An immutable image pops into our heads when someone says “Portuguese,” “Ukranian”—or even “Canadian.”
Last summer, in anticipation of the opening round of the World Cup of soccer, the largely immigrant population of the narrow side street in Lisbon where I was renting an apartment draped their windows with flags. The green and red of Portugal predominated, but the blue planet on a gold-and-green background of Brazil also hung from some windows. Others displayed the yellow, red and black of Angola, the third Portuguese-speaking nation in the competition.
The night of Portugal’s first match, which was against Angola, a family who owned an outdoor drinks kiosk in a nearby park placed a TV set on top of a pile of inverted yellow beer crates. A large Angolan flag flew from the kiosk’s roof. A crowd that I estimated at fifty Angolans and ten Portuguese watched the game on collapsible metal chairs. I ordered a drink and joined them. Almost everyone was wearing T-shirts, scarves or baseball caps that identified them as supporters of either Angola or Portugal.
During the uproar after the Portuguese team scored the night’s only goal, I realized that I’d been mistaken in my assessment of the national identities of many members of the crowd. Some people whom I had taken to be Angolan because they looked African were cheering for Portugal; some of those who looked European, or of mixed complexion, were fervent Angolan patriots. The same contradictions prevailed on the field. Angola’s most devastating midfield player, who at one point nearly tied the game, was of European descent, as was the team’s goaltender; the Portuguese team contained three players of African descent. When a Chinese merchant ventured past and asked in broken Portuguese what was going on, two men pulled down the Angolan flag flying over the kiosk, tied it around the merchant’s shoulders, placed a Portuguese Sagres beer in his hand, sat him down on a vacant seat and delivered an instant course on World Cup soccer.
As a seafaring nation that has had significant minorities of African descent since the 1440s, Portugal has a more fluid sense of national identity than most European countries. During the first round of the World Cup, it was common to see the Portuguese, Brazilian and Angolan flags flying in a row. Having grown accustomed to this declaration of tricontinental, multiracial Lusophone allegiance, I did a double take when I passed a store where these three flags flew alongside a fourth: the blue and yellow of Ukraine. Due to substantial immigration from the former Soviet Union, more than two percent of Portuguese are now Ukrainian. The next time I bought my groceries I spoke with Ludmyla, the Slavic woman at the checkout, and admired the precision of her Portuguese grammar. Most of us distrust flag-wavers, yet flags at least have the advantage of not confining national identity within ethnic boundaries. Most national flags consist of abstract symbols that can be adopted by everyone. Ludmyla, the black players on the Portuguese team, and the Chinese and Bangladeshi merchants on my street were all comfortable showing the flag.
The feverish flag-waving that accompanies the World Cup raises the question of how to represent national identity when few countries can be reduced to neat ethnic packages. As Portuguese support for the Ukrainian soccer team shows, some Portuguese are pushing beyond the linguistic definition of belonging. The problem is that at the same time that national identities are becoming more complex, the subtlety of our instruments for the public expression of national identity is being dulled. The dominance of visual culture reinforces ethnic stereotypes: an immutable image pops into our heads when someone says “Portuguese,” “Ukrainian”—or even “Canadian.”
During a brief holiday in Tunisia, I was shopping in the medina of the port city of Sousse. A shopkeeper asked me and my companion where we were from. He exploded at our declaration that we were Canadian. Jabbing his finger at my British Isles-descended face, he said, “Yes, you are a perfect Canadian! But you,” he said, turning to my companion, who is of mixed African, South Asian, Native American, British and French-Canadian ancestry, “you are not Canadian! Do not give me this bullshit! A Canadian does not look like this!”
It is not quite enough to retort that a walk through any Canadian city would show this man that many Canadians do “look like this.” Many of us seek shelter from the flattening impact of globalization in the distinctive features of our national histories and cultures. Yet by reducing us to a visual vocabulary, globalization, particularly in the form of commercial cinema and television, traps us in archaic ethnic stereotypes that sap the nation’s expression of its complexity. For years, in my travels, I’ve come across Andean musicians, most of them from Ecuador, playing the pan pipes in the squares of cities in Europe and North America. Last year, in Budapest, I was startled to see a group of these musicians garbed in fringed buckskin jackets and long feather headdresses like those worn by Indian chiefs in John Wayne movies. Never having seen such jackets or headdresses in South America, I asked the musicians why they were wearing them. The headdresses, they explained, identified them to a European audience as “American Indians.” The musicians had resorted to the only symbol available to them within the stock of globally recognizable imagery that could approximate their identity. The “American Indian” label spared them the wrath of anti-immigrant gangs who might otherwise mistake them for gypsies, Arabs or Turks. Recently, I’ve seen other South American musicians wearing “American Indian” garb in Paris and Lisbon. The feather headdresses have even started to appear on the covers of CDS of Andean music.
The Romantics thought each nation was distinct in its peasant essence. Today each nation is distinct in the way that its particular ethnic mix unveils its history. But we lack a popular shorthand for these cocktail national identities. The images that are traded at a global level by the entertainment industry are too crude to capture them. It’s a sad truth that when it comes to public expressions of who are, we have yet to find any symbol that does the job better than a flag.