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A fan watching a friendly match between Nigeria and England at the Naija Worldwide event, ahead of the 2018 World Cup.

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America’s World Cup diaspora: 8 stories of immigrant identity, and what nationalism really means

An exploration of identity among the United States’ immigrant community as the world prepared for nationalism’s biggest stage.

Few things in this world cause me more stress than the Nigerian national team. In 2014, Stephen Keshi’s Nigeria failed to qualify for the African Cup of Nations. That failure took years off my life, and I will never forgive them.

As with many immigrants, the national team of my home country plays a critical role in my life. Like with food and music, embracing cultural touchstones is how I show pride in who I am, and it’s a way to maintain that connection, no matter the distance, between me and Nigeria.

That’s the essential problem with the classic soccer argument of club or country. The club one roots for can have a role in the identity of a person, but it can’t match the power of nationalism in international soccer, because international soccer is world politics on a smaller stage. A person’s country is an inescapable facet of their being. It plays a role in determining their values and morality, the struggles and joys of their everyday life, whether they know it or would like it to.

That’s why so many are drawn to the World Cup. In Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Eduardo Galeano writes: “Without question, the national uniform has become the clearest symbol of collective identity, not only in poor or small countries whose place on the map depends on soccer.”

Being an immigrant, though, means being in-between two identities: that of where you live, and where you or your parents are from. There are some who embrace that duality, others who choose one identity over the other, and the rest of us who throw up our hands because there’s no clear answer to what a person is.

So I went to New York to talk to a few hyphenated Americans to see how they’re dealing with that struggle of identity while the world’s diversity of nations take center stage. I wanted to answer the so-simple question of how immigrants determine who they are.

Fans at the Naija Worldwide event celebrating Nigeria’s World Cup jerseys on June 2. On the right, a photographer who, through his work, wants to show African beauty away from European standard.

Ian, Paola, and an attempt to define nationality

Ian Alers, 24, National Team: Costa Rica

Paola M., 24, National Team: Mexico

Ian believes he’s both Costa Rican and American and his girlfriend Paola refuses to accept it. When I asked him which identity he felt he was more of, and he answered “both,” she let out a sound of disgust and rolled her eyes on the couch.

Ian’s father is Costa Rican. His grandparents are still in Costa Rica. His brother played for the Costa Rican youth national teams. And though Ian was born outside of Washington, D.C., he spent five of his formative years in Costa Rica. But Paola refuses to see him as Costa Rican. To her, he’s American. He was American to her when they met in Costa Rica, and can never be more than that.

Paola was born in Mexico and has lived in Argentina, Panama, and Costa Rica. She came to the U.S. for college.

When we asked her why she was repulsed by his claim, she said: “You can’t be from Costa Rica just because you lived there for five years.”

For the next two hours, we tried to figure out what exact quality disqualified him.

Was it that he didn’t speak fluent Spanish? “He doesn’t have to speak fluent Spanish, but it is important.” Then a few minutes later, she said it bothered her when he tried to speak Spanish with a Costa Rican accent. It felt as if he was pretending to be something he wasn’t.

It wasn’t his clothes. He listened to Costa Rican music, supported the Costa Rican national team as a matter of national pride, and kept up with the country’s politics and everyday news. She corrected herself from earlier and said it wasn’t even that he only spent five years in Costa Rica, because she believed Ian’s father was both American and Costa Rican, and he had come to the U.S. at an early age. For Ian’s father, she said, “I can just tell with him.” Though she pointed out when Ian was in Costa Rica, he was only friends with the American kids. At least, until he expanded his range of friends through playing soccer.

Paola said Ian was too culturally different from Costa Ricans, and he can never bridge that gap. “Latin Americans are more family-oriented. People are so independent here in the United States. Even in Costa Rica, you can tell who is American.”

Ian replied, “She’s saying that because my brother lives in New York and I see him like once a month,” and Paola looked as if he had proved her point.

Eventually, we got to the root issue. Ian was white passing to her, he didn’t have an accent or look Latino, and so he had a choice to either be American or Costa Rican whenever he pleased. She said she was vividly Latino and she had a noticeable accent. When she couldn’t think of the English way to express her thoughts, she spoke to Ian’s best friend, who was also in the room, in Spanish, and he would then translate it and find the expression for her.

She saw his ability to choose between the two identities as a sort of appropriation. “Some of us don’t choose what we are.” Paola said that because of the general disdain for Latinos in the U.S., she has had to face constant negative comments and discrimination due to who she is. Ian gets to be Costa Rican without suffering. He usually has to tell people he’s Costa Rican, and even then, he’s never experienced abuse for it.

I asked Ian if her denial affected what he thought about himself. If identity is as much about the world’s perception of oneself as much as it was innate feeling. He responded: “I know what I am and who I am. I don’t care what my friends or anyone else thinks.”

Paola rolled her eyes again and let out another sound of disapproval. Then Ian said, “Let’s simplify this then: Whichever team you root for is who you are.”

John on the importance of beating Japan

John Shin, 26, National Team: South Korea

Sitting at a New York outpost of Bonchon, the South Korean chicken franchise that started in Annandale, Virginia, John remembered his difficult first few years after immigrating to the United States. “Bob Ross saved my life,” he said.

John Shin on meeting at a chicken restaurant: “Koreans are religious when it comes to watching sports events at restaurants.”

John’s family immigrated from Seoul to New York in 2001 when he was 9 years old. They settled on the outskirts of Elmhurst, a working class neighborhood in Queens populated mostly by African-Americans and Hispanics. In those early years, he had to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to help his parents with their work in the local flea market, and fought the loneliness of being the only Korean child at his school by adopting American music, clothing, and slang in an effort to fit in. Still, he was bullied. His parents dealt with their own abuses and discrimination, which were amplified by the fact they could barely speak English.

Ross’ iconic public TV show about painting, which didn’t require a great understanding of English to be enjoyed, became their staple family event. A show John and his parents could enjoy as a group, a quiet time for bonding, away from the chaos and loneliness of being immigrants.

Seventeen years later, John considers himself Korean and American. “I’m both, which is difficult ... you go through so many conflicts, you don’t even know where you stand sometimes.” He’s only been back to South Korea once, in 2011, and he felt as out of place as he did when he was young in Elmhurst. “Everything was changed. Our old house was gone, replaced by an apartment complex. It was so different.”

Though he feels both Korean and American, John supports the South Korean national team over the United States men’s national team. For him, it’s a way to express pride in his Korean identity. He couldn’t fully get into the USMNT because it felt inauthentic to him, and as far as he could remember, there has never been Asian representation on the team. [Note: Current USMNT forward Bobby Wood was born in Hawaii and is of African-American and Japanese descent.]

Even the restaurant he picked for our conversation was an effort to emphasize that Korean sense of self. Before we met, John sent me a message explaining why we’d meet at Bonchon: “Koreans are religious when it comes to watching sports events at restaurants, and the majority watch games at chicken restaurants, eating chicken and drinking beer.”

“Chimaek” was the Korean word John used to explain that religiosity. It means the pairing of both chicken and beer, and started as a cultural idea during the 2002 World Cup, which was jointly hosted by South Korea and Japan. South Korea had its best ever finish in that tournament at fourth place.

John dismissed any expectations for this year’s tournament. He said the team didn’t need any added pressure and was weary of becoming like the Korean “netizens” — avid internet users who abuse players online and sometimes in real life.

“One time when they came back from a tournament where they didn’t do well, people threw [liquid] yeot at them. They chanted, ‘Go eat yeot! Go eat yeot!,’ which is slang for ‘go eat shit.’”

Most of the time he just wants to enjoy the performances of the Taegeuk Warriors, except when they play Japan. That game for him, as it is for his parents and most other Koreans, is a must-win. “It’s always the biggest game. Some of it is envy, the J-League is better than the K-League and their players have been more successful than ours. But it’s also the colonized versus the colonizers. No matter what, we have to beat Japan.”

A woman at Nike and OkayAfrica’s Naija Worldwide event in Brooklyn from Imo, one of the 36 Nigerian states.

Kat and Francesca on supporting the women’s national teams

Kat Morales-Tong, 28, National Team: Peru

Francesca Duarte, 25, National Team: Portugal

Kat’s great-grandparents immigrated to Peru because of the anti-Chinese sentiment that was caused by the first Red Scare, which resulted in many Chinese-Americans being imprisoned under suspicions of being communists. Her mother is Chinese. She doesn’t talk about her father, who is Peruvian, because she doesn’t have a good relationship with him. Kat, the product of China, Peru, and the United States, came to the U.S. when she was 6 months old. She became a citizen when she was 6.

Her daughter’s father is Peruvian and Bolivian, her fiancé is Colombian, and her daughter is being raised as an American who cheers for Peru.

Kat is the same way: She feels very American, yet when she talks about Peru in the World Cup, she uses the collective “we” and “us.” She said, “We haven’t been to the World Cup in over 30 years,” when talking about why she cried so much after Peru beat New Zealand to qualify. When discussing the 1987 Alianza Lima air disaster, when a plane chartered by Peruvian club Alianza Lima crashed into the Pacific Ocean and killed 43 of the 44 people on the plane, many of whom were part of the new hope of the Peruvian national team, she said, “It’s been hard for us to recover.”

She supports the Peruvian team over the USMNT, because she used to watch the games with her mother, and because, “you can’t forget where you come from.” She has no animosity for the USMNT, unlike her friend Francesca, who joined us at Bar 43 in Queens (a known gathering place for Peruvians to watch their team).

Francesca is Portuguese-American, supports Portugal, and hates the USMNT. Her problem with them, and another reason that Kat doesn’t support them, is they’re both religious supporters of the U.S. women’s national team, which they believe has been treated as second-class citizens by the US Soccer Federation even though it’s the more successful team. For Francesca, “the more the men lose, the better the women look.”

Francesca is a former plumber. She was hit by a car a few years ago, and returned to work too early, which she says resulted in her tearing her ACL and MCL on the job. She had no choice but to leave that line of work, and after months of despair and searching, she found a Craigslist ad for a soccer coach and applied. A goalkeeper in her youth, Francesca got the job and has been a coach ever since. She’s now a part of an organization that trains children of all age-groups and has ambitions of getting her coaching licenses and moving upward. Her father has advised her to do her coaching licenses in Portugal, due to the process being very expensive in the U.S.

The two women became friends at a National Women’s Soccer League game, because they are also avid supporters of Sky Blue F.C. For years they’ve made the four-hour commute back and forth to Piscataway, New Jersey to watch their team play. They also travel across the country with the team.

Kat always brings her daughter to the home games and takes her to USWNT games, so “she can have people to look up to.” Francesca said — for them and the child — that it’s “important to show national pride,” but also to know “that it’s not just the men who are doing it.”

Marla on the privilege and loneliness of leaving Mexico

Marla, 33, National Team: Mexico

Marla prefaced everything she said by acknowledging her privilege. Before explaining the depth of her loneliness after moving to the U.S. she said, “I understand my privilege.” Before talking about the high costs of renewing her visa, she said, “I know I’m speaking from a place of privilege.” Even when talking about what the Mexican national team means to her, especially in the current political climate in the U.S. where Mexican immigrants are stigmatized as violent and subhuman, and why she desperately needs people to watch games with in New York, she began with, “I know that I’m lucky.”

Marla struggled with depression when she first moved to the United States: “You don’t realize how much the things you do are a part of who you are until you’re removed from it.”

Her disclaimers of privilege came because she’s in the U.S. on a visa, and has the opportunity to apply for a merit-based green card, which is lucky in a world where people like her are being detained and deported. Retaining her status in the country has cost her an estimated $10,000 in lawyer fees and between $500-$600 in union fees — a price that’s beyond the means of many other immigrants.

Marla was born and raised in Mexico, but she came to the U.S. on a student visa in 2011 when she was 26. Since then, she’s been on a O-1 visa for an “individual who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, or who has a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry and has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements.” Marla’s a filmmaker.

She has to go back to Mexico to renew her visa every year, and last year after President Donald Trump’s denigration of Mexicans and subsequent election victory, she was nervous to go through the process, worried that her renewal could be denied for no apparent reason. She was able to renew, but the process took almost two months, the longest it has ever taken.

“People have no idea how hard it is to get citizenship.”

Her privilege aside, Marla was so depressed in her first year and a half in the U.S. that she broke down crying on the sidewalk when her cousin and his wife came to visit, and eventually started going to therapy. That she had no one to bond with over the Mexican national team intensified her loneliness. “You don’t realize how much the things you do are a part of who you are until you’re removed from it.”

She came out of her depression after almost two years of living in New York, which was helped by moving away from a troubled relationship and moving in with a Mexican family. But when she discovered a place in Harlem that served her favorite breakfast — chilaquiles — soon after, she cried again.

Marla was eating chilaquiles when we talked at Fonda, a Mexican restaurant in Chelsea, while explaining how her love for the Mexican national team has intensified in recent years. She had always loved and suffered for them, but the negative attitude toward Mexicans in the U.S. — “Americans have a fucked up conception of Mexico” — has made her more patriotic.

“The national team is like a cousin that you love and will protect,” she said. Then she paused, probably remembering our earlier conversation about Mexico’s 0-7 defeat by Chile in last year’s Copa America, a match that left her so drunk she laid on the floor with a beer bottle on her chest. “They’re like a cousin you love and will protect, but they’re an idiot.”

When I asked her if she supported the USMNT, she responded, “How can I support them, when they don’t even want me to be a citizen?”

Björn and the limits of national pride

Björn Bellenbaum, 48, National Team: Germany

Björn loves German food — sausages — and the German national team for the same reason: They’re two of the only avenues where he can express pride in his home country without what he calls, “the German anxiety to nationalism.”

“We have a memorial to acknowledge fucking up in the middle of the capital,” which is in reference to the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. He remembers after Germany won the World Cup in 1990, and people celebrated in the streets, there were editorials the next day wondering if the celebrations were OK.

He left Germany after the 1994 World Cup because the rigid culture depressed him. “It’s great if you have your life figured out, but not if you still have questions.”

He came to New York after a friend said she needed a roommate, and on a whim he told her he would take the room. When he arrived, the room was unavailable, but he was able to find another apartment the same day. He started taking film classes, and when he was done with school, he was able to find a job immediately.

When I asked if he thought his life would have been more difficult here if he immigrated from a non-Western country, he said he imagined it would have been. Especially if he came from Africa or Latin-America. He also arrived before 2001, which was lucky because of the shift in attitude afterward in regards to immigrants.

He has no plans of going back to Germany. He doesn’t keep up with German news or German life anymore. He talks to his brother, who is back home, but even his brother teases him that he’s become American. His kids don’t speak German and he has no problem with it.

He’s still on a green card and “just hasn’t gotten around” to applying for citizenship because of the bureaucracy of the process and “it’s hard to get excited about becoming an American citizen right now.”

Some of his problems with the U.S. include what he describes as the ignorance the people have of their country’s history. “In Germany, there’s no argument over basic facts.” And how dysfunctional the soccer culture is. “When the team didn’t qualify, it wasn’t even devastating. Nothing changed. It doesn’t make any sense.”

A fan at Nike and OkayAfrica’s Naija Worldwide event, watching Nigeria’s 2-1 friendly loss to England on June 2. He became a party planner because, he said, it is important for Nigerians to come together, referring to problems between tribes.

Jake and the essential quality of an Englishman

Jake Nisse, 21, National Team: England

Jake was born in London, and he went back there for the first time since he left at 2 years old to study last semester. His favorite thing about London was the Indian food. He doesn’t have an accent, and doesn’t use English slang.

His first sporting memory was of watching England in 2004 when he was 7 years old. He loves Raheem Sterling. He doesn’t think the English national team necessarily needs an English manager, because they should go for the best talent available. He listens to Grime music and English rap.

He reads English publications — The Guardian, Telegraph, Eurosport. He dislikes the Daily Mail and The Sun. His father is a Liverpool fan and he supports Manchester United.

Jake has a very relaxed attitude when it comes to his identity: He sees himself as American and English, but doesn’t try too hard to express one over the other. He doesn’t mention he was born in London unless it somehow comes up in conversation.

The best way to know how English Jake is, is to ask him what he expects England to do in the World Cup. That’s when his English frustration comes through: “I used to trick myself into believing in England. Now I’m done being overly optimistic. It doesn’t even matter if we have better players or not, I don’t expect anything from them.”

When I asked him if he ever imagined he’d see England win the tournament, he said, “Depends on how long I live, I guess.”

Malek and the definition of “American,” truly

Malek Shafei, 16, National Team: Egypt

Malek came from his home in New Jersey to meet me at a coffee shop in Steinway, Astoria — a neighborhood nicknamed “Little Egypt.”

He was born in the United States after his parents left Egypt in 1987. He has never lived in Egypt, though he’s been back to visit a few times. He had no trouble assimilating to American culture, even though he was the only Arab kid at his school.

He said he’s never faced discrimination even though he knows his parents were abused after 2001, that he was American, but “I feel Egyptian too, I don’t feel like I have to be one or the other.” He also said “there are so many different nationalities, no one is really American,” while also acknowledging his American side comes with some anxiety. “America’s history is off-putting, I feel guilty.”

When Malek and I were watching Egypt lose to Belgium at the shop, he looked around and said, “This place feels like home.” I asked, “New Jersey?” and he replied, “No, Egypt.” He laughed, then said, “I know, it’s weird.”

Tunde and what a diaspora community means

Tunde Ogundipe, 27, National Team: Nigeria

Tunde and I went to an event, Naija Worldwide, co-sponsored by Nike and OkayAfrica — a website that covers African culture and politics — held at a bar in Brooklyn’s trendy Williamsburg neighborhood. Officially it was a celebration of Nigeria’s World Cup jerseys, which have become an international phenomenon for being cool as hell. The Nigeria vs. England game was projected before what would become a massive party inside a big tent in the backyard of the venue.

The author, left, and Tunde Ogundipe, Nike and OkayAfrica’s Naija Worldwide event. Tunde was born in Connecticut, but experienced a lonely childhood: “When you’re young there, you’re isolated.”

Our original plan was to watch the game at his apartment, and for me, an Igbo Nigerian, to talk to him, a Yoruba man, about the history of our home country while watching Nigeria play its colonizer.

I wanted us to discuss the lingering resentment between the tribes, if he felt connected to those struggles as someone born in the U.S. rather than in Nigeria, how it felt for him to go home for the first time, if he was treated as an outsider as many Nigerians who are born away from the country sometimes are, the loneliness of existing between the two identities of Nigerian and American, how he kept hold of his Nigerian identity and the role the national team played in that struggle.

And we still talked about a few of those topics. Tunde was born a few weeks after his aristocrat parents immigrated to the U.S. from Lagos. They relinquished their status with the move. In the U.S. they inherited the struggles that come with being black. Tunde had a lonely childhood in Connecticut: “When you’re young there, you’re isolated.”

He was bullied, and we talked about the permanent effects bullying can have on an individual. It makes a person hyper-aware of their existence, insecure about the smallest parts of your identity and body — the clothes you wear, your voice, the food you eat, the shape of your face, never forgetting that you’re an outsider, even among other black people. It doesn’t matter your background, you’re reduced to the stereotype of the poor and stupid black African. In turn, you marginalize yourself to not attract attention. You try to be less African, less Nigerian, less yourself, in order to fit in.

It has been nice to see a recent respect for African culture, with the fervor for Nigeria’s jerseys, and what we both felt as a recent acceptance and celebration of African culture, such as in the movie Black Panther, but, “it’s bittersweet to see it now after we were bullied for it. Called African-booty-scratcher, ashy, just being demeaned.”

Soon after the game, the party began. The place filled up. Tunde and I walked around and talked to people, and he made a comment that one of the best parts of being in New York and being part of the Nigerian community there was you meet so many different types of Nigerians away from the three major tribes. We met Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa people, and then Edo, Ijumu, Ibibio, Idoma, Gwari, and other people from “small but mighty” tribes.

We then took a picture in front of one of the decorated walls in the hallway that led from the venue itself to the backyard. On the opposite wall was a white banner that read:

NAIJA WORLDWIDE.

We do not play. Not on the pitch. Not on the road. Not in this life. When the eyes of the world are on us and the voice of the people is with us. They expect more than that. With this shirt on our shoulders, we must do more than that. This is a cloth that bonds country and community. Naija. The soul. The strength. The sound of the street and the heart of the city. From Lagos to Abuja, Brixton to Brooklyn, Naija to the world. Moving with one aim and one destiny. United for the nation.

It was a cheesy banner that resonated in the way cheesy marketing usually does. It wasn’t reality but it was an idealized version of reality that would be great if it were true. It was like national teams themselves, entities that allow you to have pride in your country and your people as a whole, and pretend, at least for a second, that everyone is united for a common goal. That it’s possible to live in love.

Later in the night, it was announced Nigerian artist Burna Boy was to perform. He came out to delighted screams, and when the beat to his song “Ye” dropped, Nigerians of all backgrounds filled the tent and the backyard, and spilled out the venue, ate, sang, and danced, and enjoyed each other’s presence.

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