I want to talk about identity. And nationalism. Did I mean patriotism? It’s interesting that identity is such a deeply personal concept, and yet so widely significant and discussed.
Growing up with a Danish mother and an English father, I moved between those countries and then gained what I perceive as a third nationality when I got to Paris. In the light of recent geopolitical events, I have realised the potency of my European identity. Finally, just to make the melange more quirky, the past few years have revealed to me a deep affinity with “Africa”, as far as an African concept or diaspora can be defined. So how are these elements of my identity interacting, are they in a hierarchy, and how do I explain this to the unsuspecting questioner?
On paper, I am a purely Danish national, that is the only passport I possess. Yet the fact that my father is English and that I was born in London gives me the legal right to an English passport. In that sense these two aspects of my nationality are “legit”. From a young age, I always felt guilty or unjust by not acknowledging one of the two sides. The consistent response became: “I’m half-English and half-Danish”. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I was not half anything; I’m not a mongrel, I’m lucky to be blessed with vast cultural and linguistic wealth. Although I understand the notion that the grass is always greener on the other side, the divide between the Anglo-Saxon and the Scandinavian first became really apparent to me when I spent one singular year in Denmark at the age of 13. It was an international school, but deeply influenced by the native social norms, and of course I had many Danish friends and family around me. I suppose by English standards, I’m born into the aspiring middle class. My mother and I were enchanted by the idea of me spending a summer term at a tiny posh prep school in Sussex. Upon my return to Copenhagen, many of my classmates were smoking cigarettes and making trips to Freetown Christiania to buy weed every weekend. Now that I’ve grown and informed myself, my views are more tolerant, but at the time I was very shocked. Once I moved on to rural English Rutland, I found myself by circumstance at a public school where nepotism, elitism, sexism and homophobia sickened me on a frequent schedule. However, I also look back on those years with fondness and gratitude. I found myself somewhere in between, but I feel at home in both countries.
My stepfather is French, I speak the language like a native, I was taught the entire French history at school there and I intrinsically comprehend the cultural trends and socio-economic foundations of that society and lifestyle. That being said, I become timid when standing before people who display skeptical expressions when I try to justify myself. I suppose it’s easier to say that I identify with the French people and lifestyle. When terrorist attacks took place in Paris, I felt the pain and the need to take refuge there like a national. I felt the assault on my country, my values, my treasured Parisian way of life and on my friends. In my humble opinion, that is the most powerful and legitimate affirmation of my affinity to that fraternity. I have yet to find the perfect manner in which to express this part of me, but for now, I’ll settle for “I grew up there”.
In 2014, I found myself in Africa for the very first time. Rwanda and Uganda. It changed my life. I became infatuated by the joy, the nature, the colours and the beauty. I am fascinated by everything these countries have faced and everything they have to offer. A year later, I wrote a small dissertation-like piece on UN peacekeeping missions in sub-saharan Africa, focussing especially on the Rwandan genocide. As soon as I could, I started off my gap year with a three-month volunteer programme in breathtaking Zanzibar. The empathy I feel for these people and my passionate anger at these unjust episodes in history has caused me to read, watch and listen to as much material on the subject as I can lay my hands on. I obsess over lively prints and rustic wooden bowls, as well as the joyful beat of a cheesy East African tune. I know there is no way that I can call myself African, there is no way I could ever bring myself to lay claim to such a nationality or community, but I do feel that I belong there, and I hope to nourish and thrive there. I feel that I am affiliated with this place more than the next person you meet on the street. My love for Africa has become a crucial part of my identity.
Every now and then, when in conversation with a new colleague, acquaintance or friend, I experience a peculiar and frankly insulting phenomenon. This only occurs in the presence of people who are of only one nationality, which is why they don’t notice how patronising it is to struggle through an explanation of where I’m from, only to be told, “Ah, I could hear there was something not quite right”. I don’t have an accent in any of the three languages that I speak fluently. I become irritated by this tendency to perceive my multi-nationality as an impurity which infects my identification with whichever people I find myself living amongst. This may be one of the reasons I have often found that I connected on a deeper level with those of an international background, though by no means exclusively.
The bottom line is this: I have the privilege of being at home in more than three separate countries. Most importantly, when I step off a plane, be it in Britain, Denmark, France or East Africa, I inhale the air, breathe a sigh of contentment, and can’t fight back at smile. It is something I treasure almost as much as being reunited with family, wherever I find them.