What is a ‘world citizen’?

by Yaska Sahara

In my posts about why I didn’t fit in the Netherlands (Pt. 1 and Pt. 2), I discussed how not fitting in or falling in love with a place doesn’t make you a failure of a world citizen, especially if you were there a good while and made an effort to see and learn a lot. I wrote:

“This warrants the need to discuss what the hell that buzzword means anyway. I didn’t realise until this whole experience, but it’s not some flowery ideal of someone who can go anywhere, love it and just fit right in. To me now, it’s someone who makes the effort to venture into the unknown, who exposes themselves to different cultures and learns more about the world and themselves through what they did and didn’t like. And that is what I did.”

As I wrote that, I realised this really deserves its own post. Having been dubbed a world citizen, or world child, even if more ironically, I started to consider what this means to me. I think there are definitely multiple types of world citizens and that there are certain qualities that make you one.

First I will discuss, what I think are fundamental qualities of a world citizen, then more about settling abroad and what a world citizen wants from travel.

Fundamental 1: Curiosity and an open mind

Obvious but necessary all the same. This quality is the one you truly need. You can have a curiosity and drive to learn about the world and be a world citizen without having left your hometown, maybe a different type of world citizen, but still one nonetheless. That inherent drive to learn about the world is what makes you worldy.

Also, a world citizen need not be mixed race or multi-cultural by birth. This can help but should such a person not have the drive to learn more of their own multi-culturalism, or outside of their cultures, then they do not a world citizen make.

You can travel to 30 countries and have only gone to say you’ve gone, not to really learn and understand. Being rich enough to jet off to 12 countries a year does not a world citizen make.

Fundamental 2: Knowing your knowledge is but a tiny spec

World citizens enjoy discussing their knowledge and sharing stories of their trips sometimes. They sometimes indulge in some deserved showing off after they worked for their language skill or their trip. But they do not ever profess superiority or complete knowledge of a place, culture or language, nor do they think themselves to have it. They know just how much they don’t know and they find that beautiful, humbling and motivating.

They do not think themselves the pinnacle of polyglots because they speak six romance languages when they are next to someone who speaks three from completely different languages families. They understand their skill is still impressive, but that their neighbour’s merit is undeniable and very different. This brings me to my next point…

Fundamental 3: Bi/Multilingualism

I understand language learning isn’t for everyone. I’m not saying you need to speak a 3, 4, 5, 6 languages. But, I am saying that it should be considered more a fundamental life skill, on par with maths or science. You may not want to be a mathematician. But you do want to know how to add, subtract, divide and maybe some basic algebra.

Also, you need not speak your new languages fluently, maybe you learn a few phrases some basics in the weeks leading up to your trip and that is still something! It is admirable! It shows a willingness to learn and make the effort towards the locals!

Perhaps you’re not a confident speaker but your degree of receptive bilingualism helps you understand the people around you.

Or maybe you’re a true beginner and are very lost, but not afraid of sounding like an idiot, making mistakes and gesticulating oddly, but getting your point across nonetheless (kinda).

Speaking more than one language is good for your brain function, gives you valuable skill and helps you learn more about the world. It gives one the ability to talk to more people on this planet and thus learn more, to get a more enriching experience of the world.

Fundamental 4: Caution

This may not be a word you associate with the free-spirited ideas behind being a world citizen. But I think world citizens understand somewhat how to make calculated risks when travelling and living abroad. As much as we want to truly plunge into the unknown blind and have an adventure, our dangerous world doesn’t really facilitate that. I try to venture to places with local connections and if not, I extensively research crime, natural disaster, how to deal with these issues, etc etc. It may seem obvious but it is a fundamental nonetheless. Not only does adaptability mean adapting with people, food and such, but also safety.

Fundamental 5: Content in being alone

Many may disagree, but I do think world citizens, as much as they may love getting to know people, are comfortable with degrees of loneliness, or at least learn to accept it. This could be appreciating solo travel, or learning to live with some loneliness when adjusting abroad. I find it unfortunate when someone cannot enjoy something alone. I like to travel with other people, but if one day we then want to do different things, that’s fine too.

What do we want out of living in multiple places?

This whole internal mental discussion got me thinking how there are so many good parts and bad parts to so many countries.

Japan, an example I have given before, had so many lovely people go out of their way to help me. (Read Kindness in Japan). I witnessed so much beautiful art and culture. The nation was so vibrant and convenient. Yet, I must say, even though I loved Japan, there are and were many elements I didn’t enjoy. The lack of directness, the overworking culture… Also, the homogeneity of the nation also often makes some of its people ignorant about outside peoples, though not malicious, it was frustrating at times.

When we are adventuring around the world, what do we want? I don’t mean someone who holidays to many nations. That’s more straightforward, it’s to see the world. That also makes a world citizen. You have the drive and curiosity but maybe you don’t want to stress of moving your entire life. But it is interesting to ask what one wants when they do just that (I would consider full-on living abroad to mean a year minimum). Of course, they too wish to see the world but they take a far greater leap and risk. And for what? To get more depth in their adventure? That would be a good answer, it’s definitely true for me.¬†

But I also I used to have this subconscious idea that we seek a place, ‘the place’. I never really wanted to settle down anywhere ‘for good’. I wanted to live in many countries for a long time, I still do. But I did often have this idea of my own personal ranking places. I liked to think, ‘but if I went somewhere for good, where would it be?’ I thought the more I travelled, the easier it would be to answer, but it actually gets harder. You like certain bits of one place and certain bits of another, you miss a Spanish snack in Kenya and a Kenyan snack in Spain. It’s almost as if you can’t win.

When I was in Spain, there were days I loved the loudness and vibrancy of the people, and other days I didn’t feel it. This shows even a great variation with one person and their mood. It shows that one may never find ‘the place.’ Perhaps even though I never wanted to settle, it was nice to think I’d find ‘the place’, if I so desired.

I re-realised that my world-hopping and curiosity was not a destination but a journey (cliché, I know. But true) and that I would always have ups and downs, but that I would have to really look within myself and understand how each unique up and down applied to me.

Integrating aboard is un-worldly?

On the note of a world citizen never being able to settle, upon discussing with a friend how I had felt like a failure for not loving and blending in with the Netherlands, she said ”Aren’t you less likely to fit in the more of a world citizen you are? Isn’t it very un-world citizen to go to a place and fit into a specific set of cultural norms?” She discussed how nationalistic visions of a place and society are often quite limiting to her idea of world citizens. I thought this an incredible point. And it tied in with how I was discussing never truly finding the one ‘place’.

Sometimes it’s more than just you making an effort because there are also elements of a host nation not being built for you, or used to fully accept you. Feeling like a bad guest in your host nation can be hard. But I am slightly more okay with sort of being on the periphery of many cultures because I do still make an effort. It boils down to my desire to have more of jack-of-trades-master-of-none expertise on world cultures and languages.

The term has so many definitions and nuances.

What is a world citizen to you?

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