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Nationless

Colorado 2011

Colorado 2011

I’ve been ruminating over this post for well over a year now. Three continents, four countries, and a circumnavigation of the world later, it’s still on my mind.

At some point, I became nationless. I am not English (or Korean, or Indian, or Chilean, or Italian). I am not “American,” either.

This is the product of my transitional life. Everything changes each time I move country. Food. Language. Circumstances. Job. Currency. Taboos. Friendships. Time zones. There is a definite immaterial bent to the material changes. I am still the same me in each new location (or at least I think I am), but the slow accumulation of these differences has slowly changed who that ‘me’ actually is.

If that weren’t confusing enough, the net effect of these combining changes is also manifested in the reactions and perceptions of those with whom I interact. People talk about third-culture children, but what about third culture adults? This is the two-pronged shitstorm of living abroad: #1, being an immigrant and all that entails, and #2 being unwelcome in one’s ‘own’ culture. One could put these in terms of being both immigrant and émigrée.

I am an immgrant. My presence in this country is contingent on my finances, my relationships, my studies, and my continued eschewal of anti-social behaviour. A government agency has decided for the moment to allow me to remain here, and can revoke that decision at any time. I have been an immigant in several countries, in several senses of the word. A student, a teacher, a volunteer, a worker, a tourist with a long visa. Five visas, four years. I’m getting rather good at this.

But being an immigrant is so much more than my visa. Huge swaths of cultural, racial, traditional, and linguistic aspects of society are challenged by immigration. This produces fear on the part of the challenged, or at least widespread discomfort. This is where the constant buzzing over immigration in most countries comes from. Those who feel more attached to their culture or society through an accident of birth often talk about immigrants and our impact.

Is this my nation?

Is this my nation?

The effects of this talk are easily visible. The huge debate about the NHS and how ‘health tourist’ immigrants cost the UK £2 billion per year, culminating in the proposal to make immgrants pay for their care in a supposed single-payer system. There are the weekly claims by government officials about the numbers of immigrants engaging in antisocial, illegal, or generally annoying behaviour. People in power can claim 1 in 5 marriages is a sham for immigration, despite that claim being practically unfounded. News agencies in Korea can run stories about how foreigners rape, steal, and generally spread pregnancy and HIV with impunity. US politicians can claim that for every immigrant brought in by their parents who is a valedictorian, there are 100 who are drug mules (that the only immigrants to the US are Mexican is of course the unspoken subscript).

To be an immigrant means to live with the the ever-present fear of immigration law changes. The legislatures of mine and my boyfriend’s countries are both currently debating immigration reforms, which often hurt those most likely to follow the laws (i.e. us). It is very difficult, if not impossible, to legislate a stop to illegal immigration. But governments want to show their xenophobic bases that they are acting on it, and thus try to bring down the overall numbers by attacking groups like students and couples whose passports don’t match. I have firends who live in exile from their own country because they don’t want to be separated from their spouses, who are citizens without the benefits of their birthplace.

Estimates of how many immigrants there are, what we do, and how much we ‘cost’ an economy are regularly off by ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE.This is not a locally US or UK phenomenon, it is global. I’ve never set foot in a country (and I’m up to eighteen now) that didn’t have a pejorative narrative about immigration in general, or at least some particular groups of immigrants. Politicians use false and harmful claims to energise their base, and to unite people around a common goal of retaining ‘Englishness’ or ‘American Culture’ or whatever they feel like promoting. No, no, surely that is only present amongst the Tea Party, the EDL, and the Golden Dawn. I wish it were. It would be much easier to dismiss the opinions of fascists and openly ethnocentric people, but the biases against immigration run far deeper than that.

People spout flawed and biased narratives about immigrants without considering that their own families and friends are likely to be affected in an increasingly global world. They are taken in by the pervasive falsehoods that fly in the face of facts and then use them to guide their lives, and especially their political decisions. They say innocent-sounding things like, “No one follows the immigration laws of the US” despite the fact that at least 14 million enter the US legally each year, and more than one million legally become citizens per annum. Of those who obtain permanent resident status in the US each year, 66% are being reunited with their families. But screw those people, who paid thousands of dollars and lept through bureaucratic hoops of fire to live in the same place as their families. Immigrants aren’t worth anything! They take jobs from us! They break the law! By pandering to narratives instead of looking at reality, they alienate immigrants and make us feel nationless.

I miss my old Korean neighborhood, the Gok.

I miss my old Korean neighborhood, the Gok.

To anyone I pass on the street, it is fairly apparent that I’m not from England. I’m a bit tall, really, and I have the characteristic chub of North American sedentary lifestyles. I open my mouth and it only gets worse. Sometimes, I don’t feel comfortable enough in a pub to order drinks, for fear of being singled out as foreign by my (rapidly-adjusting) accent alone. There is at least some (albeit very rare) evidence that my fears are grounded; a student from the US with a foreign accent was attacked by some men in an area of London I frequent, for being ‘obviously not local’.

I feel nationless because my nationality is not compatible with my daily reality. It’s the big questions that weigh on me: What is “American”? What is my nation? What is my culture? Where am I welcome?

Being an émigrée is just as difficult as being an immigrant. When I meet other people from the US, the changes I’ve accumulated in a few years living abroad are like a giant red flag waving in their faces, with ‘Other’ written on it. In fact, it is often more difficult for me to relate to those with whom I supposedly share the most. If there is a cultural misunderstanding between myself and someone from outside the US, I automatically get a pass as a foreigner (and I automatically give them a pass since I assume it must be a cultural difference). If I break some US cultural taboo, I my own national identity is in jeopardy.

This was a lot more common when I lived in Korea. I was called Anti-American at least four times while there, which is not an insult easily leveled by a Korean. Others from the US saw my political, social, and linguistic beliefs as indications that I was actively engaged in destroying “American” culture. Not least is in my informed choice not to use the term “American” in favour of “from the States” or even the newly-coined term from my boyfriend, “Statesian.” America is a continent. The USA is a country. If those who dislike my terminology had the same experiences in Europe and South America that I’ve had, they might consider Statesian a welcome alternative.

Taquile 2011

Taquine 2011

It’s true that the mould of my nationality is rigid and chafes me. But there are people defining facial features by degrees of American-ness, defining where my clothing styles fall on the spectrum of US cultural acceptability, criticising my bathing habits and deoderant use, my low use of electricity, my food choices. It’s fucking ridiculous! How could anyone be “American” enough? Not to mention that this assumes there is such a thing as being truly and throughoughly “American,” and not a walking amalgamation of cultures, traditions, and languages that constitute being from the States. Every time I go abroad, at least one Statesian tries to lump me in with them just because we happen to share passports, expecting that I must by definition share their beliefs and cultures.

It’s like reverse immigration. As someone moving outside the “American” that most know, I’m not welcomed by those who grew up in the US nor am I welcome in other countries as someone other than “the American.”

Politically, I’m just not sure that I care anymore. In England, I cannot vote. In the US (where I have not lived full-time for four years) I don’t know enough about the candidates to do so. When I send my absentee ballot, it is rejected on some strange grounds, returned to sender, or replaced with a paper ballot that arrives two weeks after the election. How can I be expected to take political processes seriously, when I can’t even participate? Not to mention that I’m not particularly proud to be part of a political system that can’t even pay its bills and which goes against most of its founding principles. I’ve tried to participate, traditionally and not, and gotten little response or change.

In England, I was able to register with the NHS the other day and access it just like a citizen, but in my own country up to Oct.1 I wouldn’t have had even basic coverage without the support of my parents. This year I did not have to pay much in taxes, but I did have to pay into the national health scheme of Korea each month. If I got similar services from the US, I’d happily pay a bit more in tax. The problem is that I don’t have a choice, even if I live abroad indefinitely. I have to pay taxes in the US for services I can’t use, or I have to give up my passport like the thousands of Statesians who do so every year.

I feel disillusioned about nationality and confused about where I fit in, but I’m not alone. There are major transnational phenomena at play in my own personal disillusionment and identity crisis. Forced out by the policies of their own countries (i.e. UK spouse visa, US healthcare, Spanish unemployment, ongoing conflict and war in North Africa), more are on the move between countries than at any time in previous human history. I don’t want to speak for all 200 million+ of us, but my experience as a nationless or émigré person is at once representative and not for all globally mobile people.

In Korea, I was living 7000 miles away from my friends and family and what were the benefits? Health insurance? A salary? The ability to live in the same country as the man I love? These are things that should be found in my own nation, and yet they aren’t. The economic crisis pushed my generation to leave in record numbers, taking the places of people fleeing their own nations’ problems. I have an immense amount of guilt that because of my race and background, I don’t have to risk my life on a boat in the Mediterranean or run across the border at night. Millions are still willing to risk it all in order to seek a better life abroad, and thousands die each year in the attempt. One particular story in early October brought me to tears on my morning commute: a young woman who gave birth to a son who never saw the light of day when the boat caught fire and sank off Lampedusa.

30,000 made it to land. 19,000 died at sea.

30,000 made it to land. 19,000 died at sea.

As recently as three generations back in my family, it was that kind of harrowing immigration that brought my ancestors to the shores of the US and Canada. Am I dishonouring their sacrifices by becoming an immigrant myself, leaving the place and the culture that they fought so hard to get to? Or am I following in their giant footsteps, fighting for a better life for my own descendents in a way they would recognise all too well?

I am nationless, but we all are. What are nations or countries but arbitrary divisions of the human imagination? The divisions do not serve us, and the immigrant/émigré embodies the discomfort we must all take on in some way if we are to thrive in this new century. The recognition that movement is not a crime, and that immigrant/émigrés are not outsiders to the human condition will come, but only with the recognition that we are all the product of the movement of thousands. Humans did not spread out over the Earth by remaining in their tiny communities, thousands of years ago.

There are no answers to all these questions, and no ways to make my multi-faceted multi-national multi-cultural life into a coherent nationalistic identity. But this is not something that only effects me, or indeed, that only effects that country who owns my passport. This is global, and I’m a part of something bigger than you or me that is defining the 21st century on this tiny planet of ours. There is nowhere on Earth you can run to where you will encounter a pristine, non-global, no immigrants culture. Not even at the ends of the Americas in Tierra del Fuego. Not in the pressure-cooker of Korean desires for ethnic and national purity. Not in the towns that outlaw foreign food in Italy. Not in the whitebread and highly-educated Colorado town I was born in. Certainly not in the neighbourhood I call home now.

Nationless may be the state of the 21st century. I’ve just got a headstart.

EDIT: This awesome study on immigration to the UK is from my very own university, UCL! Defending immigration with science:

“Immigrants who arrived after 1999 were 45% less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than UK natives in the period 2000-2011…Immigrants from outside the EEA (like me, from the US) contributed 2% more in taxes than they received in the same period, the report showed. Over the same period, British people paid 11% less in tax than they received. 

The report also showed that in 2011, 32% of recent EEA immigrants and 43% of non-EEA immigrants had university degrees, compared with 21% of the British adult population.

Meanwhile, a separate UCL study released on Tuesday warns that the government’s target to cut net migration to the UK to the tens of thousands is “neither a useful tool nor a measure of policy effectiveness”. That report argues that actions to cut work-related, student and family migration have damaged the UK’s reputation as a good place to work and study.” 

7 comments on “Nationless

  1. What a great, delightful, insightful post! What ARE nations or countries but arbitrary divisions of the human imagination? Never thought of it quite like that. Really enjoyed the piece. Thanks.

    1. Coleen says:

      Thank you very much for replying. It’s a remarkably radical idea, disliking the arbitrary lines on the planet. People have died for those imaginations.

  2. Great blog post…welcome to the global tribe — your initiation and rite of passage is complete! time to get a passport from a geography-free “nation” like NSK: http://www.nskstate.com/. better yet, a world passport: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Passport.

  3. Anne-Marie Colwell says:

    Your best post yet probably because it defines all that I am about. Thank you for such a thought provoking, insightful, and so well written essay. I have to share it around me.

    1. Coleen says:

      Thank you! I have been trying to work out what I wanted to say for a long time….

  4. ninjaitis says:

    Wonderful post! In our ever-globalizing world, so many people are becoming more and more like us: nationless. It is hard to know where you ‘fit in’ and where ‘home’ really is, but I think the sum of our parts has to equal something to us, even if it doesn’t make sense to everyone else. There will always be others who DO understand.

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