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The Self Across Borders: Identity and Nationality through Americanah

onewhowalks's picture

Only a few things are assigned at the moment of birth. Even name can be held off from reporting: height, weight, parental identification and nationality are really the only identifiers an infant has immediately. From then on, it affects most things about that person’s life, including what rights and resources they should have access to and how they move in and out of countries and communities. Taiye Selasi’s TEDtalk “Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m local” calls to shift from nationality to locality when determining how geography affects identity. She offers a defining framework of “3 R’s: rituals, relationships, restrictions.”  This uses cultural practices, important people, and identity-shaping privilege to allow people to choose for themselves regional identity markers. Both of these processes can be understood in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah, which is in part the story of how a geography and society work in shaping one woman’s identity and relationships. The emigration of the two main characters from Nigeria to the United States (Ifem) and United Kingdom (Obinye), and back again, frames the story entirely.  Americanah and “Don’t ask where I’m from” instigate a more complex view of nationality and how it effects who and how a person is. I’m using these two pieces to explore three topics: nationality, how being “from” somewhere intersects with privilege, and third-culture individuals.

Googling the definition of “nationality” brings up two responses:

1. The statues of belonging to a particular nation (synonyms: citizenship)

2. An ethnic group forming a part of one or more political nations (synonyms: ethnic group, race)

Citizenship and ethnicity/race are two very different, though intertwined, beings. Citizenship is a matter of laws, and can be changed as such. It gives people the benefits of swearing fealty to a certain sovereign state. However, the borders of nation-states are made up and could (and do) change. They are unstable.  And the shifting is not just a thing of the past; as recently as November 28, 2016, the Netherlands and Belgium traded land (Bilefsky). State boundaries have changed hundreds of times and it is rarely at the will of the people, especially those living on those borders. Many peoples have been subject to being caught at the border of one nation and another, such as in Palestine, Bangladesh, and Crimea. Families separated or nationalities changing day to day; these people existed before the border did. And yet, the nationalities that come with the border separation help to define their lives. Stuart Elden argues that “territory is a social construct- produced through interaction and struggle- and therefore thoroughly permeated by social relations.” Nation states and nationality are not inherent to our Earth.

Many political theorists argue that with the rise of globalization and neo-liberalism, the authority of nation states is declining (Strange, Krasner). It is certain that interaction and dependency between states is on the rise (Scholte). This is evidenced in cultural and business exchange as well as in civil society.  Culturally, exchange is growing due to increasingly accessible transportation and the evolution of communication technology. This can cause tension between the “cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization (Appadurai)” of a country or region. As the flow of people and ideas flow in an out of a region at a higher rate, the discussion of what’s authentic and/or traditional and what’s fake, foreign or new becomes more common. This is especially important in regards to holding onto national or ethnic traditional cultures. In this way, the “ritual” aspect of Selasi’s 3 R’s comes into question in a globalized world. Nations do not necessarily dictate ritual, especially as migration and exchange increase.

The production supply chain is often completely globalized as well. For example, a company might have preproduction headquarters in Japan, factories in Bangladesh, CEO’s in America, and distributors across the world (Planet Money). Iris Marion Young, in her essay “Responsibility and Global Justice: A Social Connection Model,” speaks to the world being united through justice- or rather, injustice. “All agents who contribute by their actions to the structural processes that produce injustice have responsibilities to work to remedy these injustices” comes up early in the essay, which aimed to offer an alternative to arguments that responsibility lay only within a nation-state, not between them. As individuals become increasingly linked through global social processes, the more they are united through social responsibility to each other.

However, there are certain arenas in which nationality maintains its grip on individuals. One of these areas is that of citizenship, migration, and the civil rights that deal with them. Nationality does hold the power to grant citizens’ rights, including those to passports, voting, labor rights and opportunities, and protection under law. Nationality also requires things of citizens, such as taxes. In this way, one’s nationality can, legally, drastically affect the way that they act in the national and global community. These rights, while often guaranteed with citizenship, are not always granted to minority groups within a country. So, while the borders of nation-states are made up and decreasing in power due to globalization, they still impact an individual’s quality of life and access to rights and growth.

              Privilege and nationality intersect in a number of ways. One starting point is how nations are privileged in relation to each other. While we established that nation-states are socially constructed, they still benefit from various resources: natural resources, money, governmental security, and access to other countries, among others. Ifem and Obinze emigrate from Nigeria to countries in the Global North, America and the UK respectively, in hopes of better chances of success in school and work and to avoid the threats of Nigeria under a militant dictatorship. The United States and the United Kingdom, being more privileged nation-states in terms of money and security, should be able to accept more immigrants and refugees. However, they also have the power to turn them away, as in the case of Obinze. This is the second way privilege and nationality intersect.

              The nationality of natural-born and immigrant citizens or residents can drastically change the access an individual has to the rights and resources of a nation. Obinze’s status as an undocumented immigrant in the United Kingdom changes his quality of life. He can only get jobs lower in status than he would be qualified for in Nigeria, in part because he cannot get legal work documents. This not only means he has to pay more to keep his identity a secret, but he has to keep his identity a secret, which changes the relationships he’s able to have in his life there. Furthermore, the government is able to deport him at any time, which they do. Becoming a citizen is easier in some countries than others, but the control over naturalization and the impacts varying levels of citizenship have on quality of life in a country speaks to the power nations hold in affecting an individual’s life.

This access to rights and resources is also impacted by the other identifiers of an individual’s identity. This is also explained through the third “R” of Taiye Selasi’s model as outlined in her TEDtalk.

“We’re local where we carry out our rituals and relationships, but how we experience our locality depends in part on our restrictions… The question takes us past “Where are you now?” to “Why aren’t you there, and why?”

The racism and classism Ifemelu and Obinze face in the United States and United Kingdom drastically impacts the way that they move through those countries. The restrictions change how “home” a place can be; is a place home if home rejects you? If home makes insensitive ‘jokes’ behind your back or too your face? If home thinks you’re unqualified to live there because of your skin color, accent, bank account?

The reading list supplied with the TEDTalk also gives insight into what must be known to understand locality in identity. It is nearly instinctual to understand how rituals and relationships can transcend nationality and affect someone’s identity. But restrictions could be harder for people unaware of their restrictions to understand. Furthermore, it is the restrictions and how they impact individuals and their actualization that helps give this lecture socio-political saliency. The subtitle of the page is “Explore resources on identity, race, nation, and class;” Selasi links articles, books, and films about all the above in addition to a few other sources refuting the question of “where are you from.” This reading list implies that Selasi feels that understanding privilege and marginalization is crucial to understanding locality and how it impacts identity.

“Third Culture Kid” (also called “TCK”) is a term coined by Dr. Ruth Hill Useem in the 1950’s during her research on children of American citizens living abroad (TCKWorld). The term could be used to refer to any person who grew up between nationalities. This identity is liminal culturally, if not legally.

              I identify as a TCK: I was born in Guam to American parents and spent four significant developmental years in Sicily, Italy. Beyond that, I move every two-to-four years around the United States, meaning that where I live means little and where I’m from is a question too complex to answer. Seeing Taiye Selasi’s TEDtalk at the beginning of this semester felt like a muscular knot being massaged out. The first thing anyone asks about you is your name and where you’re from. At school, I’m to supply that information for my door, my nametag at work, applications to internships, and biographies at conferences. Especially now, as I don’t “go home” to D.C. and I don’t feel at home in Philadelphia or L.A., there’s not even an easy out to the question. The more years that pass from my time in Italy leave me less and less comfortable claiming anything but an American identity, though. So, Selasi offering a framework of identity through aspects of culture and comfort, not countries, felt refreshing on a personal and academic level. But I’m also white. I benefit from the system that I live in. And, as an American military dependent, I was easily able to get a visa to live abroad with my family. I did not have issues traveling while abroad. Due to the military base, I could have gotten a paying job if I had been of age to do so.

              Not all people living in a liminal geographic space have these privileges.

              The term Third Culture Kid was created for American children whose parents moved: diplomats’ children, CEO’s children, Military children. But what about refugees? What about children who are undocumented immigrants? The traditional resources for Third Culture Kids do not address these situations. But Selasi’s model of locality accounts for them, just as the question “where are you from” can begin to itch every person who does not easily fit into the borders of a nation-state. Towards the end of Americanah, we begin to see Ifem take on the inbetween-ness of a person from multiple places. There’s an out-of-place feeling in both America and Lagos. We get to see other people experiencing this through the Nigerpolitan Club, “a group of young returnees who gather every week to moan about the many ways that Lagos is not like New York as though Lagos had ever been close to being like New York.” Even in this group of in-between-ers there is a certain way of being that is supposed to come of a certain combination of locations. However, even with ritual/relationship/restrictions, there is only so much that a formula of communities and cultures can define about a person.

              “Where are you from” points out Otherness. If someone is asking where a person is from, it must be because that person has been marked as not being from “here.” In some cases, as the ones above, it is because the person is not from the place they currently are. But there’s other, less innocuous situations that are often encountered, especially in the US. “Where are you from” is often used as a question of American authenticity, asked especially to People of Color in the US. “Where are you from” becomes “Where are you from [because you sure don’t look like you’re from here].” “Where are you from” becomes “Where are you from [because My America is White],” even when the person in question is from Colorado, not South Korea, such as in Tanvi Mirsa’s article “What You’re Really Asking When You Ask ‘Where Are You From?’” So, another way in which nationality and privilege intersect is in conversation with assimilation and how that is impacted by race. In this way, “Where are you local?” again starts to reroute, or at least bring into visibility, some of the issues with hiding behind the broad “Where are you from?”

Selasi’s 3 R’s model of locality emphasizes the flimsiness of nationality in defining how a person can or should identify themselves. Nationality does not need to be the crux of identity, and it does not necessarily define the rights or resources a person has. Looking at the structure of nationality and the privileges that work with, against, or adjacently to nationality is a much more meaningful exercise in identity than a simple question of “where are you from?” On one hand, citizenship and nationality is too broad distant, and constructed to be used to read a person’s identity and quality of life, but on the other, it does truly set some parameters for mundane life. Americanah can be read through this lens and can work as examples of how nationality works and fails to define a person. Looking at Ifemelu through Taiye Selasi’s model, on the other hand, can help to explain a lot of what she experiences. Her being at home and yet out of place is familiar to many TCK. Nationality and a conflation of nationality with identity or personality is disconcerting when one remembers nation-states are mutable and just built on the feelings of people with privilege. What comes from being at the crossing of making things up and things making us up?



Works Cited:

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Americanah: A Novel. New York: Anchor, 2013. Print.

Appadurai, Arjun. "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy." 1990. The Globalization Reader. Ed. Frank J. Lechner and John Boli. 5th ed. N.p.: John Wiley & Sons, 2015. 94-103. Print.

Bilefsky, Dan. "Belgium and the Netherlands Swap Land, and Remain Friends." The New York Times. The New York Times, 28 Nov. 2016. Web. 5 Dec. 2016.

Elden, Stuart. "Why Is the World Divided Territoriality?" Global Politics: A New Introduction. Ed. Jenny Edkins and Maja Zehfuss. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge, n.d. 220-44. Print.

Krasner, Stephen D. "Globalization and Sovereignty." States and Sovereignty in the Global Economy. Ed. David A. Smith, Dorothy J. Solinger, and Steven C. Topik. London and New York: Routledge, 1999. 34-
            52. Print.

Marion Young, Iris. "Responsibility and Global Justice: A Social Connection Model." Social Philosphy & Policy Foundation (2006): 102-30. Political Science, University of Chicago. Web.

Mirsa, Tanvi. "What You're Really Asking When You Ask 'Where Are You From?'" CITYLAB. The Atlantic, 26 Oct. 2015. Web.

"Nationality." Def. 1, 2. Google. N.p., n.d. Web.

Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt. Dir. Joshua Davis. Prod. Alex Blumberg. By Jacob Goldstein. Perf. Planet Money. NPR. N.p., 2 Dec. 2013. Web.

Scholte, Jan. "What Is 'Global' About Globalization?" The Global Transformations Reader: An Introduction to the Globalization Debate. Ed. David Held and Anthony McGrew. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity, 2000.
             84-91. Print.

Selasi, Taiye. "Don't Ask Where I'm From, Ask Where I'm a Local." TEDGlobal 2014. Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. 7 Oct. 2014. Lecture.

Selasi, Taiye. "Taiye Selasi Recommends." TED. TED Conferences, Oct. 2014. Web.

Strange, Susan. "The Declining Authority of States." 1996. The Globalization Reader. Ed. Frank J. Lechner and John Boli. 4th ed. N.p.: John Wiley & Sons, 2012. 219-25. Print.

"TCKWorld: The Official Home of Third Culture Kids (TCKs)." TCKWorld: The Official Home of Third Culture Kids (TCKs). N.p., n.d. Web.