Thursday, October 09, 2008

Me, a Kenyan, and Barack Obama in Stockholm

Two nights ago I found myself out way past my bedtime. And needing to take a night bus home. Unfortunately, having never taken a night bus in the middle of the week back to my place I wasn’t really sure what time they left. So I guessed. And my buddy and I left the bar in hopes of catching it. Well I guessed wrong. By about seven minutes. Which doesn’t sound like much. But when they only come once an hour seven minutes becomes a long ass time.

So we had time to spare. And wandered to McDonalds. Which was closed. Luckily, 7-11, despite its moniker, was not closed. I bought a calzone and Fanta. The calzone was dry. And delicious. Because it was 3 am and I had imbibed in a drink or two. Anyway, that obviously didn’t take 53 minutes. So we sat our asses down on the bus stop bench and waited.

When two gentleman rolled up speaking English. And me, being a drunk American decided to talk with them. One was from Kenya. The other from Nigeria. Both had been in Sweden for a while and spoke Swedish but seemed more comfortable speaking English to each other. They asked where I was from and I explained my confused background and finished simply with, “in the end, I’m an American.”

At which point the Kenyan quickly pounced. Not in a bad way but he asked me what I thought about the upcoming election. As I often do in Sweden because of my political views and my not wanting to cause problems at 3 am I simply stated that I believed Obama would win without stating my preferences. And then he said something which took me by surprise. He asked if I knew that Obama was from Kenya.

Now I have read the articles about Kenyans loving Obama. And the support he has there. And even about the author of an anti-Obama book being deported. But I was still taken aback for a second.

Technically, Obama isn’t from Kenya. Had he been born in Kenya he would not be eligible to be President. Just as I am not eligible to be President. His father was born there though. A father he really only met once in his life. But a father that seems to have played a strong role in his life regardless. The title of his book, Dreams from My Father, suggests as much. I would never consider Obama Kenyan. But this Kenyan claimed him as if he were a native son.

I always believed the claiming of an ancestral country was something unique to Americans. Like an old girlfriends friend who claimed to be Norwegian despite not having citizenship, never having lived there, studied there, worked there, or even speaking the language. Something drives people to cling to their ancestry. And yet I was surprised to see a Kenyan man who had lived in Sweden for nearly 20 years claim Obama as a native.

Anyway, I’m really not all that interested in Obama’s specific case. I am interested in the claim of belonging. So instead, in my selfish ways, I thought of my own claims. Because, when I was younger I think I probably claimed to be Swedish plenty of times. I even said I would renounce my American citizenship when I turned 18 to rile up my mom once or twice. I think part of the reason I moved here was to straighten out my ability to make a claim. And since having moved to Sweden I now claim to be American when people ask. Either I have realized something profound or I just have a strange desire to be different and seen as other. I prefer to think it is the former.

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  1. english citizenship?

  2. yeah god save the queen and all that good stuff.

    apparently thats what happens when I try to write at 1 in the morning while reading an article about the english financial crisis.

  3. Yes, it seems that when you're abroad you tend to emphasize your origin more than in your own country. After all, what point would there be to do that among millions of fellow citizens?

  4. a great point. anything to differentiate yourself from the masses is grabbed onto

  5. Good story. Reminds me of the time when I was in the US Navy, temporarily stationed in my home town of San Francisco. I was 19 or 20 years old, quite drunk, in uniform, on a bus and had what I felt was a long and coherent conversation with a fellow passenger--all in the Spanish language, which I had studied in high school.

    As for citizenship, it is odd to be formally a Swedish citizen yet not steeped in its history and culture. I can never feel truly Swedish, more like a friendly relative permanently visiting from another country--well, the USA! Furthermore, I feel both Northern Claifornian and Alsakan

  6. I know a guy who was born in China but had Korean parents(the parents were born in China as well, but only speak Korean and some Chinese), he grew up in China, speaks fluently Chinese, German and little Korean, mostly hang out with Chinese and didn't mention his background much until he moved to Germany. Now he has been there for 5 years, and he says he considers himself Korean for the whole of his life.

    I guess identity thing is not decided by the place you were born, where you grew up, what language you speak or what citizenship you're holding, it's just something you choose for yourself.

  7. You definitely realized something profound. I live in California, but was born in China, and came here when I was 3. Now ethnically, racially, genetically, by breed, or whatever people call it these days, I am 100% Chinese. But as for my identity, nationality, and the only country I represent, I am and will always be an American and damn proud of it! :D

    When I go to Europe, if people start bashing America in front of my face, I am going to give them an earful. :D It's funny how things work, I actually just spent a couple months in China, and even though I speak it fluently, and can read and write some, and understand the culture, I still feel the strong attachment to America, knowing that no matter where I go in the world, America will always be my home. Hey like they said, home is where the heart is! :D

    LOL sorry if this post is a little too hardcore, but when I feel offended when people bash America, I then know that truly, I am an American. :D

    And please don't even bring up China. Chinese culture has NOTHING to do with the Chinese government. :D

  8. LOL I feel that way too when I go to China to visit. I might be Chinese by race, but I know only American. I guess you can call me yellow on the outside, red white and blue on the inside. In America, I don't feel like I need to prove that I'm American, but once I'm outta the country, I got this strong urge to show everyone that I'm American, from the way I dress to the loudness of my voice lol.

    And I think you did realize something profound.

  9. Just out of curiosity — feel free to ignore if this is too personal, but are both your parents Swedish? And a follow up — if so, how did you get your American citizenship.

  10. Hey I don't think you can decide what nationality other people feel that they belong to?

    Im half french, half norwegian and I feel that Im all these nationalities! Even though I grew up in Sweden and Swedish is my native language I at sometimes feel the french in my since I spent all my summers there and since half my family is french. Sometimes I feel Norwegian too since I have lived there and speaks the language.

    But when Im abroad and when I travel I always say that Im Swedish, and Im proud of that. Couse' when it comes to the end I feel more Swedish than anything else, but then again what the fuck is "Swedish"? Im just a normal human being... citizen of the world if you like.

  11. To this day, I always claim myself to be Italian-- when in actuality I'm only half Italian, never been there (but want to go!), and don't speak the language. The only thing that ties me to Italy is my last name and the ability to cook good Italian food. Wooo.

  12. @Pavellas – I always wonder if the people who are on the receiving end of these conversations remember them as well as we do. I kind of doubt it..

    I like your explanation of citizenship though. Obviously there are many things that go into citizenship and being “truly Swedish” and some of them are just hard to get if you miss out on certain life experiences, gymnasium for example.

    @anonymous – it seems that a lot of people feel that way. I wonder if that is a result of the ever increasing globalization that most countries are undergoing?

    @anonymous – home is where the heart is. Well said. And I think that you regardless of as you say, “ethnically, racially, genetically, by breed, or whatever people call it these days,” having lived in the US since the age of three most definitely would give a sense of being American. AS I go through my Swedish experiment here I think that is what I am realizing. That where I grew up had a profound effect on who I am and how I view myself.

    @Tyler Jian – I’ll be honest, I think its too bad that you have to dress and be loud to try to show that you are American when you leave the country. Being polite, respectful, and accepting the culture of the country you are visiting is a much better way to show off being American than speaking loudly and dressing in a certain way.

    @John – my mom is American. Hence the free American passport.

    @anastacia – it very much seems to be an individual decision doesn’t it?

    @jessica – it seems you are not alone then in your claims to citizenship.

  13. I find it interesting that both anonymous and Tyler feel very much American even though they are of Chinese ancestry...I'm very much an American (Scotch, German, Chickasaw) on the outside, but I grew up in Taiwan..lived there until 12 and really felt Chinese for a long time...guess this anomaly goes both directions...been in the US a long time now and don't really feel Chinese anymore, although I definitely notice that it still affects how I look at things...

  14. @john - maybe thats what it comes down to then. not necessarily how you identify yourself or how you feel, but how you look at things in life. and thats something that doesn't take a lifetime to acquire.