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citzenship

On Circumstantial Citizenship and Letting Go of Identity Constructs

by Christina Cannes

It doesn’t matter where we are from but rather where we are going.

I never felt American until I moved to Australia. And then when I moved to Queensland, I felt really, really American. Being American, ironically, was never a category I applied to myself even when I lived there. I just never considered it something that had anything to do with who I really was.

Nationalism is a strange disease. Like a bad cough, or a runny nose, it infects some people worse than others. Many are quite simply immune to it. I must have been inoculated at a young age, for blind allegiance to anything other than shelter, sleep, food and clean water fails to lure me.

I’ve learned to take pity on those of us who fall under the spell of collectivism. Is it a conscious choice, I ask myself watching them march by in parades each year? Or, like most of what makes us who we are, purely unconscious and circumstantial?

Living in Australia with a strong pronunciation of the letter “r” presents challenges—like most people assuming I am a tourist. I cannot leave a shop without questions.

“Where are you from? Oh, you live here? When did you move? Really, twelve years ago and your accent is still that strong?”

These are a few of the typical enquiries with “how are you finding it?” sometimes thrown in.

And after we tick off the basics, I must either stop and listen to an opinionated rant about American geopolitics or the holiday this person took to my motherland and how, surprisingly, they found Americans to be surprisingly quite lovely and polite. What baffles me most is how so many Australians believe my accent should change. And the question I always end up asking myself is why would it?

I find it difficult to live up to a stereotype. Thanks to mass media, most people seem to assume if I am American, I am therefore a fat, lazy, ignorant, rude, warmonger and generally unaware of the location of most continents. Being of average weight, average intelligence, peace-loving and well-travelled is a confusing disappointment.

I have been, at times, tempted to colour in my past with a story like “I grew up in Las Vegas, my mother was a stripper and my father worked for casino security—but was really just a member of the mafia. I’m living here under witness protection because my first job at 14 involved smuggling weapons from Mexico. I love eating spaghetti out of a can. I have no idea where I actually am—can you help me?”

Isn’t that what the media would have them believe?

The other common belief, and one I also find quite baffling, is that if a Canadian is assumed to be American by an Australian, they are very much offended. Since moving to Queensland, my accent has evolved. The southern twang I came here with didn’t jive with the locals. Canadian-style enunciation eases the communication difficulties, so I roll with it—which is why many people think I’m a far north, North American. Oh, and I have checked with Canadians and they confirmed they do not get upset when confused with Americans and do not know why Australians think this. Strange, truly.

Sometimes, when my fellow Australians find out I’m an American with Australian citizenship, they get a bit upset.

“We’re secretly invading,” I tell them. “That’s why all the military bases are here.” As their face wrinkles in horror, I laugh and ask them a few questions from that test I had to take to get a passport.

“Do you know who the Governor General is?”

And if I’m really feeling combative, and they want to dig in and go head to head, I get philosophical. I chose to immigrate to Australia, whereas most Australians simply fell out of their mother and landed here. I ask them, what makes you more of a citizen, consciously choosing to immigrate to a country or the fact you being born here is purely circumstantial?

They often say that being born here wins, so then I point out that Aboriginal people were not official citizens until 1967 and they’ve been here for over 65,000 years (or longer). The conversation typically ends after I make this point. Citizenship, a legal classification or a nationalistic construct—you tell me?

My favourite “where are you from, I hear an accent” exchange happened at Bunnings Warehouse. After asking an employee to help me find a plunger, the conversation immediately turned to nationality. And after a brief discussion, he then accused me of coming to Australia to “take advantage of the free health care.” Sighing with a bit of sadness at his confusion, I explained to him the health care here wasn’t exactly “free.” His reply was of course “love it or leave it.”

What most people fail to realise is that nationalism (like citizenship) is completely made-up. Both the United States and Australia became those countries because some white dudes from England showed up and killed the native people who were living there. They proclaimed the land a colony and then a country and now a few hundred years later here we all are still pretending that made sense. If you look at the history of any country, you will find the same result—it’s all made-up. As are most things in life.

So next time you ask someone where they are from, ask yourself this question first: are you really asking ‘why are you here?’ And if so, maybe you should think of another question – something that we can all related to like ‘how is your day?’

And image what your life could be like if you stopped living in a box and defining yourself and your identity based on where you live or where you came from. After all, we’re all pretty much the same—trying to survive, do the best we can, love our families and die knowing we have no regrets. Add some flavour and become uniquely you—not just a flag waiving, brain-washed, soldier marching in the yearly parade to a song someone made-up to pledge allegiance to a country someone else made-up.

My advice: always seek to find the core essence of a person – not just their “kind” that makes it easier for your ego to categorise them based on your stereotypes.

Think big. Be big. Expand beyond your limitations. Who are you without an anchor to “place”? Embody that version of you.

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