Examining cultural identity
What's Your Shade?
It was at a discussion of the Interrace Forum last week that I first started thinking about it. People of different backgrounds had come together in a sharing exercise and we were to do a task; we were to mark certain values in their priority to us and to our partners. One of the values was "Cultural Identity." What is cultural identity and why is it so important? The question stuck even after the discussion. I was propelled to think.
I met "A" when I first entered Notre Dame. As was the practice, I asked him where he was from. I would have expected a straight reply but he took time, scratched his head and thought for some time before he actually named a country … and that too didn't sound very convincing. I thought at first that he was joking, but he was not. I am wondering how many of us would be comfortable in a situation like that. The fact is that for the majority of people our cultural identity is like our roots and we need it to stand straight and strong. Why is it that such a thing as cultural identities, over which we do not even have much control, claims so much importance? Or maybe I should ask, why do people need a name?
I am from India and I unconsciously become an ambassador of India when I come here. Suddenly for me India is I. So when people talk about India I feel they are talking about me, passing judgments about me. The same things that I would have criticized back home for my own system, I find myself defending or justifying. It is because this image is my cultural identity. That's why it becomes all the more relevant to understand the importance of cultural identity in a land like America where people from all over the world come together for study, work or to share other experiences. The thing to note about cultural identity is that it is adaptive. In a few weeks, I was learning all about football and cheering Notre Dame on in its first game and, to think of it, I had absolutely no idea about football before I entered the United States! Suddenly Notre Dame had become a part of my identity.
Culture is a set of preferences that each person has — be it with respect to the language he speaks, the clothes he wears, the food he eats or the name of the God he prays to. Just as culture gives us identity, it makes us an individual different from every other. I have seen people who have migrated from their countries one or two generations back. It is interesting to see that the culture they uphold is a mix of the country they live in and feel a part of and the country of their origin. There is sometimes a lot of confusion and a lot of insecurity associated with it. Sometimes there is no struggle but just a sense of curiosity. There are different reactions.
My friend "X" was born and raised in a country other than her origin. She feels love for the country she was born in and curiosity for the country she originates from. Right now her feelings for the land of her ancestors are dormant, not visible on the surface, but I am wondering if she would also feel a sense of ownership towards that culture if demanded? I suspect yes.
Another friend "Y" was not taught his mother tongue by his parents because they were scared that he might carry an accent while speaking English. His parents were trying to make his cultural transition easier. In the process, however, he perhaps lost touch with one vital aspect of his cultural identity. I observed he was not remorseful about the loss, for he never missed it, but he certainly was curious to know what he was missing.
Another friend's host family here has adopted a child from another nation. For me, this represents a major step this family is taking to open their hearts to others, to understand others' needs and live other experiences. Adopting a new culture is as difficult as adopting a child. Your love is undivided among your natural or adopted child, but you always have to make a bigger effort in the second case to indicate and express your love. And then there is always the conflict of whether or not to reveal the truth to the child. Also the question exists of how easily the natural children will accept the adopted ones.
It is certainly not easy to make a cultural transition. This is also the best part of cultural evolution when people share experiences and feel the same about different cultures as they do their own. There would be so much less conflict and strife if we could feel a sense of belonging and ownership to every culture. After all, it is not as important to know where you came from than to know where you want to go. Think of it as a garden with different flowers where the beauty is always enhanced by the variety, the vibrance, color and fragrance as well as the uniqueness of each flower. The world around us is a garden we have to nurture and it is up to us to do it well and pass it on to the next generation.
"We have not inherited this world from our parents, we have merely borrowed it from our children."
Sandhya Acharya is a graduate assistant for Multicultural Student Services and Programs. This column appears every other Wednesday.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Wednesday, October 10, 2001