National identity and tomorrow's expats

21st July 2003, Comments 0 comments

A country's culture and language have a habit of seeping in through an expat's pores. But becoming a parent, brings home the need to remember your national identity.


National identity creates bonds and gives a sense of belonging.

It takes up no room in a suitcase; an expat can take their national identity around the world and unpack it in any new destination.

Passports symbolise that identity; an identity that also divides us. A national identity cannot be replicated because an American is not Canadian; a New Zealander is not Australian; a Taiwanese national is not Chinese, nor is an Irish national British.

The expat community is a mixed breed with individual national identities, but expats are also subjected to the identity of their land of residence. Its culture and language have a habit — whether consciously or subconsciously — of seeping in through their pores.

Integration by osmosis, if an expat is open to the possibility.

But when significant national days of honour or celebration occur, national identity cannot and should not be denied.

Anzac Day — when Australia and New Zealand honour those who fell at Gallipoli against the Turkish defenders during the First World War and the wars that followed — is such a day. The Anzac tradition is part of the nation's psyche and a nation remembers the people and events that shaped the nation that bred them.

Expats — those who temporarily reside in a foreign land for work or family ties — are unofficial ambassadors for their nation, with a unique opportunity to express their national identity in a foreign land.

British newspaper the Telegraph correctly said identity is a complex issue for expats. Nevertheless expats have a right to freely express that identity.

Integration has become the main component of immigration policy in the Netherlands, with an increasing emphasis on compulsory assimilation courses. The main political parties want to use these classes to instil Dutch culture into its newcomers. Expats who come here to work are currently exempt from these courses, but people coming for family reunification purposes are not and they are obliged to learn Dutch.

But expats are not immigrants. They do not normally populate whole neighbourhoods and are not bonded by the same national identities. They are a hidden population.

Globalisation and the blurring of national boundaries stimulate a closer relationship between world cultures, plus continued worker mobility acculturation will help expats feel at home anywhere in the world.

But a distinction between an expat and immigrant — someone who settles permanently in another land — is necessary. An expat might acculturate, an immigrant integrates and each of them should willingly decide how far they wish to proceed. Expats can become immigrants, it depends on how life develops.

And it is important to point out that a BBC report said anti-immigration politician Pim Fortuyn brought to attention the anxieties on the fringes of society. Fortuyn's assassination in May 2002 significantly shocked the nation, which is still trying to mend the rifts that were uncovered.

Integration — the new word for the politically incorrect assimilation of earlier times — is seen as part of the means to mend society's rift.

But expats remain non-Dutch and many remain aloof of a traditional sense of national identity. Acculturation is necessary to an extent, but should not come at the cost of an expat's roots. Nor should integration deprive us of the beauty of cultural diversity.

And these thoughts take on added meaning when an expat becomes a parent.

Roots remain roots. They can be unearthed and replanted in foreign soil, but they stay foreign in a foreign soil. National identity is not lost when moving abroad and expat parents from two cultures have the chance to foster the growth of two roots into one — their child's.

Culturally rich, but also culturally challenged, these children are global children, tomorrow's world citizens. But living permanently in the Netherlands with my Dutch partner and having a family means that half of the child's culture and roots have emigrated.

These roots become more fragile, but in living abroad they also gain greater importance, and an expat child's national identity is more than observing Anzac Day. It becomes a challenge of belonging, of feeling at home in two cultures.

"Where do I come from?" is a standard question children ask and besides the obvious sexual education talks which are bound to come, this question calls for a definition of who we are. Third Culture Kids (TCKs) — meaning those who are born in one culture, but grow up in a culture other than that of their parents — will be able to give several answers.

National identity is indeed unique, but having two or three cultures takes matters a step further. A blend, cohesion and ongoing re-evaluation are required, but national identities can be exported.

It is a parent's choice how much effort they put into keeping those roots and that sense of belonging fertile and this expat believes national identity needs honouring and is determined to maintain it — an Australian flag hangs at half-mast from our house today. Lest we forget.

But for my expat child a national identity should not be constricting. It needs to embrace a modern world and the reality of our situation. We live permanently in the Netherlands.

As the path from expat to expat parent to immigrant evolves, national identity might merge somewhat with that of the new. It stands to reason that it can change and accept the reality. The modern, jet set, expatriate generation of internationally mobile workers is evidence that global barriers are falling, prompting a re-evaluation of national identities and all expats are part of that equation.

The Wall St Career Journal Europe has reported that many expats return home early due to problems adjusting. A majority of cases involved family issues, but the message is clear, moving abroad is hard work.

And issues of a national identity cannot be shifted to the backburner, despite the fact that the Telegraph wrote on its expat website that culture is becoming more homogenised and the word expatriate now seems outdated.

A BBC documentary simply, but clearly, depicted that sense of being away from home in featuring a British expat in New York. This particular expat maintained supplies of HP sauce and other essential food items from the Isles in his kitchen — a national identity incorporates a myriad of home elements difficult to leave behind.

Globalisation is tied to the nature of labour mobility and expats voice national identity in different ways — quietly or outwardly, but either way it is an expression of self and my child will grow up knowing both his mother's and his father's national identity.

But also, we should not be anchored in the past. A base is solidity, but expats have a chance to emerge as world citizens — perhaps the true definition of the term expat.

It is a global community after all and expats are its fuel.

25 April 2003

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