On being a citizen of nowhere

Tristan Jakob-Hoff
Oct 7, 2016 · 4 min read
Photo Credit: Tristan Jakob-Hoff

Whenever I travel abroad and people ask me where I’m from, I generally give “London” as the answer. But it’s a half-truth at best. The more complete answer, if you have a moment, is this: I was born in Australia and mostly raised in New Zealand; my father was born in Switzerland, but his mother is Scottish and he moved to England when he was seven; and my mother is Dutch (with an Indonesian great-grandparent in there somewhere) but moved to Australia when she was three. Nowadays, I live in London with my South African partner, who — somewhat inevitably — is here on an Irish passport.

So what sort of citizen am I? From the day I moved to New Zealand, aged eight, I felt like an outsider; but I feel just as much of an outsider in Australia now, not having lived there for roughly four-fifths of my life. Even when I was growing up in Australia, I felt vaguely aware that my first generation status made me a bit different — that I didn’t share the experience my peers had of growing up with Australian parents and Australian uncles and aunties to pass on Australian customs and the Australian predilection for footie and Vegemite.

So before it became such a hideous cliché, I used to describe myself as a citizen of the world. But this week, Britain’s new prime minister Theresa May put paid to even that when she announced at the Conservative Party Conference that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”.

Well, Theresa, you know what? I can live with that.

Truth be told, I would rather be a citizen of nowhere than a citizen of one place. I would rather be a citizen of nowhere than a citizen of a nation that rejects, rather than embraces, diversity. In short, I would rather be a first-class citizen of nowhere than a second-class citizen of Theresa May’s parochial vision of Britain.

The good news is that we citizens of nowhere have, quite remarkably, carved out a little place for ourselves in the middle of that parochial vision. It’s a town called London, and over the centuries it has been home to countless millions of Nowherevians.

London is the quintessential immigrants’ city. Over a third of the population is foreign born; in Tower Hamlets, where I live, 69% of the population belongs to a minority ethnic group. (Where else can you say that minorities are in the majority?) Between us, we Londoners speak three hundred languages. Our newly-elected mayor is himself the son of an immigrant.

It’s true that I have met several English people born in London who claim they “don’t recognise their city anymore”. But I have to wonder: what fantasy version of London were they born into? This place has always been a magnet for immigrants, be they French Huguenots in the 17th Century, Irish Catholics in the 18th, continental Jews in the 1860s, West Indians in the 1950s, Pakistanis in the 1960s, or East Europeans today. Let’s not even mention that London was founded by Romans in the first place. (“Bloody foreigners, coming over here and building our capital cities.”)

But despite our diverse background, we London-based Nowherevians do share a great bond of community. I felt it for the first time on 6th of July 2005, the day the whole city erupted in spontaneous delight at the unexpected announcement that we would host the 2012 Olympics. Strangers were hugging each other in the street (or, at least, the London equivalent, which is making eye contact with one another). The next day, of course, four terrorists tried to dampen our spirits by blowing up buses and Tube trains. But what I most remember from that tragic day was walking through the City of London with tens of thousands of other stranded office workers, everyone enjoying the sunshine and the shared sense of defiance we all felt in the face of those who might try to tear us apart.

That sense of camaraderie is built not on national pride, nor on a sense of obligation to our own immediate kin, but rather on a shared love for a city which accepts us for who we are. This is a town packed with fine, upstanding citizens of nowhere, and to me, it represents a blueprint for the cities of the future.

In a hundred years’ time, I expect there will be a generation of people who will look back on the early 21st Century and wonder why everyone was so afraid of global mobility. They will be a generation who simply do not know how to define themselves by such things as ‘nationality’ or ‘ethnicity’ or their positions relative to some arbitrary lines on a map. A truly global generation for whom citizenship is something that unites humanity rather than divides it. A generation belonging to nowhere. A generation belonging to everywhere.

Tristan Jakob-Hoff

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I write about classical music, theatre, video games, and politics. My work has appeared in The Guardian, BBC Music Magazine and Eurogamer.