Navigating Cultural Identity

The question of "who am I" is not one that is isolated to angsty adolescence. For people who have ties to multiple countries and cultures, navigating identity can be particularly tricky. Many often report feeling "not enough" of one or both cultures to feel that they truly belong. This rift in one's conception of self can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, listlessness, and deep loneliness. To make things worse, trauma of the people who immigrated can lead to a silence within the family, the ghost of "what happened?" lingering and making it difficult to understand family members.

At the same time, current research touts the psychological benefits of "Bicultural Identity Integration," essentially the view that one is part of both cultures, can navigate amongst them, and see them both as within one's self. As great as that sounds, the difficulty is in how to get there from the fractured sense of culture.

Consider the following as a start to unraveling and rebuilding your cultural identity:

  • What do you consider to be archetypal or encompassing someone of each culture? (for example, that Americans are ____; look like ___; know how to ____; talk like ____; are good at ____, etc)

  • What are the situations that you notice make you feel "not enough" of either culture?

  • What are the ways you may have tried to compensate or act more like you belonged?

  • What are the ways you may have tried to deny, separate, or pull away from the culture?

  • How did your family influence your movement towards or away from their culture?

  • What are situations in which you've leaned in more to one culture? How did it feel? What thoughts came up about doing that?

  • Are there aspects of the cultures, or byproducts of growing up within two cultures that you feel proud of, thankful for, or recognize that not everyone is capable of?

  • When you consider each culture separately, what emotions come up? Perhaps some of the emotions are tied to strong memories. See what feelings came up during that memory, directly after, and now in retrospect.

  • How were you have been hurt by your culture of heritage, and by the other culture?

  • What are positive memories associated with each culture?

  • What is the history of the connection between your dual cultures? For example, if the cultures are American and Chinese, what is the history of Chinese people in America, or international relations between the countries?

  • What are the current relations like between the two cultures? For example, how are Indian people currently viewed within mainstream American culture, or Americans within international Indian communities?

  • How do historical and contextual factors line up with how you wish to embrace or reject aspects of the cultures?

  • Are there ways in which you see similarities between the cultures?

There are a lot of aspects to consider, and connections to tease apart. It may be helpful to take one or two of these questions at a time to reflect on, or write out your thoughts. Feeling rooted within a culture that may see you as an "other" is difficult, and necessitates patience, and kindness with yourself.