Having just hit the four-year mark of living “far, far away,” I’ve been wrestling with my American-ness lately. Not in terms of politics or current affairs, just generally about where my American identity appears on the Venn diagram of me.
Culture is easiest to see when you step outside of it. Having a culture is what gives that exciting electricity when looking out the window of a cab on the way from the airport in a new place. Sometimes stepping out of one’s culture reveals that deeply held truths are actually just opinions. I see this in the flares of annoyance I feel around unnecessarily time-consuming recycling systems (my kingdom for a single-stream receptacle with curbside pick-up!) or the unspoken social conventions when meeting someone in a public doorway (clearly it makes sense to hold the door…or maybe not).
I’ve made some accommodations to my new homeland. I’ve set my calendar app to start my week on Mondays. I celebrate Easter Eve. (Don’t ask why, because I don’t know.) I make stronger coffee, and I try to drink it sitting down. It just happened.
Other concessions are harder to make. I still prefer to American books, podcasts, TV and movies. It’s not just a lazy language thing, but the settings and the references. It’s about seeing the world with an American gaze.
There’s another aspect of cultural identity I’ve been thinking about lately: its purpose of providing contours to my otherwise diffuse psyche, like personality eyeliner. A lifetime of fourth of July sparklers, yellow school busses and two-for-Tuesday rock blocks has resulted in a very particular person who is me. If I let this container go, will I still be me? Of course I will, but will I really?
But what happens when cultural identity is not so much a vase for our bouquet of personal quirks, but more of a box, closing us off? Can it be made permeable? I think so. With little conscious effort, the box is becoming more of a butterfly net.
Take my name, for instance, for which I have most definitely not nailed down a consistent pronunciation. Some days I introduce myself and pronounce its ‘r’ with such an American accent that I risk swallowing my tongue. Other days I’m happy to let it softly tap the roof of my mouth, behind my front teeth, in the way that my new language wants it to be.
Some days the container is more permeable than others. I feel slightly more invisible, more diluted, but also more connected.
I have other containers. Woman. Mother, even Special Needs Mother. Employee. Nearing 50. Immigrant. Each one has its own comforts, its own limitations.
I’d be really curious to hear from others whose identities have become more like butterfly nets. What made you aware of your containers? Did you find parts of you that transcend labels? What are they like?