Last year, I came across an article by Stuart Hall called Minimal Selves.
For those who haven’t had the chance to read it, Hall explains how he discovered that he was black only once he moved to England.
If he had never moved to the UK, and had continued living in Jamaica, he probably would have never made such an important discovery.
As I was reading, I started shaking my head and I remember thinking that it was impossible. How could you not know that you are black?
Then I stepped back and started to think about identity as something more than just our skin colour.
Identity is formed by so many things.
Identity is gender, race, nationality, sexuality and whatever you want it to be.
[pullquote align=”right”]”Whenever I meet someone from my country I get super hyped, particularly if they’re from Geneva”[/pullquote]Just like Hall, I didn’t always know who I was.
Or better, I knew on paper, but I didn’t really know what it meant.
I was just me, Denise.
It was only in 2012 that I realised I was Italian.
I spent many years lecturing people on how I am not the classic stereotype of an ‘Italian person’ that everybody thinks about.
Yet, I move my hands when I speak, I am a loud person, I have a rather big nose, I drink espresso and eat pasta on a daily basis, my grandpa had a moustache and well, I think you get the point!
Convinced that it was impossible that Stuart Hall and I were the only ones feeling like the light had been suddenly turned on in a room that we thought we knew the look of, I decided to talk to others about the subject of nationality.
In the process of finding out what people felt and experienced, I came across a few surprising discoveries and some pleasantly reassuring stories.
“I didn’t really feel Swiss” says my first interviewee, Alicia Streijffert, whose background is of different countries. “I’d tell everyone I was half Quebecer and half Swedish-Peruvian, I’d spend all my summers away in Quebec and I would identify as a ‘Genevoise’ (from Geneva) rather than Swiss.”
Alicia finds herself agreeing with me when she says, “then I moved to London and exactly as you said, suddenly I was Swiss.”
“I find myself longing for Swiss stuff and places I never cared for before. Whenever I meet someone from my country I get super hyped, particularly if they’re from Geneva”.
“I’d say moving to a different country definitely highlights your nationality and makes you realise where you actually came from by contrasting your lifestyle with the one of the country you’re in.”
She is right, London has definitely highlighted some aspects of my Italian culture that I thought were common to all countries.
For instance, I used to believe that it was ‘normal’ to have an espresso break during work, rather than a cigarette one.Nicole Gheller, Brazilian by birth, doesn’t strongly agree with my vision of nationality and has a slightly different opinion on the subject.
In fact, she tells me: “Apart from Brazil and the UK I’ve lived in two other countries and parts of their cultures are now part of me as well”.
“I was only eight when I left my country and I had never had any contact with the ‘outside world’.”
“So when I moved I met people from different countries and they spoke different languages and had different customs.
“That’s when I realised that I was Brazilian because before that everyone I knew was from the same culture as me and there was nothing foreign about my daily life,” she added.
“I feel like I have to consider myself Brazilian because it’s where I was born and I do like the reaction that comes with it, but I think that sometimes I’d prefer to not label myself as Brazilian because I’m not 100 per cent Brazilian anymore.”
Although I understand when she says that she’d prefer not to label herself, I am not entirely sure that I feel the same.
I don’t enjoy being labelled, but when I wonder about my nationality I don’t think about a label but about a positive quality that adds to my personality.
Could this be because my background is set in a country that is overall positively seen around the world?
Italians are stereotyped to be friendly and outgoing.
It is true that we almost never hold back from knowing new people and inviting them to our house for a drink and some food.
But what about people who are stereotyped and perceived as arrogant and stuck-up?
I am going to have to say sorry to all my French friends, but France, in the eyes of many, is probably the country that gets criticised the most for these two aspects.
I had to ask one of the nicest French people I know, how she felt about her nationality.
“How do I feel about my nationality? I don’t really know what you mean by this but I am proud to be French, I love my country and [the] culture and where I come from.”
“I often criticise France and the French but that’s not because I don’t like my nation; I think it’s more about the way they are perceived abroad.
I have to admit that some statements are sadly true. But no matter what, I am very proud of being French.”
[pullquote align=”right”]I move my hands when I speak, I am a loud person, I have a rather big nose, I drink espresso and eat pasta on a daily basis, my grandpa had a mustache and well, I think you get the point![/pullquote]Aurore Kaddachi continues to explain herself when she says: “I started to feel part of my nation when I first came here (London).
“Before then, I was living in a country full of people like me and the question of identity (through nationality) is something that I never had to ask myself.
“I am much more patriotic than I used to be when I was living in France.”
I agree; I am definitely more patriotic than I used to be in Italy.
It is no longer only about the World Cup – a really important event for Italian people, who suddenly stop criticising everything that Italy stands for and dress up in green, white and red to mark the global football event.
Croatian native Lea Vitezic definitely surprised me when she revealed her feelings about Croatia.
“I never felt strongly about my nation or any nation in particular. I always had a view that it is just a place where you happen to be born and to feel proud of something like a nation always felt strange to me,” she said.
“When I moved to London my feelings of [my] nation didn’t change.
“I can’t say that I feel very Croatian, as I hang out in London with people from all over the world and I don’t think any of us really differs due to the country we are coming from.
“I’d say it’s mostly due to our personal characteristics and, in general, when I see an individual I don’t consider the country he or she is coming from as something too relevant.
“I love Croatia because of my family and friends, but not because of the land, if it makes sense!
“I like some of [the] Croatian traditions and I miss them sometimes here in London, but I can’t say that I have very strong nationalistic feelings in me or that I feel strongly Croatian in a particular way.”
As I said in the beginning – identity can include whatever one wants.
I have decided that defining myself as Italian adds a positive influence to my personality so I’ll keep on sharing my Italian culture with those I meet.
And who knows, maybe one day I’ll go back to Italy and suddenly realise that a small part of me is English.
Featured image by Olga Lednichenko via Flickr, CC.