My name. My country.

Kira Burgard (UWCAC ’14-’16 UK/Germany)

That’s how I introduced myself at the beginning of the last term. Indeed, it’s how we all introduced ourselves. First the name. It makes sense since this is what we are called by, it’s the word people use to address us or referred to us. Then the country. This seems like the second most important part of our identity. But why? Why not our hobbies, our pets, our favourite swim stroke?

At the end of last term we had a Critical Engagement Conference. One of the activities consisted of a number of papers lying on the floor with words such as “age”, “religion”, “sexuality” or “family” on them. The activity leader would mention a specific point in our lives, say for example secondary school, and we were asked to stand by the paper with the word that we believed to be the most important factor in determining our identity at that time. When “coming to AC” was mentioned, most people flocked to the paper reading “nationality”. Upon disagreeing I was told that it is, after all, this is the second thing that we mention when introducing ourselves.

This may be true, but I would like to offer a different explanation. It’s not nationalities that define us so strongly in this way, it’s the culture we come from. And this culture doesn’t share the same borders as our country or our state. It’s not as if on one side of a border, in many African countries’ case a line drawn across a map by Europeans who had never been to these countries let alone have familiarised themselves with the local tribes and ethnicities, the culture is significantly different to the other side of a border. Also, the population of a country doesn’t exclusively follow the same cultures, traditions and everyday rituals. It’s these different cultures we are interested to discover, as this is what makes the UWC movement so unique. But cultures are difficult to define and are often not associated with names. It’s a lot simpler to name the country we come from, and let the other person guess any other details concerning background from there.

Sometimes I introduce myself as being “from London” and have often been told that London is not a country. As you may well have guessed, I know that my hometown is not a country, but the culture is so unique and so unlike the rest of the UK that I thought naming London would give a better idea of my background. But when asked where we are from we are automatically expected to name a country.

I am not saying that, once we have made the connection with a person’s culture, we are completely oblivious to the country or government a person comes from. If you were introduced to a Palestinian and an Israeli at the same time, you would almost inevitably think about current conflicts. But these conflicts are not what define these people. It certainly doesn’t mean they agree with their country’s stand on the conflict. But what we do do is associate a person with our view of the people with this country’s nationality, or its stereotypes.

By sharing information about one’s identity, one is also, inevitably but often unintentionally, creating divisions in the society. Many people are not comfortable with sharing their religion, sexuality or economic background, so why does this controversy not exist with nationality? Why is it that a national flag and dress is on the list of things to bring to a UWC? It’s because “UWC makes education a force to unite people, nations and cultures”. But doesn’t putting so much stress on students’ nationalities create more of a division in the community than unity? Does it encourage patriotism, and does this patriotism encourage unity? This could also be considered from a different angle, that stressing these differences in a place where everyone lives together in similar circumstances trying to make the world a more peaceful and sustainable place is the path to unity.

I will finish by encouraging you to think about why our country is the part of our identity mentioned in second place when introducing ourselves, and whether it really is mentioned solely to give an idea of our cultural background, or if it is, after all, a trait that defines our character.

6 thoughts on “My name. My country.

  1. Excellent and thoughtful comment. I had never thought about the nationality conception and the way the UWCs deal with it in this way before!

  2. This is an insightful and critical prospective on an unquestioned aspect of the UWC movement, one which brings back many late night conversations about the simple approach we have to “diversity” within the UWC movement. Using nationality as a defining feature of our selection process, while blunt and easier to implement, perhaps misses the nuance of actual diversity, in ideology, socioeconomic status, religious background and personal experiences. While by virtue the UWC movement does better than any other school I know of, I worry that we use this superiority over “others” as an excuse for us as a movement to not question how we can do better.

    It also raises the question of whether UWC is actually able to facilitate a truly diverse student body: we aren’t able to handle students who haven’t had access to western education, who don’t speak English on entering; and in many national committees those who are not able to at least partially fund themselves.

    Glad this topic was raised, and I’m curious to hear what other people think on these issues!

  3. I think to honour our commitment to sustainability and the resulting absolute imperative to reduce flying to an absolute minimum (as otherwise there’s just no way to avoid the worst of climate change), we need to start asking ourselves how we can get the most diversity for the fewest air miles.
    We may well find that flying in the children of relatively wealthy, educated, liberal middle-classes from all around the world actually doesn’t give us more diversity than we could find within 100 miles (cycling distance ;)) of any UWC.
    Of course, this then brings up the thorny issue that some types of diversity (different skin colours, national costumes… the picture postcard idyll of diversity) may be more appealing and suitable for glossy brochures than others (radically different political world views, strong religious beliefs…)

  4. “It’s not nationalities that define us so strongly in this way, it’s the culture we come from.”

    Not even that always works…

    I was a TCK (Third Culture Kid) before I went to UWC and was never fond of how many people would try to put you into a box for a single country/culture – like you could only be from one place. Or elitism (and lack of openness) from some people that seemed to insist you had to be 100% born and raised in one place in order to participate in a certain region’s cultural event. But some of us have have parents from different places or have lived in multiple places, and we don’t fit into one neat box like that (whether in terms of country or culture), even if sometimes we only have one passport.

    1. Hey Alua! I think that is exactly the point he is trying to make: your “culture” is multifaceted, but I would assume that there are some common reference points in your experience as a TCK, of someone who has had the opportunity to travel/ engage different cultures in a certain way, that a mono cultural or even simply international person would not have. Your experience might be more similar to that of a TCK whose parents nationality is completely different than yours than you would with someone raised in one of your parents nations, no?

  5. Thanks for raising awareness. I’m late, but I want to share my thoughts.

    In history class, I learned that by experiencing other cultures, you realize the properties of your own nation, you learn to appreciate them. That realization is part of how colonisation influenced the development of an european identity.
    But it’s globalization now. We are united in our differences all over the world. We can experience any culture we’d like to, at any time, any place, and there are thousands of it. We can travel to any country, listen to oriental music, learn foreign languages, believe in anything we want to. It’s just that the older generation mostly doesn’t recognize these possibilties, while the younger generation takes full advantage. That’s how I see it here.

    To me, identity is freedom. It’s not connected to nationality and develops constantly.
    To my grandparents, identity is how and where they’ve been raised, it’s unchangeable and ends with the border.
    However, this is Germany – if it’s not about the World Cup, we usually don’t tend to be patriotic. Things are different in other places, I don’t know to what extent.

    “I think to honour our commitment to sustainability and the resulting absolute imperative to reduce flying to an absolute minimum (as otherwise there’s just no way to avoid the worst of climate change), we need to start asking ourselves how we can get the most diversity for the fewest air miles.” (Tobi K.)
    Judging from the UWC mission, which requires people from different nations and cultures to be united, this isn’t considered to be top priority. You might ask how travelling by plane contributes anything to sustainability – I’m looking forward to the day we’re able to take a flight without worrying about that, too – I believe it to be necessary as long as there are young people out there who benefit from experiencing what life is like at the other end of the world. Also… is there anyone who said that he or she won’t visit a UWC that’s far away, because of the flight? I don’t think so😉
    (Ok. I almost did so. Then I discovered ISAK and UWC Thailand.)

    “This could also be considered from a different angle, that stressing these differences in a place where everyone lives together in similar circumstances trying to make the world a more peaceful and sustainable place is the path to unity.” Exactly. As these differences are still deeply influenced by nationaltity, even if you don’t recognize it as a part of your identity, heritage matters.
    Wearing a traditional dress, waving the german flag and baking Bretzels may be over the top, but that’s what makes it so fun, isn’t it?

    To make a comparison: The European Parliament needs many, many translators, paid by the government, to translate directly during a conference as every member is required to talk in his or her native language, also it is so that he or she is able to understand the others translated speeches as well. I asked the guide why they don’t simply speak english. Well, the slogan of the EU is “united in diversity” – they would never, never ever change the way it is. It’s ridiculous, but it’s necessary.

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