It’s been discussed here at Isaac Brock in various comment threads, but last evening as I was listening to the CBC’s Ideas program, it occurred to me again that the US notion of citizenship and national identity is very much in opposition to how a person’s view of who they are, where they are from and where they belong are formed.
Hisham Matar is a Libyan writer currently living in London. His 2006 novel In the Country of Men was short-listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, and his essays have appeared in publications like Asharq Alawsat, The Independent, The Guardian, The Times and The New York Times.
Matar was born in New York City while his father was working with the Libyan delegation to the UN. The family returned to Libya when he was three years old but fled to Cario when he was still quite young and his father was accused of being a being a reactionary to the Libyan revolutionary regime. He moved to the U.K. in 1986, and it appears he has lived there ever since.
What made the interview with Matar interesting to me is that in spite of the fact that he’s lived most of his life outside of Libya, he self-identifies as Libyan, and I wondered, does the US government see him the same way? Or does it view him as it appears to view all those who acquire US citizenship through birth or naturalization as Americans first and foremost?
I would guess the latter although it’s completely illogical. The act of birth does not make you a citizen of anywhere except on paper. It’s your upbringing and influences that align you and strengthen the ties that we call allegiance.
And this can change as many of us who’ve emigrated know.
I have only been away from the US for six years. I emigrated to Canada with my daughter, who was four, when I met and married my Canadian husband. Until then, I had never ventured too far or for too long away from the Midwestern state where I was born. I was typical of many Americans in that respect. We simply live and die within a small radius of where we are hatched. Americans, by and large, are a somewhat insular people.
But even so, I wasn’t typical in that I knew more about the world at large and was less blindly trusting or invested in the American paradigm than most people I knew. It should surprise no one that moving outside the country and settling down in Canada that I quickly shed much of what some might call my American identity. So much so that I regularly irritate my American friends and relatives with my take on what goes on down south anymore.
Much of the time now, I refer to myself as Canadian even though I am not yet completely a “full Canadian” as my hair stylist puts it.
It’s cute but scary the way some Canadians refer to those of us who are Permanent Residents as only half in. The implication being that we are still tied to the “old countries” and our loyalty is therefore suspect. But I understand the driving force behind it. Living permanently in another country but not taking citizenship is akin to the idea that you haven’t quite decided who you are going to be when you grow up.
My daughter has no lingering Americanism. She not only doesn’t identity with the land of her birth but is embarrassed to let anyone know that she isn’t a Canadian citizen. Frequently she queries about the status of our application,
“Aren’t we Canadians yet?” or “You’d better study for that test, Mom. I can’t be a Canadian for real if you fail the test.”
Although the US government believes it has the greater claim on her due to her birth on their soil, Canada has beat them to her loyalty by educating her and her love of her Canadian father, sisters and friends has tied her to this country in such a tangible way that her American citizenship can only ever hope to be an afterthought if that. I don’t know whether to be amused or horrified by her take on US history as taught through Canadian Social Studies and those she knows. As many misconceptions as Americans have about their own history and Canada’s history (and they are legion), Canadians have their own slightly distorted take on America.
But this brings me round again to “identity”, Hisham Matar believes himself to be Libyan because that is what he was taught, steeped in and lives today. His physical location on the planet has little to do with who he knows himself to be. Does he know that the US believes he is a US citizen first and foremost? Hard to say. It’s amazing that a country with such arrogant overreach has failed so utterly to overtly convey this to its diaspora. It wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t know his “obligations” in Uncle Sam’s eyes, but it doesn’t alter the fact that the reality is Matar isn’t an American. There is far more to national identity than just being born somewhere or to a certain set of parents.
It’s how you were raised and where you were raised. It’s your education and values. And for those of us who’ve traveled away and set down roots in countries where we were not born and raised – it’s a choice. You can choose to belong or not wherever you are. Countries have certainly discovered that annoying little fact of life when confronting immigrants who have no interest in assimilating and taking on a new identity and allegiance.
And so it comes down to this, we are sometimes products of our upbringing and environments, but we are not necessarily bound by the imaginary lines that governments draw on maps. Whether through inaction, circumstance or choice, our identities are our own and cannot be dictated to us by governments no matter how much they would like to think they can be.
Sorry, I missed your post. Thanks, I always appreciate your words of encouragement, and I suspect others do too.
We were saying about the same thing at the same time!
@Bubblebustin, the purpose in life is to be happy and make others happy. Zen and Tao do wonders in difficult times. 🙂
I am Canadian, and as I sometimes say, a card carrying Canadian, meaning I have a Canadian passport to prove it. I’ve identified that way ever since I took the oath of citizenship back in 1985. I’ve defended my identity to boarder officials every few years when I would go back to the US for a family visit, and they asked why I was not using a US passport. To fully claim my Canadian identity I applied for a passport that did not have my place of birth listed, I wanted no mistake about my identity. Then I learned that you can’t get into some countries without your place of birth listed, and so I had to get another passport that included the fact that I was born in the US.
I had my appointment with the US consulate two weeks ago, and I included a personal statement that told my story of coming to Canada and becoming Canadian. The Vice-Consul asked me questions about my story. Those questions were about whether or not I had voluntarily and intentionally become a Canadian. I was warned by the US back in 1984 that if I became a Canadian I’d loose my status as US citizen. I made that choice to change citizenship, it was a voluntary and intentional choice. The whole process that I’ve gone through to get a backdated CLN had me for a while thinking that the US could claim me back. During one of my conversations with my US lawyer based in Seattle who’s help me sort out my status relative to the US, she said “don’t give them power over you”. She was of course refering to the fear sparked by this whole mess we have all been dealing with, the fear of the power of the US and the long arm reach over the boarder to claim us as US person. I’ve become more confident in my assertions since that conversation with her, and am willing to go to battle to defend my status as a Canadian.
While I am Canadian, I don’t reject my US place of birth, or the 19 years I lived in there. That is part of my identity, and that history surfaces in the slight southern accent I still have, and aspects of the culture and hertitage from growing up in Texas, and having Czech grandparents, that are wrapped up in who I am. In this regard, my identity is a fusion of sorts, that begins long before I was born, with the history of the various threads of families that came from Ireland, Germany and the Czech Republic, and who knows where before that. Now, my relatives that remain in the US refer to me as their Canadian neice. I am in their minds a part of the family that split off and moved to another country, just as my grandparents did.
And in becoming Canadian I have learned that the US is not the only true democracy in the world, and that the rest of the world is not clammoring to be just like the US. The arrogance of that worldview is what has brought about this whole mess we have all been dealing with – and is behind the notion those of us who moved on in our lives and became citizens in other countries can still potentially be considered a US person. That is the US part of my identity that I reject.
I am Canadian, and I am a fusion, of my family history, of which I am part.
Lagoon, your lawyer gave you the same advice that the Isaac Brock Society has continued to hand out: Do not cede your basic human rights to obnoxious IRS demands, to border guards or to state department officials who have little notion of rights and little desire to protect rather than to abuse them. The United States has become a serial human rights abuser.
I’ve been away from the US for hmm.. 7 years.. since I was an adult, 11 years total (I’m mid 30s). It’s kind of hard to forget that you are American when you get letters from the IRS! I also had to pay an accountant here to do my taxes where I live. I really don’t like the double tax obligation.
To me, the “American” part is just about some memories and experiences, like cheap fast food, big vehicles and really spread-out neighborhoods. I never really bought into the political rhetoric or the wars. Even though I get reminders all the time that I am American, I don’t really feel like the mainstream American. The first clue is that I live overseas. That’s not “very American” in the first place because I left the “Greatest Country on the Planet”. I’m not influenced by the media bubble there, so I often see things from a different viewpoint with the propaganda removed.
I really believe this to be a personal thing that varies between people that is mainly based on their emotional connections UNLESS they are really rich or receive a mega salary and ditching US citizenship is a business decision. The person in this article most likely sees some sort of political future in Libya, hence his desire to keep his connection to there. At least for me, I’m not one of these mega-high earners, and I have no 2nd or 3rd passaport, so I just have to keep declaring taxes in 2 different countries, no matter how unfair it may be.
@bubblebustin. What you said does not sound ‘goofy’ at all. I like your direct and to the point style (which I don’t do well).
The sense of purpose gives us a reason to try and focus and channel the anger and sadness as productively as we can. IBS has helped us to work together and provides a reality check – we’re not alone in this.
This has definitely been an education. I had never met with a federal politician before. As well as cold calling MP offices and speaking to at least one by phone, and also some knowledgeable aides. I don’t know what effect it had, but I feel good about giving it a try. And as a result, I feel more able to keep trying. Maybe this life-changing experience will result in us finding out that we have skills to effect change – to do things we’d never considered trying before. Some of us may have become politicized in ways we never were before. More politically engaged and active.
I’m interested in how this will affect Canada’s relations with the US once more people here come to know about it. It has certainly turned those around me towards even closer critical scrutiny and default suspicion of any and all areas where the US seeks any kind of initiative or agreement with Canada (and other countries). It has solidified opposition to US interests and greater cross-border integration.
There are still individual Americans I admire, but I have absolutely no respect for the President and those he rewards around him.
Well said Joe Zinga,
My husband and i have worked in the medical field and can attest to the fact that groundwork for CT and MRI were discovered and developed in the UK but the USA medical establishment never acknowledges this.
It also makes me angry when I hear that US persons cannot buy drugs at a fraction of the cost from Canada because as the US explains ” they haven’t been sufficiently tested”!! What crap!
As an aside, does anyone know why the rest of the world uses much safer pin and chip for their credit card transactions while the US is still stuck with pen and ink. I have been marooned late and night in Geneva airport unable to buy a ticket from the machine with a US credit card, also at Heathrow tube station in London. WHY??
Thank you. My direct style comes from childhood conditioning. I had an older sibling who liked to talk for me, so I had to learn to speak my mind while that sibling was taking breath in (no word of a lie!). Unfortunately when it’s done verbally, many people feel like I’m attacking them, so I’ve had to learn how to soften that style a bit at least when speaking.
You may use more language to describe how you are feeling, but I find your words well thought out and you are great at conveying concepts that I know many here find captivating. I would just be rambling, which I feel I’m on the verge of doing right now.
I think I can say with no exaggeration that this is the first time in my life that I’ve truly felt persecution, and it’s made me better at empathizing with others who are. I have also found a voice to protest against it. If I have been gifted anything in this process it has been those two things and the sense of community I feel at Brock. I also realize that words and phrases like ‘draconian’, ‘persecution’, ‘on the backs of’ are used way too gratuitously in our culture, which I think contributes to the homelander’s cynicism of what we claim is happening.
Is to be happy and to make other happy the ‘purpose’ in life, or the ‘goal’ in life? Surely I haven’t been fulfilling my purpose if that’s the case, but I can make it my goal. One way I’ve been trying to do this is to continually remind myself of one little phrase the Dalai Lama used: Use your words to heal, not hurt.
I don’t think I’ll ever stop being snarky though.
@bubblebustin, your words are very healing for expats. 🙂
To of my all-time favorite Songs happen to be titled:
It’s my life
What could be more fitting for Americans abroad these days?
@ Heidi. Thank you. The contributions from the UK to the world of science and other fields of endeavour are nothing short of astounding. It is much more than Shakespeare and David Beckhams left and right foot. Much of what the UK has done has not received the recognition it should. And all this with a degree of scientific rigour that is admirable.
Great song, and a great reminder of very late nights and dancing days. Thanks!
May 15, 2013 at 9:47 pm
I know the above sounds kind of goofy, but if I didn’t feel like I had some kind of purpose, I would probably kill myself.
See Victor Frankl’s “Mans Search for Meaning” – he says the same
Thanks for the reality check. Although I may feel like I’ve been under siege, it’s nowhere close to what those who lived and died in Nazi concentration camps had to endure. The innocent people at the end of a drone strike? That’s another story.
I don’t think USCitizenAbroad is giving us a reality check for comparing the horror of the Nazi concentration camps to what we are experiencing. I think that he is showing Frankl’s theory — that we have a need to discover meaning in our lives, however that may present itself (which is just what you said in your comment he highlighted!).
According to Frankl, persons discover meaning by three different ways:
(1) by creating a work or doing a deed (TELLING THE STORY — we are doing that here.);
(2) by experiencing something or encountering someone (ALSO, THOSE HERE — we are experiencing injustice through US citizenship based taxation and its entrapment, as well as encountering and advocating for change.); and
(3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” and that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances (WHICH IS the way for those who were in Nazi Concentration Camps — as they were pretty much denied the first two ways (except for those who survived and were able to tell their stories).
That’s my take on it. Thanks very much for pointing us in that direction, UCA!
I really enjoyed reading your thoughtful essay, Yoga Girl, as well as the many insightful comments from other Brockers. Thanks.
Here’s my personal take on the subject.
Although I grew up in the USA, I’ve been living in Germany for almost 2 decades and became a German citizen last year, after having removed the shackles of US citizenship. My wife and her family are German as well. Due to my personal history, as well as my pan-European ancestry, my national identity is decidedly German. If it weren’t for the increasing persecution of US expatriates, however, I probably would have kept my US citizenship along with my permanent resident status in Germany. But now that I’ve rid myself of American in favor of German citizenship, I’m really glad that I took the necessary steps. I’ve come to appreciate the tangible as well as intangible, i.e. psychological, benefits of officially being a fully fledged member of society in the country which is my home, and with which my loyalty lies. It has instilled a deep sense of contentment to have acquired German citizenship, as well as a tremendous sense of relief to have gotten rid of the citizenship of a country with which I have long ceased to identify with.
(And, just for the record, I do not identify with anything having to do with Nazi ideology. In my opinion, the ubiquitous ‘patriotism’ in the USA is decidedly more ominous than any ideology in Germany today, but that’s a topic for another post.)
Calgary411 has it right.
I appreciate your drawing my attention to Frankl’s work and Calgary411’s synopsis of how one can discover meaning in their lives.
I didn’t believe it was your intention to say that any of our circumstances are identical to those who were forced to live in concentration camps, but after reading the little I did about Frankl’s, it gave me a fresh perspective on mine. A change in perspective can also contribute a great deal to how one views the meaning of their life, especially for one who’s only begun to discover meaning in it.
@bubblebustin, being happy is a way of life. It is necessary to win friends and influence people. One must be happy to appeal to others and gain their favor. So, I’d say that being happy is both a goal and purpose in life. Being happy is free, can be applied in any situation and is much more fun than being grumpy. My grandfather made a fortune teaching this. My mother, having many friends and influencing people, spent my grandfather’s fortune wanting to become rich! So, I try to keep it in moderation. Too many friends is time-consuming and I get a kick out of influencing the non-influenceable. 🙂
@notamused, I hope that your Nazi explanaion is not a reaction to my unusual experience. I didn’t want to give the impression that Germans are Nazis. So, maybe I should explain. That experience of mine was brief, between the ages of 10-13. When my dad fled unemployment in the US, he got a job at a tiny far-left boarding school, isolated in the Alps, for difficult children or parents who didn’t have time for their kids. One of the teachers, with a German background, was physically violent against his children, hated America and was pretty much anti-modern-West. He never claimed that he was a Nazi and didn’t wear a swastika or do anything which gave the appearance of him being a Nazi, but he hated my guts, prohibited his children from playing American games with me, attempted to give the impression that I was the leader of a troubling gang and the school was troubled with racist jokes at the time. Once, a Jewish girl came to the school who had a crush on me, yet she quickly left the school again. So, in my view, that far-left atmosphere was the perfect hidout for an ex-Nazi. As for my best friend at the time, I was told by another friend after he left that he was pro-Nazi. However, I haven’t seen him since to inquire if such is true or not.
@swisspinoy Oh, no worries, but thanks for your response. 🙂 It seems silly for me to have mentioned it at all, really, but since people outside the country sometimes have a distorted view of what modern Germany is like, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to mention it. Besides that, communication on the Internet is also somewhat one-sided, i.e. no gestures, facial expression etc. People can only be judged by their words, so they’d better be precise. 😉