An Extended Definition on Nationality

An Extended Definition on Nationality

I dug up an essay on extended definition that I did in sophomore year. I’ve always been confused about my roots and thus had a hard time trying to explain “no, I’m not from Singapore.” or “Yes, I used to live in the States. No, I wasn’t BORN in the States.”

This essay touched on some sticky issues, including racial discrimination. I honestly don’t know what compelled me to write about that incident, considering how my composition teacher at that time is an American…

Nationality: A Journey of Self-Acceptance

For children born and raised in their home country, nationality would not be an issue for them. They grew up in an environment that nurtured them with traditional culture, values and acceptance. These children are able to write their country, their birthright in the “Nationality” section of any forms without self-doubt. Their nationality-identity is not jeopardized. Nationality, in a sense, defines them, because they were born and raised a particular country. But for people like me, born in Taiwan and raised in the US, a country with a distinctive variety of ethnicities such as Mexicans, Chinese, and Irish. Nationality is a different matter in entirely. To us, nationality is a question, a reflection of personal experiences, a journey toward self-understanding. To ask our nationality, is akin to asking oneself the philosophical question: “Who am I?”

If we look up “nationality” in the dictionary, we get the definition: “The status of belonging to a particular nation” (Dictionary.com). Factual as it is, the dictionary definition is detached, disregarding complexities in each individual’s various life experience. On the other hand, it also had a radical impression in history, as nationality, or nationalism was at its peak during the French and American Revolutions. Nationalism equaled patriotism, embracing one’s nation, identifying one’s nation with oneself, and being willing to die for one’s nation. Another definition, which sits in between the detached dictionary definition and radical definition in history, is from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Nations and national identity may be defined in terms of common origin, ethnicity, or cultural ties, and while an individual’s membership in the nation is often regarded as involuntary, it is sometimes regarded as voluntary” (Miscevic, Nenad). In this definition, nationality is defined like clothing, something we can choose to don or shed. This particular definition strikes a chord in me, as it is similar to my own personal reflection, where nationality is defined through acceptance and understanding of one’s own culture and traditions. Although I arrived at a personal definition of “nationality”, it had eluded me for years.

There is a memory of something that happened in America that stayed with me for years. I had been playing with a white, American classmate on a jungle set, and while I was standing at the top of the slide, my classmate thought it would be funny to push me off the jungle set. He gave me a mighty push, and the next thing I knew, I went down face-first and got up with a mouthful of sand. Typically, the playground teachers would punish the wrongdoer, but when I went to the teacher and explained my situation, she punished me instead, and let my classmate go; all the while comforting him that it wasn’t his fault that I got hurt. I went to tell my homeroom teacher the next day, somehow knowing that this kind of treatment wasn’t right. I ended up getting a speech about how I shouldn’t go pick on my classmates, and it was my fault that I couldn’t hold my balance when my classmate pushed me. I remember experiencing a deep sense of injustice, however only when I was older did it occur to me that I had been a victim of racial discrimination, for upon later observation, I realized those teachers helped the Caucasian students with care, but didn’t extend that same treatment to Mexican and Asian students.

Older, I looked back to those memories, and remembered feeling that I didn’t fit in with any of the groups at school, and I knew that each Mexican or Asian student, like me, had his or her own story of racial discrimination to tell. I realized that the Caucasian children either accepted us or regarded us with self-righteous superiority that they probably didn’t understand at such a young age, but most likely absorbed from their parents. At that young age, I only remember knowing that I wasn’t accepted, and wondered why other kids who looked like me with American passports shared the same sentiments. Those kids called themselves Asian Americans, because they accepted and embraced American culture, regardless of what others thought of them. As for myself, although I knew I was Taiwanese by birthplace, I also called myself an “Asian American” to some degree for I received a Western education, and had Western values in comparison with my parents who were born and educated in Taiwan. I was more free-minded, able to accept and mingle with people of different cultures and values, and willing to speak up a lot more in class to answer questions or give out comments. Compared to my classmates who lived in Taiwan all their life, I realized that myself and other classmates who had lived in Western countries were often better at critical thinking—we didn’t just accept what parents or teachers tell us. In high school, our class had a variety of students who had lived abroad before, and those who grew up in Taiwan all their life, and there was a stark difference in how both groups of students answered questions. The former had a lot more to say, while the latter would shy away from the spotlight, often saying “no comment”. This showed the difference between students who were taught by Western or Eastern education.

Using this type of thinking however, raised a question ever since I moved back to Taiwan when I was eleven- years-old, and I became conflicted with my own nationality. For years, I was labeled the “American” and classmates found themselves explaining Taiwanese customs to me, pardoning my ignorance because I lived in the States since I was a year old. They found it fun to call me an American and this was done in good humor, but those who didn’t found it laughable for someone of Asian features to be ignorant to her heritage. To add fuel to the fire, the longer I stayed in Taiwan, the more I felt estranged from American culture, to the point that calling myself an Asian American seemed more like a distant dream than a reality. But despite my classmates attempts, I was still somewhat foreign to many Taiwanese customs. Was it right to define my nationality based on understanding of culture? According to this definition, I wouldn’t be considered as an American or a Taiwanese then, for I didn’t have much understanding on either culture.

On the other hand, the rising NBA star- Jeremy Lin- is an example of creating a balance within conflicting nationalities. Even though Jeremy Lin was born and raised in the US, with grandparents from China, and parents from Taiwan, a traditional Chinese mindset would still group Lin with the Chinese. This reflects Chinese values, as the Chinese defined themselves with their ancestors’ heritage. But in an interview, Jeremy Lin himself stated that he identified himself as an Asian American, and that “[I’m] really proud to be Chinese”. While it’s not quite clear whether he was referring to ethnicity or nationality, it is interesting to note that he has embraced the best of both worlds, in spite of the political complexities between China and Taiwan.

Now, having been subject to growing pains both physically and mentally, I gradually formed an understanding of what nationality really is. The questions that plagued me in my grade school years were never answered, as I realized that there are no right answers, just ones that are acceptable to each separate individual. My past question of nationality based on an understanding of its culture is neither right nor wrong, but like the dictionary definition: too factual, too detached, too narrow and simple. Mere understanding is not enough. To say that I am Taiwanese just by understanding and knowing the culture is similar to donning goat-skin and calling myself a sheep. Apart from understanding, acceptance is vital. Just like in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s definition of nationality, it can be involuntary because of cultural or heritage ties, for we do not get to choose who we are. But regardless of ties, we would never call ourselves ‘-something-’ if we did not accept it. Nationality is just that. It is something that grows with us, shaping our identity, but also prone to change. It reflects the journey of each individual, for people have their own reasons in identifying themselves. Now, years later after I asked myself whether it was right to define nationality based on understanding of its culture, I now have an answer. While I am still largely ignorant of a lot of Taiwanese customs, I consider myself a Taiwanese American, because whenever anyone asked me “Who are you” or had me do a brief introduction, the first thing I’d say is “I’m Stephanie. I was born in Taiwan, moved to the US before coming back at eleven years old. It’s a confusing story, really.” Unconsciously, I identified myself by the two places I regard as home, and by the life journey I embarked on in both countries. I earned precious personal experiences and traveled on a road to self-understanding, and so this is how I define nationality.

(Word Count: 1515)

Works Cited

Miscevic, Nenad. “Nationalism”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. Summer 2010. Web. 7 Apr. 2012.

“Nationality.” Dictionary. com. Dictionary.com, 2012. Web. 7 Apr. 2012.

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