National Identity: How straightforward is it?

As I stuff two years worth of accumulated junk into a giant suitcase, ready for my next big move, the question of nationality has hit me with full force. It’s something I’ve thought about for a while, but now that I’m moving to the the country of my forebearers, it has taken on a greater significance.

What is my nationality, how deeply am I affected by it, and is it even important?

On the surface, these are very easy questions to answer. My passport says I’m a New Zealander. New Zealand was the only home I knew for the first twenty-one years of my life. I often find myself epitomising the “she’ll be right” attitude kiwis are known for. I have a kiwi accent (although that seems to be up for debate).

But what about this: three out of four of my grandparents are British immigrants. I am a Pakeha (New Zealander of European descent) from a country where the history and traditions are Maori (the original settlers of “my” country). The majority of my extended family live in the UK, and within five years I will obtain British citizenship so may never return to NZ.

Does that make me British then? Well no, decidedly not.

The first time these questions really made me pause was during my trip to Denmark. We discovered not only old Viking ruins and incredible stories of these ancient inhabitants, but also the young Danish people of today who carry on many of these traditions. And it really got me thinking: I’m a New Zealander with no great historical ties to the land where I was born. Most of my family’s New Zealand history didn’t begin until after WWII. Maybe that’s why it was so easy for me to leave and never look back.

But I’m so disconnected from my British “heritage” that that history doesn’t feel like mine either. I feel no innate link to the birthplace of my grandparents, except through colonial Commonwealth connections. I wonder how differently I would feel if it were my parents who immigrated, how relevant would that history and identity feel if it were one generation closer?

Now you might be saying “hey, why move to England then if you feel no connection to the UK??”. I move there like any other immigrant: because living in Europe interests me and I feel I can make a life for myself there. It’s not about some driving force pushing me to “find my roots”.

This question of Nationality and National Pride is even more interesting if we take it out of the context of the individual and look at it more globally. Lately there has been a huge push for nationalism, especially evident in the case of “Brexit”, but also throughout the world’s politics at the moment. People are being displaced, left in an inbetween state where their children will grow up in new traditions and cultures, perhaps unaware of where they truly fit. All the while, others continue to ostracize them under the guise of “preserving national culture”: as if it were some static, immovable thing, somehow better than the rest yet easily destroyed by a minority.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not at all comparing my plight to those of the people forced to leave their homeland against their will. I had a very comfortable life in New Zealand and consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to chose to be as mobile as I have been. But as seen in the way the media has portrayed many people of varying backgrounds, nationality isn’t always an easy thing to define or maintain.

People speak about National Pride and Upholding Our Traditions as if these are things that were set in stone thousands of years ago. The truth is that (unless you’re indigenous Australian who actually has been there for thousands upon thousands of years), your inherited culture, nationality and even language has likely changed constantly throughout the last however many years, through cultural evolution, migration, war, invasion and assimilation. I definitely see importance in preserving our cultures, languages and traditions — taking those things away by force has only lead to devastation. But clinging so tightly to those things which have always been in flux, in a way that isolates us and pits us against each other, is just as destructive*.

So to bring that back to my little life; I guess for me, nationalism had always been a given, it played a big role in my inculturation, so when I realised it didn’t run as deeply as I thought, it brought up a lot of questions surrounding my own identity. If my national culture and the ties to my birthplace go back barely seventy years, does that mean I’m lacking? How can I feel pride and passion for my country when I don’t have the richness of culture and tradition of someone who’s been brought up with the weight of history behind them? Is it a bad thing that when someone asks me what my traditional dish is I shrug and talk about Maori food that I’ve never tasted?

Or perhaps I’m the perfect example of a new “global” generation. A generation where global discourse and travel is easier than ever, where borders both physical and ideological are much more easily circumvented and often viewed with less importance. Can I fill in that lack of tradition by identifying with an academic culture, an artistic culture, a social activism culture? And are those any less enriching or validating than that tied to where my ancestors were born?

Heavy things to be thinking about as I cram socks into the hidden pockets of a borrowed suitcase. And I only seem to be running in circles.

And yet, however strange it may seem for someone who has never been interested in national sport, now that I’m a “foreigner”, I find comfort in watching the All Blacks slamming into guys in different coloured shorts. A strange manifestation of a national pride I didn’t realise I still had!

How do you identify with your own nationality? How important is history and culture in your own life?

Let me know your thoughts!


*Please note, I am not referring to peoples who are fighting to regain lost land/culture/recognition. I believe those struggles are very important in our ability to move forward.


Art by Just Bearable


4 thoughts on “National Identity: How straightforward is it?”

  1. I’ve done sort of the opposite trip to you – I moved from the UK to Australia. I’m particularly homesick myself at the moment. I’m five years into the move, my writing career is starting to begin, I’m in a very happy, very settled relationship, I’m ready to go for citizenship – but in my head, the ‘what-ifs’ are starting to creep back in. My mother going through our family history, when she was feeling the same lack of connection to the old country, probably hasn’t helped much either!

    I do consider my identity to be British, which I think is why the Brexit results hurt me so much. I could have just as easily have moved to France, rather than Australia, and have my future look as uncertain as that of so many people who moved to Europe. It hurts because it feels like I would not be welcomed back, just as so many refugees and immigrants now feel like they would not be welcomed in.
    Not to say that, by any stretch of the imagination, my sense of displacement is anything like that experienced by people who are literally being forced out of their own countries, but it’s a curious feeling nonetheless, and it’s left me very disorientated.

    As an avid history fan/student/buff/whatever, I have always felt really very tied to Britain and to British history. I grew up a few miles from patchwork fields and Roman forts and National Trust houses. It’s who I am. Not seeing that every morning has been, and will continue to be, hard, as much as my life is better here.

    Well that was rather rambling…

    At any rate, I wish you so much luck in the UK.
    Please, please, please visit York and give that city so much love from me. It’s the one place in the world that I would drop EVERYTHING for if the perfect job showed up there.
    (Though I’m a Lancashire lass myself, so don’t tell my home county I much prefer York!).

    1. Wow, thanks so much for your thorough comment! Completely relocating to the other side of the world is such a huge thing, I’m glad it’s paid off for you. But yea, it definitely brings up some complex feelings and issues that never seemed like a problem before.
      That’s so awesome that you lived surrounded by so much history. I always found it quite difficult to relate to NZ history because I didn’t identify with the Maori culture nor with the early british settlers, so for me I’m super jealous of people who have that deep feeling of belonging. I hope your homesickness doesn’t get too overwhelming!
      Also, I have now put York on my list of places to visit so thanks x

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