I have been travelling recently and lost my identification documents. It was a surprising event because I, being the proud experienced traveller, have undertaken hundreds of trips and been to dozens of countries. I even had Bluetooth location trackers (i.e. this one) attached to my IDs and knew precisely the location of the lost item and timing of the event. Not for once I would have thought of this outcome. This was among my worst fear while travelling, due to the amount of paperwork and the bureaucracy it took to be able to re-make all the visas and to prove the identity of who I am since I no longer have the ID with me.
In the wake of this event, it dawns on me that once these paper IDs are lost, it is challenging to prove who you really are. Documents such as birth certificate or reference from close friends and family can contribute to this identity validation. However, in countries such as Vietnam where most of the citizenship database is not yet digitalised, it is difficult to validate one’s identity instantly. Until a new paper ID is issued, I essentially remain nameless, stateless and unidentifiable.
As a result of the event, I have some thoughts about my identity and where I feel belong. I grew up in a small village in Vietnam and came to the UK in my early adolescence when I was 16. While I am a proud Vietnamese and love all the good and bad about my country, I found it hard to resonate with, among other things, the conventional life path there (in which you study, graduate, get a job, get married, buy a house, buy a car, have children, retire and die). The first blog I have ever written at 16, in 2009, published on the deprecated Yahoo 360 blogging platform, was called “What do you live for?”, In which I questioned if it was a life well lived if I follow everyone else’ paths. I took the risk of coming to the UK alone without family, nor any helps, seeking for a chance to liberate my life out of this norm.
I’ve lived in the UK for 9 years, more than a third of my life; yet I still view myself as a foreigner in the UK. This is not due to poor integration nor the fact that I speak with an accent, not go to the pub on Thursday night, or not know how to cook a Beef Wellington properly. Parts of me are still Vietnamese at heart when it comes to many life values. For example, I will never let my parents live in a care home; it is disgraceful for a Vietnamese even to consider such an option.
Yet, jokes on me, when I return to Vietnam, I also view myself as a foreigner there. The society has moved on and drastically changed since I was there 9 years ago. My different perspective and unfiltered frankness accustomed overseas also make me less shrewd in social interaction. I recall the folk story of a bat, who is stuck on which sides it belongs when it was faced with the war between the mammals and the birds. The bat itself half identifies as a bird and half identifies as a mammal, and end up being rejected by both sides. In my case, feeling foreign in both my home country and where I saw as a home for the past 9 years is a strange feeling.
As I travelled more and lived in many other countries for shorter periods, I realise that I perhaps will always feel this way for many places I lived and will live. My issue is maybe not about with which culture I identify, more about where I could find the people with whom I can identify. I see that the aforementioned conventional life path in Vietnam exists everywhere. The conventional choice set is similar among youngster in most Western countries. Although much less forced upon here, people choose to all look in the same direction and follow the same milestones in life. As I’ve set out to liberate myself from this norm, I feel joyful surrounding myself with people whose thinking is different from this, in a way, contrarian and fearless. Because from those refreshing, contrast perspective, I learn a vast amount.
There won’t ever be a Contrarian Nation; therefore I accept these feelings of being foreign in many places I live. However, such acceptance does not mean I agree with Theresa May’s famous ‘citizens of the world are citizens of nowhere’ remark. Perhaps the sense of stateless and the detachment from a fixed social ideology will allow me a more flexible framework to adapt to each country I live in, being the Citizen of everywhere. Identifying myself with particular groups of people rather than a nation of origin, to me, is much more fulfiling as I find parts of my identity everywhere I look. Resonating with this is a study cited in this Forbes article on global citizen’s sense of identity.
The study finds that these people, as Hofstede suggests, do have a shared identity, but it is with each other rather than with their nation of origin, or even their cultural background. That isn’t to say that they denounce their upbringing, for most continue to maintain their national and ethnic cultures, but it’s a part of their identity rather than their entire identity. Indeed, for most, their global identity is a badge of honor, with many revealing difficulties identifying both with their countrymen, and indeed their hosts, unless they are similarly global in outlook.
As I look deeper into my sense of identity, I realise it is a collection of pieces from the diverse nations I experienced, exciting people I learn from, and the drastically different environments I have been in. As my sense of identity evolves with more exposure, not attaching my identity to a location does not make me feel alone. Because I know if there is someone else out there seeking a contrarian life, I’ll find myself in them and can always feel belonged when I’m around these people.