I didn’t come to terms with my American identity until I stepped foot onto Belgian soil in 2017. It was the first time I’ve ever stepped foot in Europe, my first experience with it aside from watching American movies that take place there. Prior to stepping on the plane at JFK, all I knew of Europe was that they were progressive, they kept religion and politics separate, and the drinking age is 16 years old. Fair enough for me. I just had no idea that Europeans approached race and identity differently.
Americans approach race and identity politics from an individualistic perspective. We are who we are because of our cultural background. Yes, we are patriotic in many ways, but all types of backgrounds are celebrated, whether that’s through assembly, community, activism, religion, etc. To me, it was normal. I grew up in America but I was a part of a Haitian community back home. I had no reason to not claim my ethnical identity, because it was inevitably a part of me. I never once thought of my American identity; there was no need to because we’re already in America. We celebrate all types of identities, despite the rising racial tensions of the country.
That being said, I know who I am. Yet, in Europe, I felt challenged by peoples’ assumptions of America, especially of people of color. Some of my European friends believed I was just Black or African American, until I corrected them on my actual ethnicity. They assumed I was Baptist or Protestant and associated me with gospel music, because they had never seen my Catholic side. But on the other hand, I was living my parents’ dream. I lived the life they desperately worked hard for their children to have. I lived their expectations, dreams, and aspirations. I lived their Haitian culture and the American experience simultaneously. It’s safe to say, first-gens have the best of the First & Third world.
First-gens wear their ethnic identity as well as their race on their sleeves. That’s how we maneuver through this world, or at least I believe it to be. In Europe, wearing your national identity is common. The minute someone heard my American accent, they’d be curious to stir up conversation about my American experience because, let’s face it, your ethnic identity isn’t necessarily important. It’s all about where you’re from.
The more I hop the pond and visit countries with a scarce amount of people who share the same ethnic identity as me, the more I cling on to the little bits that I’ve overlooked in my childhood and adolescence. Sure, I can meet other Americans and laugh endlessly about memes, but sharing my Haitian identity is scarce and motivates me to wear it with pride wherever I go. It’s an essential part of my own individual story, the part that glues it all together. Without it, my travels in Belgium, Turkey, and even Peru would be different. I wouldn’t be me.
I believe the moral of the story is to live in your desired truth, whatever that may be. Acknowledge what makes you yourself and run with it. While traveling, I met people from all walks of life: Palestinian refugees living in Belgium, Eritrean first-gens in the Netherlands, a Mexican-Dutch mixed family, etc. Whenever I did meet those gems, their stories reminded me of my story. It put my own personal conflicts at ease, reminding me that I’m not the only one with two identities in one place. Traveling as first-gen is defying the odds and the cards that you’ve been dealt with. Yes, I am aware of my identity and it influences how I maneuver through this world, but it shouldn’t stop anyone from living their best life.
How has travel helped you come to terms with some aspect of your identity? Let us know on Twitter!