I calmly eat my noodles in the morning rush at the restaurant, and I can feel eyes crawling all over me.
A nation in the broadest sense of the term, according to the dictionary, is “a people having a common origin, tradition, and language and capable of forming or actually constituting a nation-state.”
The term is often used synonymously with the word “country” in the U.S. to refer to a distinct political territory that is ruled by a government. One could be forgiven for thinking that the two words are always exactly the same. If some phenomenon is occurring throughout our country, we often say that it’s happening “across the nation;” and if some crisis affects a large part of the country, it’s declared a “national emergency.”
It’s the former, more abstract definition, however, that I always return to and enjoy pondering about. It includes politically-organized peoples in the world that otherwise lack a true country or state, such the Native American tribes of the U.S. Questions invariably arise when comparing these two concepts of nationhood: What is the real “glue” that holds a nation together? What is national identity?
This question translates for us as the age-old “What does it mean to be an American?” Just by eating my breakfast here in Vietnam, I’m made well aware that I am not Vietnamese. Yet, besides what my passport says, how exactly am I an American?
It’s easy to forget just how different the U.S. (and other countries in the Americas) is compared to many countries in the world. Go far enough back in history, and no majority of our ancestors share any common origins, traditions, faiths or heritage. As is often said, we are mostly immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, from everywhere. We have all “melted” through time into an idea of a common identity. I write this column in English because, by historical chance, we’ve all come to accept it as our mutual language.
The same can’t be said for countries like Germany, Russia and Vietnam, whose foundations are undeniably ethnic German, Russian and Viet.
I always think of the tiny country of Armenia (which I backpacked through a few years ago) when I think about the concept of nationalism. There, nearly everyone is ethnically Armenian, which means that they all speak the old Armenian language and more or less adhere to the national church there and share the same millennia-long ancient history.
There is also a palpable nationalist pride throughout this land, which I felt was fed in large part by its history of troubles and hatred toward its immediate neighbors: the state that would eventually become Turkey perpetrated what many consider to be genocide against Armenians; and there is a long-running, bitter territorial dispute with the country of Azerbaijan. The more I ventured around the country, the more I felt that part of the Armenian identity was to despise the Turks and the Azeris.
We Americans, of course, are not united under these criteria. So what is our common thread?
I’ve noticed that whenever I feel somewhat homesick here in Vietnam, I always revert to thoughts of things that are stereotypically American: cowboys in wide open land, corn fields, roadside diners, Hollywood stardom, freedom…There is some strange solace in summoning these mere cultural identity markers, despite the fact that I’ve never been a farmer, rural Westerner or true Californian. They’re just things that I—we—have soaked into our consciousness throughout our lives.
But that symbolizes a truth about us. More than most other countries, our borders have always harbored a nation structured on ideas. Equality, liberty, justice… these are not religions or common tongues or oral histories that typically bind a people together. And yet, somehow, we are bound.
A nation may slowly arise from the earth through time and circumstance, but it can also, inexplicably, sew itself together with mere concepts and philosophies. How strange that is when one looks at it from the outside.
And how strange I must look—with my light skin, blond hair and tall frame—to those around me, who can definitely tell that I am not “of their nation.”
Email Andrew at email@example.com.