On Nationality And Being A Cultural Chameleon

In November 2007, after doing a possession purge and saying goodbye to friends and family, I booked a one-way ticket to New Zealand to start my life as a nomad.

When I left, I was pretty American.

In Wellington, the capital of NZ, I scored my first job as a cocktail waitress. After a while, I got to know my coworkers and felt comfortable there. I remember leaving one night and telling them to “holler back” – something that was cool to say back then. I received blank stares and weird looks in return.

I was confused. How could they not know what I meant? I was speaking English!

Wellington New Zealand

in Wellington during Rugby Sevens... still American

I also found their slang weird. During my first week in the country, I sat on a bench along Courtenay Place (the main bar zone) one night, watching the party scene unfold before me. A young Pacific Islander strolled up to me wearing a black t-shirt with “OTP” printed in bold, white letters.

I asked him if that was the name of his gang. He laughed and said, “No mate! It means On The Piss. I’m getting pissed tonight!” I asked him why he was so mad. We looked at each other blankly. He walked away.

After more awkward situations like this, I finally got tired of being clueless and of having to explain myself all the time. I made the active decision to integrate as much as possible into my new society – not by changing the essence of who I am, but in more of a “When in Rome, do as the Romans,” style.

I started saying “jandals” instead of flip-flops. I used “sweet as” instead of cool. Towards the end of my trip, I really let my hair down and allowed myself to say “ey?” instead of “what?”.

I did Tim-Tam Slams and cheered for the All Blacks. I watched Eagle vs. Shark repeatedly – and understood the humor.

During my working holiday in Australia, I repeated the process. I let a few “mates” slip out. I pronounced Melbourne correctly. I said “How ya goin?” instead of “Hey what’s up?” My favorite shows were Rove and Summer Heights High.

I wanted to experience the culture from the inside out. I wanted to know what it was like to be a Kiwi or Australian. I wanted to become a part of the country and the culture.

It’s something I continue to do in Latin America. Though my time in Guatemala was short (under three months), I did my best to understand the Guatemalan perspective. I lived with a fun mix of Guatemalans and expats, listened to the music my friends listened to, ate what they ate, and tried to understand their perspective and outlook on life.

Guatemala

my roomates in Guatemala

One of the most fascinating aspects of travel is to see the way the universe expresses itself through humanity. Why do people do what they do, think what they think, dream what they dream? Why do societies have specific social rituals, wear what they wear, hold themselves to certain ideals?

I aimed to answer these questions by studying psychology in college. However, instead of quenching my thirst, it only whetted my appetite. I realized the answers aren’t in books – they’re out there. These questions are my motivation for traversing the globe like I do.

Colombia has hit me even harder than the others. The moment I stepped off the plane, I knew I was in love. I spent my first chunk of time in Pereira and Medellín, both regions famous for their unique accent and slang. I was given lessons from Day 1 on how to speak like a Paisa.

Medellin

one of many friends responsible for teaching me Colombian slang

I reflect on where and how I am today. I woke up in a strictly Colombian neighborhood in a Colombian family’s house. Everything I’m wearing has been bought here. I’m always in the mood for an arepa and I drink about three tintos a day. I’ll eat beans, rice, and platanos for lunch. Tonight I will watch Chepe Fortuna, a wildly popular telenovela.

Strangers will assume I’m Colombian, until my accent gives me away. They’ll ask me where I’m from, and I’ll tell them the US. They’ll tell me it doesn’t seem like it.

Am I really American? Since 2007, I have spent more time individually in New Zealand, Australia, and Colombia than I have in the US.

What determines nationality anyway? Is it where I was born? It is where I lie my head at night? Maybe the country my passport comes from?

Can I just be Jasmine, a girl that feels at home everywhere and nowhere at the same time? A culture vulture, a restless soul, a citizen of the world, a seeker of answers to those eternal questions that have plagued me for years?

Do I have to have a nationality?

  • The Father

    Jasmine, this is definitely one of my top 2 or 3 favorites of your posts. Thanks for the look inside. :)

  • Jenna

    Nope, no nationality required :) Well, that’s the rule for the spirit at least… I remember doing the same super-immersion as you are doing now, while I was in Argentina. It’s a beautiful thing to return to what was once your “home country” only to find you feel completely alienated.

    Aside from this, I’m heading to Bogota in July, and what you’ve said about the city has definitely helped increase my excitement about my arrival!! Cheers,

    Jenna

  • Thanks for stopping by Jenna… let me know if you have any questions about Bogota :)

  • Insightful post. I’ve thought about this a lot too. Since December 2006, I’ve only spent a total of maybe 3 months in America. I have a British passport as well as American one. Friends from all over the world, clothes from all over the world, eating food from all over the world. Like you, I woke up in a Colombian neighborhood in the house of a Colombian family. I spent the morning trekking around a farm and through a river wearing wellies. Everything I’m wearing was bought here. I ate caldo for breakfast, rice, chicken, sopa for lunch and now my boyfriend is next to me having his afternoon siesta…I don’t really feel very American anymore. I don’t ever plan to live in America for good again. But I don’t feel British or Colombian either. It’s like some limbo in between. Or maybe it just doesn’t matter?

  • Maybe it doesn’t matter… not all of us fit in neat labels meant for the general population. I’m okay with that.

    PS – I love your new website! It looks great :)

  • amanofnonation

    To sum it up, it doesn’t matter because I am positive that before you were born you didn’t say to yourself something along the lines of, “I’d like to be born in this region of Earth, have this upbringing and be born with this complexion”. 

    Asking someone what their name is and where they are from tells me nothing about that person; therefore, I think that it is important to ask one another unconventional questions to truly get to know someone. 

    Good post Jasmine. 

    -Kevin

  • Me too. 

    Thanks about the site x 

  • Thanks Kevin!

    You’re right, asking different questions and sharing experiences becomes more important in connecting with someone than their general demographic information.

  • JT

    not trying to step out of line, but Jasmine,  you are gorgeous.. especially that first picture

  • Thanks :)