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Expatriate Patriotism

So Chinese-born superstar Gong Li recently became a Singaporean citizen—and people in China are completely freaking out.  Even though her husband is Singaporean, and she’s lived abroad for years, her […]


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Suzanne Leung

Suzanne is a Denizen writer. While she grew up in Singapore, Suzanne Leung has also lived in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and her birthplace, England. She currently calls San Francisco home, and is one of the founders of AbsolutelyFobulous.com. Suzanne Leung received her B.A. from Knox College, majoring in Anthropology & Sociology and minoring in Journalism. You can find her on Twitter.

So Chinese-born superstar Gong Li recently became a Singaporean citizen—and people in China are completely freaking out.  Even though her husband is Singaporean, and she’s lived abroad for years, her decision has sparked an onslaught of heated protest on popular online portals like sohu.com and sina.com.

“Traitors like this don’t even love their own country,” one Netizen wrote, translated by The Times. “These people were only fake countrymen of ours. Let them slink off to other countries and die!”

“All traitors will be nailed to history’s mast of shame,” wrote another. “We should resolutely reject any further contact with such people.”

Um, seriously? Geez. Calm down, people. That’s psycho ex-boyfriend talk.

Courtesy of Kungfumagazine.com

Chinese actress Gong Li. Courtesy of Kungfumagazine.com

Maybe it’s just me.  I don’t think Third Culture Kids (TCKs) ever really “get” the whole patriotism thing.  Even my British National Overseas (BNO) passport triggers confused questions that I don’t quite know how to answer:

“Oh, you’re British?”

“No, it’s a Hong Kong passport that just looks like a British passport.  You know, it was a British colony…”

“Weren’t you born in England, though?”

“Yeah, but… um… I dunno, they wouldn’t let me be British.  Damn Brits.”

“Wait, isn’t Hong Kong a part of China now?”

“Yeah…”

“So, you’re from China?”

“Well, not really, since I grew up in Singapore… but kind of, I guess.”

And so it continues—but you get the point.  It’s totally confusing.  Yet I think there’s something to be said of not taking this nationalism thing too seriously.  For all the outrage that Gong Li’s emigration provoked, I can’t even begin to imagine what they would say about me, or any of my fellow multi-country counterparts.  But is being non-patriotic really that bad?  And for those of us who subscribe to more than one cultural identity, must patriotism always feel like having to choose which parent we love more?

Indeed, many TCKs will agree that lacking a sense of national pride can often be socially unacceptable among their “home country” peers.  According to David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken in their book, Third Culture Kids, these “confused loyalties” are the cost TCKs pay for their unique cross-cultural perspectives.

“Although their expanded worldview is a benefit, it can also leave TCKs with a sense of confusion about such complex things as politics, patriotism, and values,” they explain.

As someone who’s lived in four countries but can’t sing a complete verse of a single national anthem, patriotism has never been my strong suit.  But despite the cultural and national identity dilemmas, the issue of patriotism is by no means lost on TCKs.  On the contrary, I believe TCKs have the strikingly unique ability to experience a kind of patriotism that, as is typical of all things TCK, muddles the boundaries, making something normally assumed to be exclusive, suddenly pluralistic.

Mariel Reyes, a California-born Filipino who grew up in Singapore, explains.

“I feel pride for all three countries.  When I’m away from Singapore, I feel patriotic towards Singapore because I grew up there. And when I’m in the Philippines, I feel happy that I’m part of their cultures and traditions.  For the US election, I felt patriotic voting and making change in the world with my vote.”

It’s almost paradoxical, this ability to simultaneously feel a sense of loyalty to more than one country.  Yet this kind of “nation-two-timing” doesn’t mean that TCKs are “unfaithful” or unpatriotic.  In fact, it’s a unique and, I believe much-needed perspective that allows TCKs to value and comprehend issues such as international politics from a variety of viewpoints.

Emily Co, a freelance journalist who lives in Tokyo but grew up in Singapore, says, laughing, “The thing about being attached to so many cultures is that it takes a crazy amount of time to read my daily news.”

Her daily reading list, in order:  The New York Times, Japan Times, Al Jazeera (Middle East), China Daily, The Straits Times (Singapore), smaller Japanese newspapers like Japan Today, CNN, Associated Press, and, once in a while, the Philippine Star.

Co, whose mother is Japanese and father is Filipino-Chinese, says she feels patriotic for Singapore, where she grew up, but also admits that she feels “pretty American too” from her time at Claremont McKenna College in Los Angeles, where she received her undergraduate degree.  And while she’s never visited her father’s hometown, she still feels an attachment to the Philippines and keeps up with the country’s current events.

It’s an unusual condition—while TCKs feel deeply connected to a country’s national issues, the traditional notions of patriotism somehow don’t quite fit.  “If you asked me to choose a flag, I wouldn’t be able to choose one,” Co says. “I can’t explain it.  It’s like you’re sticking yourself in just one category.”

Home, she explains, is not a fixed place.  “It doesn’t even have to be where your family is,” she says.  “I think being like this lets us move anywhere and make that your home.  We could move to Zimbabwe and have national pride.”

It’s this kind of grounded yet fluid patriotism that both comforts and appeals to me.  Most of the time, the word “patriotism” stirs in me a strange feeling of discomfort, reminding me of the anthems I can’t sing, the pledges of allegiance that don’t apply to me, or the national languages I don’t speak fluently enough.  But who says my passport country necessarily needs to correlate with the feelings of pride and affinity that I might have for another country?  And in our increasingly-globalized world, perhaps it’s the old notion of “my-country-is-better-than-yours” patriotism that needs to be seriously reevaluated.  Just as we TCKs carry with us multicultural identities, it’s possible—and I think necessary—to see that patriotism can be pluralistic, too.

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