Who are we? This is a question that seems easy for each one of us. But at the end of the day, and for some of us who have spent a decade abroad, the question of who we are is not as simple to answer as it was when we left our country of origin, almost a decade ago.
We try to adapt, we want to speak more fluently, and yet we have this whole personality and cultural identity dormant waiting to be awakened somehow. We are bicultural.
I am direct, warm and my English is not perfect in spite of having studied English Linguistics for seven years. Yet, for many years I felt that I needed to compensate for this. So I adapted to the way people here, in Ireland, related to each other, spoke to each other and even kept some distance in situations where a Spanish person would not keep the distance. I just wanted to adapt.
Somewhere along the way, though, I lost myself a bit, I missed my innate way to behave, to relate to other people. I imagine that it depends on every person and there are Irish ways to do things that are indeed part of my personality now and that I do like. But what about the other things that do not resonate with me, even after a decade living in Ireland?
When you live abroad for many years you notice that people can be classified into two categories when they meet a foreign person:
- The ones that find your ‘different nationality’ interesting and want to learn more about it.
- The ones that find your nationality ‘exotic’ and are not interested in knowing more about you that the couple of stereotypes they may know already.
In my years living here, I have met a bit of everything. But one thing I noticed is that when encountering types of the second group, there was always an expectation from their part to almost suppress any sign of my own culturally innate behavior to become closer to their culture. Some people are not culturally aware and they just need to understand things in a simple way that is closer to them.
Unfortunately, this sometimes translates into simplification of ‘your persona’ and ‘your identity’ as a result.
The same probably happens in all countries, but the question of identity is important for the expat that lives abroad. Most people will tell you that adapting to the culture of your home abroad is important. But how does one do so without losing their cultural identity at the same time?
The language of the new surroundings. How to keep your Cultural Identity?
We all know that language is the main medium to transfer messages and as long as we do that, it should be fine. Shouldn’t it? But a big part of transmitting the message comes with our human need to “belong”.And you need a lot more than words in order to feel like you belong in another culture.
A lot of your own personality traits will vanish while you try to find the word or understand various people talking at the same time, or decipher the accents of a group from a different Irish county. Things like,’ I am actually funny in my language’, ‘I am talkative in my language’ will pop out in my head, because there is a lot more than words in the art of mastering of a language. And all this ‘extras’ will make the foundation of what will be your second cultural identity.
Taking pride in your Bicultural Identity
Understanding that you are bicultural is not easy for most people. It does make things difficult for them and that is probably the reason why some people do not bother. But acceptance of those two cultures as part of who you are is probably the best way to go in the long run when you live abroad. I guess that the secret is to adapt while keeping your past cultural identity.
Some things that are good to keep in mind when you live abroad are:
1. Keep some habits and hobbies as part of who you are. If you run, paint, swim, whatever you do in one country, try to continue in the next country as this will give you a more meaningful sense of cultural identity. You won’t start from scratch.
2. Accept that you will change. Many people that have really internalized the culture act differently in each language and other people do have slight variations in the way they interact in every language. When you get to that point, you have really internalized the cultural ways of the country you live in as an expat. It does help to have these tools but keeping a sense of pride in where you come from.
3. Do some meditation and try to be aware of who you are past the cultural differences of every country. For me, it meant to realize that I am very warm and direct and to try not be all those things in order to adapt was not working for me. I think it is important to take pride of those things that you believe makes the foundation of who you are.
So my advice for expats out there is to learn from your surroundings but check what is important for you from your innate culture and be proud of it. Even if it is your hand gestures, your bad accent sometimes, it does not matter as long as you are confident in who you are and culturally aware of your surroundings.
Do you live or have you lived abroad? How do you manage to your two cultural identities in your everyday life?
Would love to see your comments and what you think below👇🏻