Born in a country different than that of your parents can give you a richer perspective of the world. Trying to understand, and conclude, who you are internally between two countries (the place of your birth and the homeland of your parents) is not too difficult. One position is the embracing of not a single nationality, the one you were born into, but two nationalities that includes the nationality of your parents. This can be done both culturally and legally. How we feel internally, however, is the most problematic aspect, something that has more to do with external factors, namely how you are received socially. For instance, when other people attempt to put someone into a box of either or, denying them the inclusion into their national identity despite them having been born into it, or who are ancestrally tied to a national identity they were not born into, a conflict emerges. This tension has a long history that I will not go into, but in sum it is well known that identity has been the source of varying forms of social and physical segregations, including genocides. American psychologist David Moshman argues, ‘at the heart of any genocide… is identity’.[1] It is our identities, to begin with, that defines the emergence of opposing differences that can produce prejudices. That even with the deliberate and concerted effort to eliminate prejudice from society, it is still identity that remains which is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to be rid of.[2] With identity intact then, prejudice will always have a likelihood to continue its reign. As such, there is much complexity concerning identity as Lebanese writer, Amin Maalouf (2000 [1998]) has noted on the topic;[3] as well, Norwegian-born British author and journalist, Afua Hirsch (2018) has illustrated. Hirsch explored how racism in Britain still plays a large part in constituting ideas of identity, for example, the assumptions of white people inquiring where fellow British citizens are from based on the logic that because someone is not white, therefore, they must be foreign.[4] This racist logic still exists, and much of the complexity and multifaceted nature of identity, that also includes personal interests like fashion, music, and other activities besides race, religion, gender, sexuality and more, are all components that can construct an identity that are beyond the scope of this essay. Here instead, this essay is only a brief reflection on dual national identities, and the potential conflicts that kids of immigrants may face with the two.

Who are you really?

For most children of immigrants there is not one single national identity. When people ask me, ‘where are you from?’, despite being a white male with a British accent (this has happened many times) I cannot help but feel uncomfortable. The reason being, such a question is filled with problems, on the one hand, it may be a genuine and friendly attempt to get to know me better. On the other hand, it is an attempt to define who I am, whereby, a series of assumptions will follow based on an identifier I provide them with, that has the potential to trap oneself forever in an ethnic box. The inquisitor, with your answer, will theoretically know who you are based upon their knowledge of the world and their lived experiences, or perhaps, they have never heard of the place you are from and you could be freed to (re)define yourself. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case, especially for those with ancestral and ethnic heritage from outside the so called ‘West’, where orientalism and exoticism can still plaque perceptions of ‘other’ people.[5] However, to answer such a question, I would say I am ethically Portuguese (sangue); born in England (terra); baptised Roman Catholic in Portugal (fé);[6] and raised in a Portuguese household in England (hearth). The result, I comprise of two national identities, British and Portuguese, or Portuguese and British. Someone who is both, just as completely as the other, not British-Portuguese or Portuguese-British, but distinctly both separately. Yet, also at times, neither one, nor another as fully, but someone displaced and lost in between the two. It is precisely this complex makeup where a national identity can get tangled up for the person who gets asked, ‘so, where are you from?’. I know geographically, culturally and spiritually (not in the religious sense) where I am from. All are not the same place, and it is this that some people may not want to hear.

The home is an embassy

For a loving couple, starting a new life in another country involves a spatial-cultural negotiation. The immigrant couple are living in a different country and its culture that differs to varying degrees from their original. If they have children, these kids are growing up in a household culture that is different than that of what their parents grew up in. This means, these children are learning about the country and its culture that they are in, without a complete familial history and this knowledge from their parents who are also navigating the same country-culture who have their own known experience of childhood that belonged to a different country. In essence, the immigrant home is an embassy where everyone in it is trying to figure out this external culture that they are living in. They navigate and cooperate with the external culture as member of its society. The internal culture of the home differs, it is that of the parents’ home country who preserve their culture through customs and traditions, language, and food. There exists, therefore, two cultures and two national identities that mix. One found in the home, and the internal-self outside of the home. The other, outside of the home and in the external-self. Both, continually mix and operate together forming the single but dual-self; the internal-external and the outside-inside. There is this type of navigation between two national identities occurring.

Conflict of national identity and the absurdity of others

A problem arises over self-identifying with one or the other national identity, which are both legitimately supported by one’s own ancestry and place of birth, when people do not accept your right to a dual national identity, in that, they attempt to frame you as the product of just one that excludes the diverse complexity of who you are. The external factors outside of the ‘embassy’ come into play in this case. For instance, some people may say, ‘you are British!’ because your accent signifies this must be the case, dismissing the fact that your parents are not British. This is an absurdity; it is the denial of who you are by others due to how you sound, your external presence. Following this kind of logic, one must speak with the accent of the national identity in which one claims to be a member of, however, I argue differently, for instance, many Hispanic Americans do not speak Spanish at all, and although they have some shame about this as a kind of Latino imposter syndrome, they still, nonetheless, heavily self-identity with Latino culture, to the extent, it is an Hispanic identity they have a preference for over an American identity.[7] Many kids of immigrants live with what can be a self-doubt of one’s own internal national identity when it conflicts with the national identity that other people perceive you to be externally. It is precisely the absurdity of others, their micro-aggression, xenophobic and racist logic that has led me to a great irony of Portuguese nationalism. There exists an interesting contradiction that belongs to Portugal’s past which I like to use in defence of my right to a Portuguese identity as someone born outside of Portugal. It is as the Portuguese poet, Luís Vaz de Camões (1524/5?-1580) called, the ‘Ínclita Geração’ (Illustrious Generation) in his Os Luísadas (1572), or stripped from its glorification by Landeg White (2008 [1997]), ‘progeny’ in his English translation of Camões.[8] This ‘Ínclita Geração’ that Camões refers to is of five males of royal birth: Infante D. Duarte (1391-1438; King of Portugal from 1433-1438), Infante D. Pedro (1392-1449; first Duke of Coimbra, and regent of Portugal from 1439-1448), Infante D. Henrique (1394-1460; known outside of Portugal as ‘Henry the Navigator’, a pioneer of the Portuguese ‘Discoveries’), Infante D. João (1400-1442), and Infante D. Fernando (1402-1443). The father of these five males was the Portuguese king, D. João I (1357-1433). Their mother, England’s Philippa of Lancaster (1360-1415). The point of this example is that these five men are never considered to be anything other than Portuguese despite their mother being English, to do so would potentially delegitimise their national achievements. It is such figures of Portuguese history that are heavily tied into the concept of Portuguese national identity, for instance, the Portuguese government commemorates the nation and Camões annually on June 10th. There are also the centenary celebrations for figures like Henry the Navigator. The fact that Henry the Navigator is only half-Portuguese is not discussed, such men are too intricately tied to the nation of Portugal and its identity to now be untangled. Yet, he is as much an Englishman by blood as he is Portuguese. Meanwhile, a child born outside of Portugal to a father and mother of Portuguese blood, and thus, the child’s eligibility of Portuguese citizenship, is not regarded Portuguese by some, but rather of a different national identity to their parents because of geography. It is an absurd logic; you can have more than one national identity and nationality.

Final comments

This short essay excluded many more examples and reflections that could have been used in a focus only on dual national identities that the children of immigrants may have, and the complications of this existence in between two cultures. A more complex experience of national identities that I have not addressed is perhaps for the kids of immigrants whose parents came from two separate countries, that later birthed them in a different country from both of their origins. Nonetheless, there is still the same type of negotiation of identity occurring but instead in a multiple way that can still face the same opposition and conflict of those with dual national identities. Regarding a conflict, throughout this essay, I have alluded to a generalised opposition, those that attempt to frame your own nationality for you. It is the discourse of this opposition that is the prime cause of many problems, especially when it comes from positions of power. This opposition, attempting to confine one into a single national identity, unhappy for you to claim theirs despite having the same rights and legitimacy to do so, are illustrative of wider problems in society concerning tolerance and acceptance. Such a conflict is difficult to resolve and move away from, it requires changing how people think. To start to understand the complexity of dual, but not bipolar, national identities is a way to better think about the lived experiences of the kids of immigrants. Who are we? We decide, however, in the case of nationality it does need to have a legitimate claim such as birth or ancestry, it is not just how we feel, since nations are social constructs that are ‘imagined’;[9] only coming into being, internally and externally, when there is a collective consensus of a sole identity shared amongst its many members to constitute a nation. Therefore, there is always a continual negotiation of internal and external factors to understanding who you are with dual national identities in the face of what other people may perceive or consider you to be.


Notes :

[1] Moshman (2007), p. 116.

[2] Ibid., p. 132.

[3] Maalouf (2000 [1998]).

[4] Hirschu (2018).

[5] Perceptions of people are not always neutral, a piece featured in the September 2007 issue of British Vogue, titled ‘Indian Summer’ illustrates this point, see Demarchelier (2007). The images produced from the photoshoot in Indian exoticised the country and its people. Photos of the white model were juxtaposed with animals and Indian people that produced a visual discourse of a pre-modern country. Such depictions are emblematic of the continued Western perspective of the Orient and other ethnicities in the twenty-first century that Edward Said argued back in 1978; see Said (2003 [1978]).

[6] Although I am not a practising catholic, and I am not interested in debating the existence of God, through my baptism assumedly in the eyes of a God I am Portuguese not English? The reason for this line of argument is that I had an initiation into a religious order, to connect with this God, in Portugal and in a ceremony delivered in the Portuguese language whereby all elements of an Englishness was excluded.

[8] Camões (2008 [1997]), p. 87.

[9] Taking this notion from Benedict Anderson (2006 [1983]).


Bibliography :

Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006 [1983]).

Camões, Luís Vaz de, The Lusíads, trans. Landeg White (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008 [1997]).

Casa, Angelica, ‘“I’m Hispanic But Can’t Speak Spanish”’, BBC News, 18 November 2019, <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-us-canada-50395013> [accessed 7 April 2021].

Demarchelier, Patrick and Gemma Ward, ‘British Vogue: Indian Summer’, Models, September 2007, <https://models.com/work/british-vogue-indian-summer-1> [accessed 7 April 2021].

Hirschu, Afua, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging (London: Vintage, 2018).

Maalouf, Amin, On Identity, trans. Barbara Bray (London: The Harvill Press, 2000 [1998]).

Moshman, David, ‘Us and Them: Identity and Genocide’, Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, vol. 7, no. 2 (2007), 115-35.

Said, Edward, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 2003 [1978]).