Nationality and ethnicity, what do these mean to you?

The first time I’ve ever encountered the difference between nationality and ethnicity was in Quebec. We extended our New England road trip to Quebec, to just taste a bit of the exotic province. Our Couchsurfing host, an eccentric Quebecker student, introduced us to a few of his friends in his town that I still can’t pronounce right, Trois-Rivières. I was wondering about the Quebec sovereignty movement, that has been going on for a while. I’m not too familiar with the whole situation, but I know the basic background of it.

After a long discussion, they said, ‘I’m a Quebecker, not a Canadian. When people ask me where I’m from, I say Quebec.’ I understood what they were talking about. Quebec and the rest of Canada are culturally different and even using different languages. The majority of signs in Quebec are bilingual, but with the much bigger font of French than English, and that’s by law. Although it was a valid opinion, I had to admit, it was a totally new and odd concept to me.


After a few experience over race and nationality during my travels (especially after the painful experience in China), I thought a little more about the whole ethnicity and nationality issue. Recently, I thought Malaysia, one of my favourite countries in the world, is quite an interesting place in the sense of ethnicity. We briefly talked with a taxi driver at Malacca on the way to the bus station. I asked him where he’s from, and he said Malacca. And he added, “I’m Chinese”. In Malaysia, there are Chinese, Malay, Indian, and indigenous minorities. They look pretty distinct from one another, most of the time, but not all the time. People often address them as their ethnicity rather than their nationality, just like the taxi driver. He is technically a Malaysian citizen, but he is also Chinese (ethnicity). In the hidden words, he is a Chinese man who lives in Malaysia. Well, is he Malaysian or Chinese?


Malaysian Flag
Malaysian Flag


It is all very confusing if you are from a country like my homeland, Korea, which is like a homogenous pot rather than a melting pot like New York City or L.A. In Korea, one word represents everything. The simple statement “Korean” means, the ethnicity, the nationality, the culture, the food and the language. No doubt, I’m Korean through and through. I didn’t have a chance to think about the whole issue when I was growing up, because there was no need. Korea has been a closed society for a long time. It hasn’t been long since we opened to foreign influences. Traveling to Asia and various other regions in the world made me think about this subject that I haven’t given much thought.


On the contrary, America is interesting because the foundation is very different than Korea. There’s no American as an ethnicity. American spirit, American culture, and heritage, all which I admire very much, are very clear to this day and have been respected by people from all around the world. The Americans I meet weren’t FROM America, but they are Americans in spirit. These people often have a different ethnic or racial background, but identify themselves as American, not particularly specifying their origin.


The world is rapidly changing. Even in Korea. Due to the amount of foreign residents, now it’s not too rare to see biracial couples. It won’t be a homogenous pot anymore. There will be a Korean kid with blond hair, speaking fluent Korean in no time. It will be pretty fascinating to see that. Young Malaysians are trying to change their legal documents to have just ‘Malaysian’ instead of having four different ethnicity choices. On the other hand, some Quebecers still badly want to be divided from the rest of Canada. I’m not sure if they will get what they want, but we’ll see.


I’m thankful for all the time on the road because of such things that I would have never known if I stayed. I probably didn’t have an opportunity to think about the meaning of ethnicity, and nationality like many other people in the world. And I’m also thankful for my home country, to give me such a specific view on ethnicity and nationality even before I knew it. The racial issues always have been a big part of the history, good and bad, and there’s a need to aware of that. Different is not wrong, that’s the whole foundation. There was, and sadly still is, always discrimination against of the certain races, and I hope it gets better. Just like any other issues around the world, judging people with only one side of the person that they were born with, is not right.



Have you ever thought about ethnicity, and nationality?



12 thoughts on “Nationality, Ethnicity all Tangled Up”

  1. Hey very interesting. I’m Australian with and Indonesian wife living in Indonesia and there is the issue of ethnicity here as well. Historically, people of Chinese descent have been called Chinese even though their ancestors may have arrived hundreds of years ago. I think simply calling people by their ethnicity creates an immediate division and a point on which to discriminate. In Indonesia and Malaysia, the ethnic Chinese have been discriminated against since day one. But in Indonesia things changed in around 2000 when ethnic Chinese were given freedoms that the rest of society were given. You actually see nowadays a more integrated and open society than before and I think it’s hugely beneficial to the nation.

    Great post Juno. Interesting topic!

    1. Thanks! And thanks for sharing your insights. I traveled to Indonesia very briefly last year, but haven’t had a chance to interact with the local people. It’s interesting how many countries in Asia were influenced by so many different countries.
      My Malaysian friend told us that young Malaysians want them to be just called ‘Malaysian’, nothing else. Currently their school is divided as well, and now people want changes as well, so they can learn other languages and cultures. It’s an interesting world.

  2. Great article on an important issue. Funny that prior to start traveling, I never thought about this of ethnicity as in Portugal we never mention it. My first encounter with ethnicity conflicts was in Morocco where Arabs and Berbers sometimes can be very unfriendly to each other. Either way… I loved your post. Greetings from MOROCCO!

    1. Oh I haven’t been to Morocco. I’d love to visit someday soon!
      Yes, like you, I’ve never thought about it. It’s a new concept if you didn’t grow up with it. But I’m glad I’m more keen on that issue now. There are so many things that divide people, like religion and race, and it’s sad to see sometimes.

  3. such an interesting post, thank you for it! Ever since I started travelling and discovering new places the issue of ethnicity and nationality has been so fascinating to me. Poland is generally a one nation country and my travels kind of opened my eyes to the problem. It was so interesting observe and talk to people in Belgium Switzerland or Canada but the most traumatic experience so far were Balkans with all the post war scars still reminding about the recent ethnic conflict…

  4. I am from the East Coast of Canada so separated from the rest of Canada by Quebec which I think makes me a bit more sympathetic to their need for a unique identity. It is interesting you met someone young so insistent they were not Canadian. Even I worked outside Montreal and never met anyone but it would be an interesting experience.

  5. Interesting post on an interesting topic. Since I started traveling my eyes have been opened and I no longer have to hide my confusion when a Caucasian person tells me they are from Kenya or an Asian person tells me they are from Holland. The world is changing… and I like it!

  6. The weird thing about nationality is that in a lot of parts in the world the lines that form national boundaries were sort of arbitrarily drawn by colonial powers who knew very little about the ethnic groups that make up a region. There are tons of examples of this in Africa and the Middle East. The conflict happening in Syria right now is largely becasue of this And when I visited Iraq last year, the Kurds would call themselves Kurdish and not Iraqi (though, then again, the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein tried to wipe them out). Heck even people from Catalonia will tell you that they’re not Spanish but Catalan!

    I think the beauty of growing up in the U.S. is that anyone could be from anywhere, regardless of what they look like. While historically this hasn’t always been totally acceptable, we’re quickly moving towards that sort of place where it is.

  7. Definitely an interesting post.

    I’m only second gen American so it hits close to home. When I’m abroad I say I’m America (which confuses everyone in Latin America) but when people ask me where I’m from knowing I’m from the US, I say Texas, or “My grandparents are from Mexico.” It all comes down to how they ask.

  8. This post has been haunting me ever since I read it when it first published. I have a very clear viewpoint on this matter, which always seems to get mixed reactions. Coming from Hawaii, I was raised where being ethnically mixed in “blood” is the total and complete norm. We take it without question that our cousin is Hawaiian-Japanese-Filipino-Portuguese while we ourselves are Hawaiian-Chinese-Puerto Rican. This mixture of “races” goes back to the plantation days in the late 1800’s when people from China, Portugal, Philippines, Japan and Korea immigrated to the islands to work together on the plantations. They married one another freely, and married in with the Native Hawaiians, creating who we are as a people today. Even our local language, Hawaiian Creole English, is a mix of these main cultures. In Hawaii, we are able to list off where our mixtures are from, this is to tell one another who we are, where we came from, and how we interact with the person we are speaking to. At the same time, we have a common bond of being local to Hawaii. However, only someone who has Native Hawaiian mixture in their genes can refer to themselves as Hawaiian, and even then, they are part-Hawaiian. Otherwise, if you are just Chinese-Filipino-Japanese mixture, even if you are born and raised in Hawaii and your family has been there for generations, you are not Hawaiian. You are “local Asian”. Anyway, long story short, I believe ethnicity is based off of blood. I am Hawaiian-Filipino-Chinese-Portuguese. My passport is a USA passport, but my ethnicity, race or otherwise is not American.

  9. I think borders are going to become less and less meaningful, particularly in certain parts of the world, where the borders were artificial to begin with. Certain borders are pretty dumb anyway, and it’s annoying to be defined by something you couldn’t control. I didn’t make myself into my nationality, nor my ethnicity. It’s what I am, obviously, but it seems a little silly to me when people tell me I have to act a certain way because I “am” something, instead of thinking about whether or not a personality would be the determining factor. I’d probably have plenty more in common with like-minded Nigerians than weird people from my hometown, for example. I think plenty of people out there are sick of being defined (and having their travel and work opportunities restricted) because of where they were expelled from their mother.

  10. hi, Juno. When I encountered your posts for the first time last year, I became a fan of you(even though I stayed away from the twitter for couple of months. However, I’m back in the end.) I like your insights and the way you unfold your ideas as your pictures. As a Korean living in Korea, I couldn’t agree more with your idea that Korea is not a homogeneous pot any more. More and more of my international friends are dating Korean girls and marrying Korean women which will obviously lead Korea to more like meting pot rather than homogeneous one. It opens a lot of questions such as “Losing homogeneousness is good for the nation or not?” and so on. I wanted to share more ideas with you on this and that.

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