During several ESN meetings, I took a lot of notes on people very often addressing the question of identity in relation to themselves or others. This happened during presentations, speeches or simply random conversations with people in the network. Here are some of the things I found interesting.
During a presentation talking about “life in Brussels” (the headquarters of ESN International), one of the members of the International Board referred to their nationality in a very interesting way – “I don’t know what nationality I am. My parents are Italian, but I’ve been born and raised in France. I speak both languages natively. So people ask me – what are you really? I never know what to tell them so what I do, I like to use this for my advantage – When people are talking about football, I am Italian. When they’re talking about food and books and culture, I am French. When they’re talking about politics…”. The break after the sentence was intentionally for people to laugh. I thought it was a very interesting though not only how he pointed out the beauty of variety, but also how he said, and repeated it often, how people confront him about his identity – who he is, what he identifies himself mostly with, the need of people to know and put their finger on something they cannot make sense of.
National identity and understandings of oneself
We once had this external presentation on multiculturalism that was absolutely amazing. It was a scholar from the university of Utrecht who took part in our celebration of 25 years of ESN. On one of her PowerPoint slides, she posted the following quote from the film L’auberge Espagnole: “Je suis Français, Espagnol, Anglais, Danois. Je suis pas un, mais plusieurs. Je suis comme l’Europe, je suis tout ça. Je suis un vrai bordel.” (“I am French, Spanish, English, Danish. I am not one, but multiple. I am like Europe, I’m all of it. I’m a real mess.”). She then asked everyone in the room who identifies with the sentence to put their hands up. More than two thirds of the group did so. My friend sitting next to me put his hand up quite shy, then put it down, then up again. He then firmly put his hand down and said – “No, I feel quite British, I’ve always felt quite British”… I found his hesitation very interesting, he was debating who he was in that moment and then firmly decided, same as the participant in my focus group (see last blog post), that he is and always has been “quite British”.
Personal traits as national identity
In one of my many discussions with a friend from the organisation, I jokingly told him that the first time I met him he came across a bit arrogant, but I then changed my mind about how I perceived him and I thought it was really funny how I saw him at first. That was the only statement I made, and to my surprise his answer made a reference to his national identity: “Well, I’m French. Us, the French, are very often perceived as arrogant. And we are, of course we are. We are raised to believe we have the most beautiful country in the world, the most beautiful language, the best culture and most amazing food. I don’t know how you can be raised like that and not be a bit arrogant”.
Being identified by others
Lastly, my very identity was always a very interesting topic to be brought up by people. Very often people assumed that I was British just because I come from ESN UK and I have a slight British accent. A lot of references about me being “a total Brit and acting like one”, “being honorary British in ESN” and answers like “of course you’re British…” were always a source of amusement for me. The identity you create in the organisation is strongly related to the ESN country you’ve started with. The current president of ESN International is originally from Germany, but has been on Erasmus, started in ESN and lived for a while in Sweden. He refers to himself mostly as being Swedish. I am the National Representative-elect of ESN UK, yet I am Romanian, our president is Spanish, the one from Sweden is Finnish and so on. The interesting thing is that most of the time people will ask you not about cultural references, food, habits, stereotypes, jokes from your country of origin, but from your “adoptive” ESN one. Once you started in an ESN country different than the one you are born, there’s no way out – you’ve been given a second nationality, at least in the eyes of ESNers.