What Defines a Citizen of the World?
Who do you think you are? Sounds like a threatening question, right? But seriously, who do you actually think you are? Who or what do you perceive yourself to be?
Are you your accomplishments? Are you your family, your country, your culture? Are you what you’ve gained, or are you what you’ve lost? Perhaps of equal importance, are you who the world perceives you to be?
Maybe it is a bit of a threatening question, after all.
For me, the answer was not always clear. I was born in Venezuela. My biological father was not in the picture, so I was raised by my mother, my aunts, and my grandmother, in a humble Caracas home. Some years later, my mother married an American man. Soon after, at the age of 12, and wildly shaking my expectations as a Spanish-speaking boy who had barely passed English class back in Venezuela, my mother and I moved to the United States. There, I adjusted to the suburban, American lifestyle, and rode in that iconic yellow school bus to an English-speaking American school after eating pop tarts and breakfast cereal, just like the American kids did in all those Spanish-dubbed cartoons I grew up watching in that humble Caracas home. At the time, the future was bright, and American.
I now had a chance to learn English, receive an American education, understand the lyrics of famous American songs, and watch American cartoons in their original language. I would stare down endless rows of cereal brands, lost in enormous grocery stores that had every sweet treat and awesome toy that an impressionable Venezuelan boy could want.
Then, shortly after arriving in the States, my grandmother passed away of cancer back home, leaving me to reckon with mortality and loss for the first time, at the onset of my unstable teenage years
To me, that story is a huge part of who I am. It defines me. But what does it mean for the world? If I was to tell you, “I’m from Venezuela,” what thoughts first come to mind? Try this: Google “Venezuela news.” What do you see? It’s no secret that Venezuela is largely defined by severe socioeconomic chaos brought on by years of government mismanagement. It’s no secret that its people face shortages, malnutrition, civil unrest, theft, and violence every day. Many Venezuelans have left their home seeking a viable future away from a country misled for twenty years by a regime that seems to have no solution for the crisis it created.
But does any of that define me?
When I told Americans that I was Venezuelan, their first instinct—and I concede that such an instinct is quite human—was to mention Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president whose socialist government brought about its current crisis back in the 2000’s. Then we would have the predictable talk about my opinions of Chavez (or his eventual successor, Nicolas Maduro) so they could further deduce who I was. Some perceived me as having socialist sensibilities. Others saw me as a conscientious capitalist who left Venezuela because of the socialist dystopia it became. Others saw in me someone who was lost and trying to fit in.
“They’re all wrong,” I thought. “I’m just a boy who likes American culture and misses his grandmother, who used to hug him tenderly while he played with Power Rangers figurines.” Around that time, my English improved, and I even began to habitually think (and dream) in English, but, inside my mind, my grandmother’s words were always spoken in Spanish.
It was a difficult and confusing time in my life. Was I just my dead grandmother’s grandson, lost in the duality of English and Spanish, unable to fit in but unable to go back?
Those doubts themselves became my foundation, and as I grew into adulthood, I was more defined by what I doubted than by what I knew. The doubt became my survival instinct, which gave way to failure, then trial-by-error, and then improvement. Day by day, the very staples of American culture which I saw so classically portrayed in those cartoons, sitcoms, and movies became staples of my life. I was no longer just becoming an American; I was one. I felt less identified with the struggles of Venezuelan politics and civil unrest, and instead delved deeper into American politics and current events. Venezuelan culture no longer took center stage; I had evolved past the hardships. After noticing how much I changed, I would think about the alternate version of me that never left Venezuela. Who would he be? Who did he think he was? Was he the right version, or was I?
Around that time, I graduated high school. Also around that time, the financial crisis affected both my work and school prospects, and made me question my American identity, as well as my prospects of success, happiness, and self-realization. I was just as uncertain as when I left Venezuela. Eventually, after numerous unfulfilling career missteps, I landed a job with a company that would sponsor my move to the Netherlands to assist with their new Dutch office.
So, in 2016, I moved to the Netherlands with my British-American partner, away from an America that had, in many ways, already disappointed the both of us. Thanks to my relationship with someone who held a British passport, I was able to obtain European residence, and live in The Hague, a city I had already admired for years. Now, the future was bright, and Dutch (less pop tarts and yellow school buses; more stroopwafels and bicycles).
And then Brexit happened. Also, Donald Trump was elected. Also, the situation in Venezuela had only worsened. And I was, once again, living in a new country, defined by the chaos of not one, but three different countries in which I did not live (Venezuela, the U.S., and England), whose displays of sociopolitical instability overshadowed absolutely every aspect of who I was in the eyes of my peers.
“So Gary, how is Trump doing? Do you like him?”
“Venezuela… people are starving over there, right? How is your family doing?”
“So what’s gonna happen with Brexit? Will you be able to stay in Holland? What will you do?”
For years, in what felt like social media purgatory, I was bombarded with reminders of crises in three countries. These countries served as the backdrop for who I was in the world. Their challenges were a blueprint to my psyche. I would wake up to news from CNN or BBC, all illustrating the chaos from these three nations which I was powerless to help, but on which I was also psychologically (and legally) dependent. I was affected by three countries whose fates I myself had no way to affect.
So, the question persisted: Who did I think I was? Was I Venezuelan? Was I American? Was I the partner of a British citizen? A victim of socialism, or capitalism, or Brexit? Was I my position at work, which gave me the opportunity to live in the Netherlands? The uncertainty was so intense, I often felt like nothing at all. Then I began to think about the total number of times I moved during my life: twenty-seven times total. That meant I lived in a given home for an average of about a year. Twenty-seven times packing and unpacking boxes, twenty-seven goodbyes, twenty-seven hellos, and twenty-seven new struggles. That is what I was. That is what I am: the struggle.
We are defined mostly by the struggle. Our achievements, our happiness, our loved ones, they might come and go, but the struggle remains. The challenge of consistently struggling is who we are. I am the struggle. You are the struggle. As citizens of the world, we are rolling stones, defined not by the moss not gathered, but by the roll itself. Jagged and roughened by the struggle, we continue rolling, with little to show for it but the scars that wisdom brings. Our broken countries, our busted political systems, our buried loved ones, and our emotional burdens are what define us and strengthen us as internationals. The end result is just a “keep going” sign. The struggle to get there is what we are.
This realization does not make news of global chaos any easier, nor does it help much with the emotional struggle of being an immigrant. Today, the social crises of the United States, Venezuela, and the United Kingdom have actually worsened, giving me even more reason to panic and question my place in the world. At times, I almost lose myself. However, as soon I acknowledge that the struggle is my identity, and that within that struggle lies my sword and shield against the uncertainty, I feel less afraid of the global issues that threaten to define me, and instead become more emboldened by them.
Who do we think we are? The struggle will decide.
Gary Izquier is a Venezuelan-American student of International Communications at THUAS. As a Millennial in a class full of Gen-Z students, he hopes to learn but also express whatever wisdom he can give to a young, international community. When he isn't studying, working, or over-thinking global issues, he can be found either gaming, debating strangers online, or pretending to be Bob Dylan on the guitar.