thing, whether it’s food, dance or sport, depends not only on the country in question but also on personal interest and participation.

I grew up in Ireland, moving to the U.S. when I was 24. Having lived there is very important but I haven’t lived there in 15 years and, as any long-term expat knows, countries change. My experience of Ireland is very different to the Irish college kids who we met at a hostel in Peru. After all, they were about twenty years younger than me and had spent their teen years in an affluent country enjoying the benefits of the Celtic Tiger whereas I remember an economically very weak country with rampant unemployment.

Here’s a thought: “Is history the key factor?” Certainly I can give chapter and verse on the various wars and rebellions that make up Irish history. History as a driver of national identity would also account for my children passionately choosing to describe themselves as American – even as they present Irish passports at borders. They have adopted the stories they’ve learned about the Pilgrims and the heroes of the American Revolution as their own.

We’ll soon be visiting Vietnam. Is there a better example of where nationality and history crash together in a way which will influence what we see and do while visiting somewhere? Whether you travel with your children or not I believe that as a parent today, you need to educate your child not only about your country and culture but also, with nuance and feeling, about how your country has behaved on the world stage.

I believe that nationality still matters. I believe that history is an important part of national identity. Do you?

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About wandermom

". . .life is short and the world is wide" - Simon Raven I'm not sure I've ever consciously planned a trip based on this sentiment, but it definitely influences my subconscious! I've been traveling as frequently and widely as possible since I finished school. And I love it. I love the research, the planning, the fervent packing and the curiosity of exploring somewhere I've never been before. My husband & I are both Irish - as in born-in-Ireland. But we live in Seattle. We have two boys: wild, boisterous, regular boys. So, since becoming a Mom, I've been a WanderMom. Given our slightly-unusual family situation, routine "visits-to-Grandma" are international trips requiring passports, 10hr-flights and (oh joy!) airport transfers. I have rants, raves and opinions about how, where & why to travel with kids (start them as young as you can, I say!). I hope to learn even more by researching topics which other wandermoms may be interested in reading about on this blog. Passports, pacifiers, diapers and gameboys at the ready - off we go! Contact Info: Email Michelle: michelle (at) murphnduff (dot) org

7 thoughts on “What Does Nationality Mean Today?

  1. quickroute

    I’ve struggled with this question for many years. I love the line in the movie Bulworth where the main character a politician has an awakening and suggests the more inter racial / nationality cross breeding the better. If we are all of mixed ethnicity it would eliminate so many problems of racism. I believe nationality is just a primitive urge to belong to a group. Belonging is a primeval urge. Knicks fan, Man Utd, Democrat, Republican, Irish, German, black, white. The longer you live outside the group the less you identify with it’s ‘blinkers on’ (we are right and you’re wrong) attitude. I’m still proud to be Irish and yes the history is hugely important but the root of fanaticism and in many cases terrorism just tweaks nationalism to extreme lengths. I’m from earth – where you from?

  2. Leigh

    The Where are you from? question is difficult for me to answer, because I’m not really from anywhere anymore. Born in South Africa. My nationality is United States but haven’t lived there in the last 4 years. I live in Argentina but don’t plan to stay permanently.

    I think history most definitely ties you to a place. I feel more connected to Argentina, particularly the region in which I live, when I know why people do things and understand the holidays. I feel less misplaced. But I think it’s my physical presence that connects me more to the place than anything. Just as with the other places I’ve lived.

  3. Caitlin

    I can really relate to this. We were expats for seven years and could have become British citizens but I never stopped feeling that I was Australian and that Australia was home. History is important but to me, it’s a sense of connection with the land that anchors me to Australia. I feel it in my bones that this is my homeland.

  4. WanderMom

    @quickroute: You raise a really good point and one which honestly I wasn’t thinking of at all when I wrote this post. I’m not sure that mixed ethnicity would solve everything but definitely today’s increased movement of people to settle in different places around the world is helping break down barriers and prejudices.

    @Leigh: Also a really good point. Maybe if I stay living in the US some day I’ll find myself OK with being described as American?

    @Caitlin: Sounds like how I feel when we go to Ireland :)

  5. Molly Hyde-Caroom

    This is an excellent question! Eleven years ago I moved from MA (suburb of Boston) to be with my now husband(he is originally from TX). In this time, we have lived in NM, AZ, Japan, RI, and Germany together. I often feel like I am “homesick” for where I came from, and more importantly, where my parents are living. On the other hand, I have met the most wonderful people, experienced the best of so many cultures and had children in a couple of locations (twins in AZ and a son born in Japan). Everywhere we go, we take a little bit of that location with us and an understanding for people and cultures that we didn’t have before. Many of our traditions come from living all over and we are very open to all types of people and cultures. I realize for my children, they are more comfortable with foreign languages being spoken or on written signs then they are with English. All of them have spent more time living outside of the States and I consider them more global citizens than American at this point. I hope they will always feel this way no matter where they reside in the long run.
    Recently, I mentioned to a friend that I was homesick. Their response was “which one?”. It’s true, each has been a home and each has become a part of me.
    As you have said, whether you travel with your kids or not, I hope people will keep their minds open locally and globally and make the world their “home”.

    @quickroute I love your thoughts on living outside of a group and the need to be right or wrong!

  6. mimi

    when i chat with someone that i dont know,he ask me what your nationality i really wonder why he dont ask me where are you from

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