When I introduce myself to people I usually tell them I am British. When they ask me whereabouts I’m from, I often end up explaining that I was born in Brussels. This generally leads to much confusion, suspicion and people telling me “but you speak such good English for a Belgian…” The problem is that I am neither truly British nor truly Belgian, and this often makes me question what nationality I am. It also gives rise to the question of whether National Identity truly exists.
I was labelled “Belgian” by my English hallmates, and the constant references to waffles, chips and Jean-Claude Van Damme haven’t stopped since…
I was born in Brussels. Until I moved to London for university, I had never lived anywhere other than Belgium. Some might think it’s the most boring place on Earth (not entirely untrue) and some might not even know where it is on the map, but that tiny country sandwiched between France, Germany, Luxemburg and the Netherlands is what I call home. Though it may be small, it’s important when it comes to international institutions: it is home to both NATO and the European Union. It is also, for this reason, home to many people who are not technically Belgian. People like me.
For much of my time spent in Belgium I thought of myself as British. There are many things about Brussels in particular which I love: its green spaces, beautiful architecture and laid back atmosphere, to name a few. These are all things that I picture when I think of “home” – that funny word which we all use to describe the places which shaped our childhoods. The strange thing is, although I’ve never lived in England, I also think of it as home. This is probably down to the way my parents raised me: we frequently visited relatives in England and spoke English at home. Even though I spoke fluent French and a bit of Dutch, I honestly felt more British than Belgian, but as I realised when I started university, it isn’t always as clear cut as that.
I was labelled “Belgian” by my English hallmates, and the constant references to waffles, chips and Jean-Claude Van Damme haven’t stopped since. This made me realise how, although I had thought of myself as British in Belgium, I was automatically branded “a bit foreign” once I moved here.
National Identity and Nationality are flexible, abstract concepts…
I am the proud owner of a Belgian identity card and a British passport, but this often makes me wonder what National Identity really means. The definition of the term seems to be difficult to pinpoint. I searched for the answer in my friends from home, most of whom were in a situation similar to mine. My friend Lisa (half Danish, half English and born in Belgium) agreed that she found it hard to define herself as one or the other. “To be honest,” she told me, “I don’t think it really matters what you label yourself, they’re just words which people use to put you into groups in their heads. National Identity and Nationality are flexible, abstract concepts. ” My friend Priyanka (born in India and raised in Brussels), however, disagreed with this, “Identifying with others allows us to know who we are and where we are from. What could be more important than that?”
I began to wonder whether National Identity is really as big a deal as I have been making it. I realised Lisa may be right: most people can’t even tell that I wasn’t born here. Perhaps it just isn’t as important to me as I have been able to shift between two different nationalities. I sometimes secretly enjoy confusing people with my foreignness, anyway.