During a candid conversation with a taxi driver, I felt a familiar sense of uneasiness when the discussion inevitably veered towards the topic of national identity. It began with a simple observation. He commented, ‘I have always admired the collective pride Americans feel for their country. I never sense division; being American is your primary identity. Here in Spain, the cities and the regions where we come from are our point of pride. One is Catalan, Vasco or Gallego before one is Spanish.’
Of course, the comment holds truth, but it was the context that prompted reflection. His observation was accurate only because his interactions with Americans had been limited to encounters within Spain, always centered in the relationship between a foreigner and a local. It’s a relationship that can lead to sweeping generalizations and empty labels, because when we travel, our identity and our sense of community expands. The further I am from home, the broader my self-proclaimed identity.
In the United States, I’m a West Coaster.
In the West Coast, I’m from the Pacific Northwest.
In the Pacific Northwest, I’m an Oregonian.
In Oregon, I’m from Salem.
In Salem, I’m Jewish and Hispanic and half-Mexican and a Democrat and middle-class and a student and a daughter and a sister…
Within that blanketing term I carry such diverse and significant identities–identities which I actively bind to–yet, in Spain I am American and nothing else. This is tricky in various ways. When I travel, I am often expected to serve as a representative of the United States–my actions and words act to confirm or deny preconceptions. And to those who have had minimal contact with Americans, my own personal experience is suddenly interpreted as an objective cultural truth. It’s a role which I reject–a responsibility which I do not deserve. I feel that identifying myself as American, and to claim that title with a sense of pride and unity, is to devalue what it means to be a community, concealing divisions under a deceptive badge of nationalism. In no way am I saying that diversity weakens community–what I do mean is that I hesitate to stake a claim in a nationwide community whose members are often faceless to me, with unique realities I have made no effort to understand, and with dynamic and emotional lives which are lost under my own socially constructed projections.
In my experience, national identities function as agents of dehuminization. They reinforce the tendency of finding oneself only through one’s relationship to another. We consistently search for something external to ourselves to construct our identities against. In my experience in Spain, that “We” is an entire country of Americans, and that external “Other” is an entire country of Spaniards. When the two interact, there is no need for further distinctions–for regional, linguistic, racial, religious and economic differentiations. Extraterritorial differences can replace internal ones. It’s a poignant observation, and it’s one that makes me wish that my name and my smile were considered a sufficiently identifying introduction.