Thursday, October 28, 2010


I surprised myself in the past month or so by feeling what I can only guess is the tiniest (but disturbing for me) tinge of national identity.

I first noticed it when I read about the US government blanket advisory against traveling to Europe a couple of weeks ago and was outraged by what I considered to be a fear mongering exercise and overly simplistic view of an entire continent.

But I felt it even more sharply last night, during the weekly Evolutionary Psychology class that I am taking at NYU this fall (my idea of intellectual distraction - I know I’m weird!). Our lecturer, a deeply academic Harvard professor, was explaining how the advent of agriculture and the manipulation of nature as a consequence will probably be seen in years to come as the biggest mistake we ever made as a species. The point (which I agree with) is that we learned to manufacture food that is lower in nutrients but more calorific which drove higher birth rates but disrupted our original metabolism for the worst, creating a more sedentary lifestyle where fast food is king and exercise is shunned - in stark comparison to our athletic, lean and healthy hunter/gatherer ancestors (but who couldn’t reproduce as fast we could and therefore in a true manifest of Darwin’s theory lost the survival reproductive battle). But she used as an illustration a Mac Donald’s ad that apparently ran in “Europe” depicting a baby seemingly suckling on a bun. She made much fuss of the fact that this ad would have never run in the US but that European audiences are different and would not only see the humor in it but also be somehow more enticed to buy MC burgers because of it.

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat and felt miffed that she would not only come to such a sweeping conclusion, but also that Europe (a continent comprising 50 countries and speaking no less than 230 different languages) was in her eyes, and many other Americans, seen as just one undifferentiated and dumb unit.

I have never felt particularly strongly one way or the other about the fact that I am French - although I readily admit to being appalled about the current government in power and the particularly argumentative yet pointless (i.e strikes) nature of my native country. It just happens to be the place where I was born and spent the first 19 years of my life. I consider some of my most formative years to have been spent abroad and therefore always thought of myself as a bit of a citizen of the world - happily and openly taking bits and pieces of cultural traits and behaviours from wherever I live. When I introduce myself I rarely mention that I am French (or at least not at first), particularly in the US where most people don’t detect the French intonations in my otherwise quite British sounding accent.

But I object to that fact that Europe can be seen and characterized as a seamless entity because in my experience it is anything but. We have hundreds of years of history and countless bloody wars that shaped very distinctive countries, with different languages, cultures and ideologies. I don’t think that any of them are right or wrong - they are just wonderfully different and diverse and that’s what makes the world a more interesting place.

But hearing such generalizations about an entire continent awakens in me a sense of national identity I never really felt before. It makes me want to proclaim that I am French, not in the sense that I am proud of it, but in the sense that we are all different and that the sooner we accept and embrace our differences - while finding common ground (there is plenty!) - the sooner we will all learn to live in this world together happily.

Because what I felt is so uncharacteristic for me (a serial expat and the least French person one might meet) it also made me wonder if “national identity” as a wider, almost philosophical, matter is perhaps also an integral part of the psychological toolkit we unconsciously evolved over millions of years - a sense of belonging that transcends ages/places and somehow grounds us to a certain place, even though we don’t live (and have no intention to ever live) in that place again.

As an expat, no matter how open and embracing you are of your adopted country, can you or should you ever forget where you come from? And what is the right balance between embracing your new country but drawing on your cultural heritage, however patchy it may be?

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