World Savvy: Dilemmas of the diaspora

“You’re not a Latvian!” the young student told me. I couldn’t believe he’d said that. I was born in Latvia, own a farm and land there, worked for the Latvian Investment and Development Agency, spoke Latvian fluently, and my father was chief of the Latvian service of the Voice of America. Even one of my books was translated into Latvian. I also gave two of my daughters Latvian names. Ouch.

 He told me: “You live in the United States, you have money, you have a social safety net. Your government is not as corrupt as ours, you can travel throughout the world, you can find employment in your country, you live in a big house, which I will never have, and you have three daughters and two cars, which I could never afford. You’re not Latvian.”

He was right, and it took me several years to realize that. But the government of Latvia is going all out to make me feel Latvian. I have a Latvian passport and can vote in all the elections. I used to say that I was a Latvian living in America, but now I say I am an American who speaks Latvian. Or to put it another way, I am an American-Latvian, not a Latvian-American. I had to do some shuffling around with the hyphen, as do many people in the United States.

Of course, there are people like my friend Carl Ferrell from America’s heartland in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, who see no need to have a hyphen at all. “There is no consistency or even sense in ethnic labeling in the United States. I was born here, English is my language and I don’t see the purpose in labeling myself. Anyway, if there is a need to ‘label’ people by ethnicity, then get a consistent method going! If you’re born in the United States, then you’re an American, period. If you are born in another country and come to the United States to live, then you’re an American-Mexican, or an American-Canadian, or an American-African or American-Japanese, whatever.”

I haven’t seen any discussion of referring to ethnics in the United States as having American on the left side of the hyphen, which I think is a big mistake. I think, linguistically, if you live in and are a citizen of a given country, you should identify that, and then if you want to identify where you are from, you add that extra adjective with a hyphen. This was heightened in the immigration debate in this country. People would say that Ferrell is a Mexican-American instead of an American-Mexican, but the latter could provide an incredible difference in perception.

There are groups within countries such as the Flemish in Belgium or the Québécois in Canada who identify with their province or region. This is not unique for the variety of diasporas of different cultures living in a different country. In fact, the discussion can get downright nasty at times.

“After American Jewish Outcry, Israel Ends Ad Campaign Aimed at Expatriates” read a headline in the New York Times on December 2, 2011. The Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption had run a series of video ads and billboard posters across the United States urging people to reconnect with their roots and perhaps even return to Israel. Urging the yordim (Israelis who have emigrated) to return is a longstanding Zionist policy, for example. The ads were aimed at the estimated 600,000 Israelis believed to have migrated to North America. The ads suggested that American Jews may be corrupted by Christian influence, complacency and even the English language.

But it was the bluntness of the campaign and not-so-subtle suggestions that living among mostly secular Jews may corrupt Israeli identity that angered many in the United States. Israel, which enjoys support from American Jews, quickly backpeddled and pulled the ads. The official statement was, “The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption’s campaign clearly did not take into account American Jewish sensibilities, and we regret any offense it caused. The campaign, which aimed to encourage Israelis living abroad to return home, was a laudable one, and it was not meant to cause insult. The campaign was conducted without the knowledge or approval of the prime minister’s office or of the Israeli embassy in Washington.”

In sum, American Jews were told they were not Jewish, but corrupted. The Economist noted in January that immigration to Israel collapsed from 200,000 in 1990 to just 17,000 in 2010 as, among other things, “living standards are higher in America, and the neighbors less scary.”

National identity is apparently tricky if you are an Arab in Israel, even if you were born there. According to The Economist, many Israeli Arabs now prefer to be called “Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.” A fellow by the name of Yehezkel Dror wrote a book called Israeli Statecraft: National Security Challenges and Responses in which he outlined ways to make Israel more inclusive, such as by adding a Palestinian stanza to the national anthem, which now only speaks of Jewish yearning for Zion, and even by adding an Islamic crescent to the flag of Israel.

Controversial, but not necessarily unheard of. For those linguists who have seen the movie Invictus, you had to be touched by the South African anthem, which is among the most unusual in the world. The lyrics employ the five most widely spoken of South Africa’s eleven official languages: Xhosa (first stanza first two lines), Zulu (first stanza last two lines) Sesotho (second stanza), Afrikaans (third stanza) and English (final stanza).

The French government is equally concerned with having its 2.5 million French living in diaspora continuing to “feel” French, but instead of urging those to come back as some other countries might do, it will give them a say in running France. After years of promises dating back to French premier François Mitterrand, France wants to portray itself as a model of expat rights. The English paper The Guardian noted that French officials have sliced the world into 11 constituencies, which will give France a Member of Parliament for the United States and Canada, and a Member of Parliament for north and east Africa. France now joins a small group of European countries, including Italy, which allows its diaspora to choose its own expat Members of Parliament. Emmanuelle Savarit, the north European candidate for Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party, who runs her own consultancy firm in London, said: “The aim is not just to give a voice to French people abroad, but to bring Paris some inspiration from how things are done in other countries.”

There are even larger numbers of “overseas Chinese” living outside of China. There are over 40 million overseas Chinese, in fact, most of them living in Southeast Asia. Indonesia has nearly nine million overseas Chinese, Europe has nearly three million and the United States has nearly four million. Both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC), also known as Taiwan, maintain highly complex relationships with the overseas Chinese populations. Both maintain cabinet level ministries to deal with overseas Chinese affairs, and many local governments within the PRC have overseas Chinese bureaus. Both the PRC and ROC have some legislative representation for overseas Chinese. In the case of the PRC, some seats in the National People’s Congress are allocated for returned overseas Chinese.

It gets possibly even more confusing when you are dealing with diaspora of different hues. I asked a Jamaican friend of mine, Keith Roache, now living in Miami, to comment. “With regard to the question ‘Can a Jamaican be a Jamaican in the United States?’ my reasoning is as follows. Although my short answer is yes, to deal with the question properly, one would have to define what a Jamaican is. Within my own lifetime, Jamaican culture has gone through significant transformation from colonialism to independence to Americanization and Pan-Africanism. The culture is still evolving. Jamaicans have been described as a people with individual backgrounds and realities who exist in various hues and in separate and different ways. As one writer puts it, Jamaicans are an indecipherable blend of bewildering mixed bloods and cultures.”

And then there’s the question of what you say when you go through customs. I once said “I am an American” as I went through customs in Panama, for example. The customs agent looked at me sternly and said, “We are all Americans.”