Tuesday, May 30, 2006

This I believe

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I am American. This carries a lot of connotations, I know, but that's what I am. Even in saying it, I'm sure you've made a judgment about me, either good or bad. In fact, I'll bet there's only a small percentage of people in the world who don't have an opinion on what it means to be American.

But I believe that how you identify yourself is incredibly important. It's important politically and socially. It makes you part of one group and not part of another. But most people never really think about it.

I have met many people from many different places and I always thought it was interesting to see how they identified themselves. When I asked a man I met in a hostel in Rome he simply said, "African." "Africa," I replied, "is a very big place." He just shrugged.

Why, I wondered, did he say he was from a continent? It would be like saying, 'I'm from Asia,' or, 'I'm from the Western Hemisphere.' Was it because he felt solidarity with his fellow Africans? Doubtful. Most likely he said it because he knew that I, like most Westerners, would know little about his home country and he was tired of explaining himself to those who thought it was amazing that he ever escaped the "Dark Continent" at all. So, to ease social interactions, he just said "Africa."

How you identify yourself can also be a political choice. I met a 19-year-old in France who told me he was Tunisian. I knew the political situation in France well enough to ask him if he had actually been born in Tunisia. He said no, but he had visited family there a couple of times. I couldn't help but think that if this man were born in my country, he would say he was American pure and simple. He was born on French soil, which means he's a French citizen, but the French will never accept him as one of them. Denied a place in his home society, he now identifies more closely with the Tunisian people, who likely don't recognize him as one of them either.

A friend of mine has witnessed firsthand what happens when people in one nation identify themselves differently. She grew up during the war in Bosnia between the Croatians, the Serbs and the ethnic Muslims, which she called Bosniacs. She now calls herself Bosnian and refuses, for the unity of her country, to identify herself as part of one of the three warring factions.

Europeans, in a project that started as a similar attempt to prevent more wars, are also trying to reinvent themselves. Just this month, 10 new countries were added to the European Union, with 80 million people instantly becoming European citizens. But polls show that very few people (around 4 percent before the expansion) actually consider themselves European more than their national identity and that isn't likely to change soon.

How you identify yourself is just too incredibly important to change very quickly.

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