In his 1998 book, ‘In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong,” Amin Maalouf defined identity as ‘that which makes it so that I am not identical with any other person.” Yet questions of ‘national identity” and unifying culture have not only figured prominently in public debate since at least the 19th century, but are also major issues for individuals always looking for ways to belong.
The ‘identity crises” of Americans in search of self-definition are not phenomena that go unnoticed by other citizens of the western world who reside in countries with a more unified cultural background.
In the past couple of years, the polling company Zogby International has asked participants of its online interactive polls to indicate their principal affiliation as being citizens of their city or town, America or the Planet Earth. One of the major trends derived from the sample data has been that more and more young passport-holding Americans identify themselves first and foremost as citizens of the Planet Earth.
One question which has emerged since Zogby started research about this generation has been whether or not American young people who find themselves abroad continue to identify themselves as global citizens.
But a recent conversation with a group of American university students studying in Paris, as well as several French students from various parts of the country, has revealed that, contrary to what may be predicted, spending time abroad reinforces national identification instead of nurturing one’s self-conception as a global citizen.
Tina DiSciullo, an undergraduate at Drexel University and a proud native of Philadelphia with an Irish-Italian background, has felt that her identity as an American has only solidified since coming to France.
Before, she identified herself solidly with the City of Brotherly Love. But after going to France her view shifted.
‘Since coming to France I have this weird emergence of pride in being an American, which is very strange for me … talking to my host family about the things that we do in the U.S. makes me really excited,” she said. ‘So now [my self-identification] would probably be equal to me America and Philadelphia to me are synonymous.”
DiSciullo also expressed a deeper connection to the culture of Philadelphia, such as her accent and family traditions.
‘I love how everyone makes fun of me for saying “wooder,’ and I love all the stupid Philly things like scrapple,” she said. ‘There are certain rituals that I follow living where I live: I go to the Jersey Shore every summer; I eat cheese steaks. My name is Tina; I say “wooder.’ And that is my identity.”
Hannah Whitehead, is an undergrad at the University of Chicago and has experienced a somewhat reluctant realization of her connection to American culture in her time abroad.
‘I just realize that a lot of my ways of thinking and ways of expecting things to be normal are like America,” Whitehead said.
She added that her relationship to her religious culture has been redefined.
‘Here, being Jewish is more of a religious category [than a social category], because in the U.S. everybody has to choose their religion, everybody chooses something,” she said. ‘All of my friends have had religion crises at some point which I don’t think you have here. And also in the U.S. people know what Reform US Judaism and Eastern European culture is. People here don’t, so when I say I’m Jewish it means that I’m [an Orthodox Jew].”
The idea of an identity crisis or religious crisis in America was one that most of the students could relate to, and which has also been noticed by French students familiar with Americans.
‘I think I went through an American identity crisis,” Princeton University student Devin Kennedy said. ‘But what I’ve come to realize in the last couple of years is that maybe I can create an American identity but I can’t take references from what an identity in Europe would be like.”
‘If you’re a kid who goes to Taco Bell on Fridays after school lets out, why isn’t that part of your identity? Just because you’re not sitting at a caf or you don’t have the Seven Fishes Festival? Why can’t I take possession of Walmart and commercialism? Why can’t I retake that for something unique and creative that’s all my own?”
But Whitehead was hesitant to consider this type of commercial re-possession as forging a true identity.
‘The thing which has contributed to my continuing American identity crisis is that American culture is almost synonymous with commercial culture,” she said. ‘Pretty much all pop songs are American, most chains are American, the vast majority of commercial society is American, when you meet people they think that they know your culture and the fact that everybody knows English [makes me feel] like I don’t have a language. So as an American abroad, I’ve felt more and more like my culture and my language have been sort of stolen by everyone else.”
DiSciullo also shared her identity crisis experience in travels to Italy and Ireland.
‘I took Italian in high school, and I went to Italy right after that, and it was a very strange experience for me. I guess my idea of Italian was Italian American. And it’s not that. And the same thing with going to Ireland, even having such a strong Irish background, I still felt like there was a wall between myself and the culture there.”
The feeling of a faux belonging to a culture that is not one’s own was also addressed by Swarthmore College undergraduate Isaac Han. He is a Korean American who doesn’t speak Korean or relate to Korean culture.
‘I feel like I don’t have a real identity. It’s like you’re alienated from your own culture but you’re also alienated from what you think your own culture is, which is American, which is not an Asian culture. I feel more comfortable with French culture, maybe it’s because I’m more independent here. Being in France is more of a clean slate. And maybe that’s part of this idea of a “Global Citizen’, being someone without a true home.”
According to the Zogby data, the least-traveled respondents were much more likely to identify themselves as Americans before all else. But these conversations with young, well-traveled people have shown that ‘feeling American” and understanding American culture as something specific and unlinked to our European (or Asian) immigration histories may be a sentiment and a comprehension only accessible once one has found oneself outside of U.S. borders.
So perhaps will we see a new generation of well-traveled Americans who have come to identify with its commercial character or its religious and regional specificities? Or on the contrary, could the second decade of the 21st century welcome to America a generation of globe trotters without a culture, language or a home to call their own?
Dukmasova is a member of the class of 2011.
Dukmasova is a former intern with Zogby International and participated in the CIEE Critical Studies program in Paris, France.