Some Thoughts on Cultural Identity

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Cultural identity may be clearer to some people than it may be to others. Although many Americans, for example, identify with their Irish, West African, Chinese, or Mexican roots (among many others), they may still know themselves to be American.

In this article, as in the magazine Crossing Cultures, the issue is more one of the present experience of identity confusion due to integration into more than one culture and/or language. This is a common occurrence, but rarely written about. As I have started looking at cultural identity in my own life, I have been able to discuss this topic with others of mixed cultures and have found some common ground that has lead to discussions:

1. a feeling of being an outsider
2. a sense of cultural schizophrenia
3. an enhanced cultural perception
4. not knowing for certain where the home country is

Once we haved moved away from the place of our original culture and begun the process of adapting to another culture, we broaden our perceptions, noticing things that are done differently or similarly between the two cultures. We learn a whole new set of culturally and linguistically defined rules and value systems with the result that our own perception of the culturally induced life experience is expanded.

After speaking with many people on this topic, I have found that once people have started to adapt to a second culture, they are able to adapt more quickly to a third culture and begin to feel more part of a multicultural construct than citizens of only one culture. Exceptions to this rule have been found in people who have not yet returned to live in the original country; the country that they still feel a complete citizen of. If they do go back and stay long enough, they might notice that they are no longer the same person culturally as they were when they left originally and they also might notice that people are seeing them as being influenced by the other culture in some way.


These returnees can sometimes feel like outsiders in the country that all along, they may have felt was home. Atsushi Furuiye the founder of a club that supports Japanese people who have returned to Japan after living in foreign countries, tells his own experience of being culturally confused after growing up in Mexico, attending an American school there, and returning to Japan after many years. This topic actually refers in part to the phenomenon of reverse culture shock, another experience shared by those who have felt cultural confusion.

Lastly, the feeling that I like to refer to as cultural schizophrenia is especially strong among those who have had to learn a new language along with the new culture. It seems that there is a feeling attached to  speaking one language that is slightly different than that which is felt when speaking the other. In those who have emigrated while still quite young, speaking the original language may make one feel more like a child for example. Unconscious reflexes may be attached to the speaking of one language as well. For example, I find myself kissing people "goodbye" if I have been speaking French with them, and hugging them if we have been speaking English and I am often surprised to see that I might have done this completely unconsciously. Between bilingual people, there is often the question of which language is primary. Most people can identify which language is the most dominant, and can say which one they dream in. Some people might dream in whichever language they have heard during the day. Whether these language experiences are purely linguistic or whether they are a clue to understanding the complexities surrounding cultural identity could well be an interesting investigation.

Links to stories (essays and interviews) on this topic:

"Where Are You From?"
Mitra Dancing Through Change
Goretti, World Citizen
In Praise of Cultural Polyamory

Crossing Cultures encourages all discussion on cultural identity and invites its readers to write with their reflections and input on this topic. Please write us at: