Moving from the Cross-cultural to the Intercultural - Finding your identity through language(s)
“But what is your native language?”
The Problem With Language
Fighting Assigned Identity
The cliché of the CCK who instantly accepts all cultures (they have lived in) with unquestioning enthusiasm is as true as that of every little girl wanting to be a (Disney) princess while every little boy wants to be a superhero. They exist, but there are so many others that live their lives alongside them. People who grew up in a multicultural world might be aware of the diversity in cultures around them but will continue to keep up the separation of cultures. In other words, while they will shop at the ethnic market or learn about someone’s religion, or even (try and) appropriate their lifestyle, the cultures never truly intersect. They exist side by side and sometimes meet, but mostly as a novelty or entity apart. Their environment is as far removed from a truly intercultural world as a fast-food burger is from a proper BBQ.
In the perfect case scenario, we all want to move towards being truly intercultural, dipping in and out of rituals, habits and customs we grew up as we please; wrapping them around ourselves like a mantle when we need to, displaying them for the whole world to see as we like. Because each culture has the same value as the other. But society often has different ideas on who we are (to them), and will shove us into corners we don’t want to be in; assigning us an identity we never asked for in the first place, based on our names, where we have come from and how we speak the language. The latter is important because we are not just judged on our diction but also on the dialect(s) we choose, our patterns of speech, not to mention our mannerisms while we switch in and out of languages, often in the same breath. That’s our reality, our world, and it is one we immediately have taken away from us when we are assigned an identity by whoever we speak to or interact with, whether they say this out loud or imply so with their actions.
In my case I was taken to be German by pretty much all relatives on my mother’s side, because to them that’s where I’d (mainly) grown up. We didn’t exactly keep in touch, so they missed a large chunk of the time I had spent in the US, and somehow having a French passport (and identity) completely bypassed them. It wasn’t until I started really talking to fellow CCKs about our individual experiences that I saw how common this pattern was of assigning an identity to us in order to please the other person we speak to but not necessarily ourselves. In fact, it very rarely complies with how we would describe ourselves. To those rigid minded locals we encounter within our own families, in school or just in daily life, we are always The Other never allowed to be part of them in their eyes, at least not completely.
Growing up in cross-cultural and multicultural environments with my parents’ own cultures kept hush hush was alternatively disconcerting and pretty cool as a kid. Eventually it raised the question if I was French because I feel that I am, or am I French because this was imposed on me. But if the latter was true, who had the authority to assign my identity to me? The locals of the country I was hanging out in or the French I met abroad and in France? And what does it even mean to be French? Do I now have to dress a certain way (and if so, how), do I have to act a certain way (again, how, and who determines this way) or do I have to speak a certain way, change my pronunciation, my accents? I sound completely American when I speak English, but tend to have an American accent when I speak French. In the past it mellowed out after a while of being back in France, but there’s always the uncertainty of the present.
Against All Odds - the personal workaround
I did not grow up embedded in the social fabric of my father’s land or the place(s) my mother considered home. I had to create my own culture from which to pass my own judgment on people and situations in order to navigate life, take away what was good and that which was bad. It helped me hone and trust my instincts when it comes to people and situations, ultimately carving out my own niche and staying safe when it comes to culturally sensitive questions: is this behavior cultural or was it merely imposed to feed someone’s ego? Addressing an elder in a more formal manner is a cultural idea I can easily take forward. Being subjected to their abuse under the guise of “elders know best” clearly is not. But knowing the culture this comes from, I can understand where this abuse and its acceptance are rooted. I may not be able to fight either, but I can (hopefully) walk away from it less emotionally battered than if I was tied to that culture with my heart and soul without the recourse of another.
Most importantly perhaps, it cemented a desire to help those who were - or still are - in a similar position to me: helping them and those around them truly understand what it means to have different cultures (be they religious, regional or spanning across countries / continents) living in your soul by creating more and more spaces for us and having someone to talk to. I’ve seen the greatest heights of being cross-cultural and the lowest depths of being intercultural. As we move from a world with global thinking on one side battling the monocultural advocates on the other, my resolve has never been stronger to help those who grew up as cross-cultural individuals forced - explicitly or implicitly - to trade one culture for another or to chose one above the other in a bid to become truly intercultural, where every culture has the same merit(s) as the other.
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