Finding yourself when you’re a ‘citizen of the world’

PAW contributor Emily Erdos ’19 profiles Alex Haykel ’19, who has five passports, a wealth of international experiences, and a deep interest in philosophy.

Alex Haykel ’19
Mary Hui ’17


Emily Erdos ’19: So apparently, the French passport is the coolest. And that’s coming from an expert. Alex Haykel ’19 has five passports, from five different countries.

And where are you from?

Alex Haykel ’19: It’s a complicated story—

EE: Alex was born in Oxford, on Valentine’s Day. He was educated in New York City, but in the French system, so his first language is French. Lebanese father. Indian mother. That makes Alex English, French, Lebanese, Indian, and American.

So what’s it like growing up with five nationalities?

AH: It’s a good question. It’s something that I’ve struggled with my whole life I think because when you have such a breadth of nationalities you don’t know where you actually belong.

EE: Although technically a citizen of all five counties, the citizenship that Alex feels the most strongly is one that he doesn’t have a passport for.

AH: I’m a citizen of the world, that’s how I like to think of it. I belong to many places and I think that I have the skills and experience to be able to connect with many different places on an amateur level rather than simply delving into one type of nationality or ethnicity on a very deep level.

EE: Alex has spent most of his life in the United States. His family moved here when he was young. Despite that amount of time spent in the States, there are moments when Alex still feels like a foreigner.

AH: The night that Donald Trump was elected, for example.

EE: On election night, Alex watched the results unfold. Then, he watched his friends react, some devastated and others elated. But Alex? He was numb to it all.

AH: And as I compared the two, I really came to realize that I don’t feel either resentment nor praise or pride for this man who is now going to be the president of the United States for the next four years.

EE: Nothing, Alex felt no emotion.

AH: And it was a bit of a disturbing feeling to me initially, but then I realized that the reason why is because I’m simply not attached to this country in the same sense that the very patriotic American is. I don’t feel that sense of patriotism. I love this country and I care about it a lot, but for it to impact me emotionally, I think I would have to feel a greater sense of attachment and loyalty.

EE: Alex voted for Hillary Clinton, simply out of distrust for Donald Trump, but still does not feel the same fear, joy, resentment, or glee of other Americans. Mostly, Alex feels indifferent. But Alex doesn’t only feel indifferent in the United States, he also feels just different.  

When Alex first came to Princeton, he felt like an outsider. Stepping outside the safety of his small private French school, Alex plunged headfirst into American culture.

AH: Being surrounded by American, or Americanized culture, was a bit daunting. What does that mean? The way I think about it is in the subtle features of how people interact. For example, everyone refers to each other by first name and last name. Is that not the norm? Not in my school, no, everybody just referred to each other by their first names.

EE: Even within his own dorm, Alex was overwhelmed. He was shocked by how few international students there were and stilted by daily interactions. But within all this whirlwind, Alex knew his passion. His passion is philosophy.

AH: I think that because I’ve never had that strong sense of patriotism to a single country, I’ve looked for other outlets to feel that sense of allegiance to something. I think that for the longest time now it’s been philosophy.

EE: Alex has aspirations to become a professor in philosophy, following in the footsteps of his father, who is a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton.

AH: My favorite philosophers include Spinoza, Aristotle; I also enjoy reading Plato’s dialogues and various modern metaphysicians like Williams and Hegel.

EE: For Alex, philosophy is a universal language, something he can pursue anywhere.

AH: I think that philosophy insofar in its capacity to reflect rationally on the world and to think about reasons for why one is here and what one can do with one’s time, and what one should do with one’s time, is a feature of many cultures across the world.

EE: Even though Alex has found a universal language, he still struggles to define home, because for Alex, home is so much more than coordinates on a map or a single place.

Yet, at the same time location does have meaning to him. In particular, Princeton, as a location, has meaning to him. 

AH: It’s the people who you interact with on a daily basis, it’s your friends who you hang out with at night who make you laugh, and most importantly, it’s the knowledge that you acquire and amass over the course of your career here. And I think that through all of those outlets, you make the most of you experience at Princeton.

I call my home “home.” I enjoy spending time there, I really feel like this is a place where I belong now.

EE: But like he first said, it’s complicated.

AH: I still feel somewhat detached from my ethnic identities, just because having such a mix of backgrounds, cultures, and nationalities forces me to oftentimes question where I belong and to which country or which ethnicity I owe my allegiance. I think that it’s a question that still perplexes me.

EE: Despite not being able to be represented by a single country or ethnicity, Alex seems like he’s going to find himself, whether through philosophy or something else. Alex is living proof that ethnicity isn’t identity, and vice versa.

AH: I think the road to discovering oneself takes many many years, but I think there will come a point for a certain few where they feel like they know themselves well enough. And I project that I will be one of those few.

EE: For Princeton Alumni Weekly, Emily Erdos. Special thanks to editor Cam Kerr and producers Brett Tomlinson and Allie Wenner.

The music for this audio feature is from the Podington Bear archive.