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Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Cultural identity crisis revisited

Do you think you have a cultural identity crisis because you’re an expat? Think again. I remember very well when my professor told me that each one of us is likely to experience an identity crisis in the near future. And while there were two foreigners in the group (including myself), the majority of the students were German.

The professor listed several reasons for this. First, we put a bigger emphasis on individualism than we did in the past. Which I think is a good development, except it provides us with the scary insight that we are (or we think we are) responsible for our own lives. It means that we have (or we think we have) choices. And choices are scary. What if I get it all wrong? Who am I, now that I can define myself? The Germans have a saying for this: “Qual der Wahl”- you actually can suffer from having too many choices.

Another thing is that yes, we are becoming increasingly mobile. This means that geographical and political borders get blurred. Cultures, languages, religions exist parallel to each other, but they also mix and interact with each other. This can lead to a feeling of being lost, of not knowing where to belong anymore. But this doesn’t have to be bad.  Facing questions like these can be challenging for sure, but it can make us more creative, more open-minded, and more understanding.

Also, moving to another country is hardly the only reason to have an identity crisis. Imagine you become a mother, and everything you knew about the world shifts and changes. So many new moms experience feelings of uncertainty about who they are. Imagine you lose your job that you had for many, many years. You have already started to identify with the company, and now you are jobless. This is a very legitimate reason to ask yourself the question: “Who am I?”

As you see, the thing common for all those crises, is change. Change of country, change of marital state (single to married, childless to having children), change of job. These can all lead to identity crisis. And change is scary. Sometimes, a change makes us doubt everything we’ve ever learned about the world. No wonder we feel insecure when faced with changes.

It is also a fact that many expats need psychological help, counselling or coaching. As hard as it may be to face therapy, getting the support you need is crucial to your wellbeing! Also, there is no shame in asking for help! And I am telling you this as a mom of a child who needs physical therapy!

Then, on the other hand, there are people who thrive on change. Those who love to seek different jobs, who travel the world, and meet new people. In her book: “Multilinguality across the Lifespan”, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa describes a boy who only moved once, and it was already too much for him to bear. On the other side,  she mentions a girl whose parents changed countries several times in a year, and who said her goodbyes with ease, and was looking forward to the challenges awaiting her in the new country.

Another issue is the thinking that we have one, stable identity. This is not true! In our lives, we already have multiple identities. We are spouses, parents, employees, consumers and clients.  We belong to a certain cultural background, and to a certain religion. We identify with our city, our region, with our country all at once!  In Poland, a huge argument against joining the EU was that it might make us lose our "Polishness". But it didn't seem to be much of a problem because you really identify with many things if you choose to do so!

So it all depends: whether the change is good or bad, and sometimes it’s hard to the one from the other. It depends on what kind of person you are. It depends on how you react to change. It also depends on whether you are well supported, and it depends whether the change was brought on you, or if you are in control.

Living in a different country doesn’t automatically mean that you will have an identity crisis. Staying in one country your whole life doesn’t mean that you’re safe from it. Also, in many cases, identity (or should I say identities?) is a choice! Think about it.

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  1. While I often ask myself questions about my identity, I certainly don't see it as a crisis. I see it as reflection on all the people I have met, places I have visited and things I have done in my life which along with my genetic make-up go into making me who I am. Ultimately, we have a great deal of choice in the compositions of our identities and we can chose to integrate the aspects of other cultures we judge to be of worth and reject those we find undesirable.

  2. This is more or less what I wanted to say with this post. In our lives, we already have multiple identities (husbands/wives, mothers/fathers, employees/employers. We identify with the products we buy, with the food we eat, with the job we do), and we see no problems with it. Why do we have such a problem with two cultural identities?

  3. I don't think that we - as having two or more cultural identities - have this problem. It's the people around us who make us doubt and put us in a perspective that most of the times is not our personal one. They ask us to chose or think that we have to have a crisis somehow, at one point (or more?) of our life. For me change has something cathartic: it refreshes, it gives drive. I'm not afraid to change (excluding sad changes, of course...). And about the identity: I'm perfectly fine with my italian-me, mixed with the german-me and the swiss-me, and I love adding my dutch-me. I also have a french-me that I like and the english one is there too... I think I'm a mix of all that (and not schizophrenic ;-)). I agree with Paul: we are just a great mixture of all the cultures we've lived in, the places we've visited and we have the choice to mix the aspects of all these experiences in order to become who we are. - And I think we're a great colourful and exciting picture, don't you think?

    1. Well, many TCK (Third Culture Kids) would say that they do have this problem. And while society does put a lot of pressure on having to choose one cultural identity over another, it's also how we react to this. For some societal pressure is not a problem. For other, who need a deeper sense of belonging to one place, this might be a problem. Another thing is that not everybody reacts well to societal pressure. Some people embrace their many identities (like Ute and Paul), while others struggle with this. The people, their reactions, and their personal circumstances are just too many to decide how an expat should feel.


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