“Sitting in the plane to Lisbon last October, I remember being gripped by a sudden and disturbing realization: maybe I should not be a Fulbright grantee, after all. In truth, I had never been able to identify myself as a “true” American. I had not been born in that soil, and my earliest attitudes, beliefs, and memories had been shaped differently from other Americans born there. I do not speak English in my own home; my family has never celebrated Thanksgiving; my mother makes rice cakes instead of apple pies and cupcakes; I consider American football as a ridiculous sport.
Yet, my passport clearly testifies my American citizenship, and I have spent most of my life there. But what does it mean to be an American, anyway? A Portuguese? A Korean? What exactly are nationality and citizenship, and how much do they (or do they not) contribute to our self-identities? To what extent do they lead to blame, misunderstandings, divisions, and the never-ending history of wars and conflicts? As an immigrant to America from Korea, these are questions that I—and many other immigrants—have always asked, as we straddle among multiple cultures, identities, languages, and traditions.
And when I arrived in Portugal, these questions again came at full-force, where I am a temporary immigrant from America—just as I had been an immigrant to America from Korea. But within Portugal, I had been placed in a very distinctive region: the Azores, far enough from Mainland Portugal with its own fauna and flora, climate, and geography that have diverged its traditions, history, gastronomy, and language from the Continent. Here, I encountered a regionalism different enough to even qualify as its own nationality. In conversations, people made distinctions between “Azorean” and “Portuguese” as would when comparing “Italian” and “Portuguese”—further muddling my already confused idea of nationality and citizenship.
These confusions were clarified through participation in the Berlin Seminar, where I realized that the answer to “What is nationality?” might be the simplest of all: there exists no such thing today. Certainly, distinct cultural heritages and identities serve as colorful and important reminders of global diversity. But in strict terms of nationality—”belonging to a particular nation”—recent trends of globalization and the consequential convergence of the biggest global challenges today are also beginning to blur the lines among different nations. The Seminar’s opening and closing panels on transatlantic issues discussed that these problems require increased cooperation, unity, and convergence among different countries—to overlook the differences and merge into one in order to combat these obstacles together, as would people “belonging to a particular nation.”
But I also believe that in truth, the potential for the erosion of divisions has been in existence all along. Reflecting upon this Seminar as well as this year in Portugal, I am beginning to realize that (at the expense of sounding cliché) divisions can be an illusion. Nations are, after all, composed by individuals. And at first glance, these individuals appear seemingly divided by the different ethnicities, races, belief systems, cultures, languages, religions, and the thousands of other ways in which we identify and place ourselves in this world. But upon closer look, the roots of these sources of identity are the same: expressions of our reactions to inevitable tragedies and glories that touch every society, eventually crystallizing into beliefs, traditions, and ultimately, national identities.
And for that reason, the most memorable parts of the Seminar were not the extraordinary events, but the ordinary: laughter over cups of coffee, an informal tour of Berlin through the kind invitation of German students, an intimate evening gathering at the neighborhood pub. Suddenly, despite the differences in nationalities, appearances, languages, or customs, you find yourself empathizing and identifying with someone, who is also nodding from the same conviction from the heart that he/she understands. Regardless of being Korean or German, you both understand the same aches of belonging to a country currently or formerly divided into two parts. Regardless of being African-American or Asian-American, you both understand the good, the bad, and the humorous experiences of being a racial minority in Europe.
And extending to my experience in Portugal, regardless of being a Portuguese emigrant, Angolan, Brazilian, Moldovan, American, or Korean, you all understand that regardless of the country of origin or the country of destination, you are all bound together by the same thread of the immigrant experience. Indeed, now my concerns in the beginning, of being insufficiently American or Korean, seem irrelevant. Nationality is a term without boundaries, with as much room for interpretation and flexibility as the definition of home. And home is the place for which you feel saudades, a Portuguese word for a deep and piercing longing and nostalgia for which there is no direct English translation, but a word that resonates with me when translated to its closest Korean equivalent.
And finally, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Portuguese Fulbright Commission and to the American Embassy in Portugal for sponsoring this enriching opportunity, as well as to the German Fulbright Commission and American and German Fulbrighters for this wonderful experience.”
Lana Yoo, US Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at University of Azores (AY2010/2011) was selected to take part in the Berlin Seminar 2011.
In this photo, taken at the Ritter Sport chocolate factory with two German Fulbrighters and one other American Fulbrighter (first from right).