I still remember a question I once read on a travel forum, written by a European traveler for people from the United States: “Why do Americans like to brag about the nationalities of their ancestors when they don’t follow the culture of those countries?”
To me, her question implied a misunderstanding of the nuances inherent in American culture. The United States, and many other so-called “new world” nations, pride themselves on their hybrid culture because the diaspora is an integral part of their identities. An American of Nigerian, Chinese, Italian, and Mexican origins may share the same passport and have the same interests as most other Americans, but they also carry the influences of their origins and cultural upbringing.
We grow up in a constant identity crisis because we straddle both cultures and don’t fit perfectly anywhere.
Being born in the United States and growing up in a Caribbean-influenced household, many of my values, interests, and ways of thinking have been shaped with a Jamaican view. There are times when I couldn’t relate to my fellow Americans because of the parental influences that were passed down to me and my brother. On the flipside, there are times when I can’t relate to Jamaicans because I didn’t grow up there and don’t completely understand all of their cultural nuances.
Whether in my birth country or the country of my ancestors, I’m always reminded of my other nationality. Many children with immigrant parents share the same sentiments, and not just in the United States. We grow up in a constant identity crisis because we straddle both cultures and don’t fit perfectly anywhere.
This carries over to my experiences abroad, even when I’m halfway across the world…but it actually works to my advantage. While living in Taiwan, I’ve noticed that sometimes I really can’t relate to Americans and other westerners here. In fact, there are times when Taiwan actually reminds me of Jamaica more than the U.S.
For example, many Taiwanese people have asked me if I like the local cuisine. Some were surprised when I answered with a proud “Yes!” Like many East Asian countries, people in the Caribbean often eat a rice-heavy diet. The food wasn’t an adjustment for me at all, since I grew up eating half of it in my Jamaican influenced household — the only difference is the way it’s prepared. For those with a more euro-influenced upbringing, food appears to be an adjustment. The way I hear some westerners complain, it must be.
I’ve noticed that being “othered” in my home country by my own peers has prepared me living in East Asia…
Then there’s the fact that Taiwan is a homogenous country, where nearly everyone is of the same ethnicity/skin-tone. Being a non East-Asian makes me stick out like a sore thumb because it’s not common to see a dark skinned person of African descent on this side of the world. However, I’ve noticed that being “othered” in my home country by my own peers has prepared me living in East Asia, where hardly anyone looks like me or comes from the same type of background.
Other westerners who are used to feeling a sense of cultural “belonging” in their home countries are often far less equipped to deal with the challenges of cultural immersion abroad. I once had a conversation with a friend of mine here in Taiwan, a South African-born woman with Zambian-born parents, about this. We agreed that we were both less bothered about being outsiders in Taiwan, and even by all of the attention that comes along with being black in Asia (as long as it’s respectful of course), than many of our peers. We’ve gone through it our whole lives in our home countries.
I can fully integrate with Taiwanese culture, become fluent in Mandarin Chinese, pass a Taiwanese history test, and live here for decades, but I’ll never be accepted or viewed as Taiwanese, and that’s okay. I’m using my uniqueness to my advantage and owning it throughout my journey here and my adventures beyond. Every day more people are born with cross-cultural identities, and I think that that’s a wonderful thing.
So, to the European woman who asked why Americans often take pride in our hyphenated nationality despite not being born in, or even having lived in, our other country, that is why. While we may not follow the culture of our ancestors completely, it still plays a crucial role in our identity, and it even arms us with tools for traveling and living in foreign lands.
Never feel ashamed or embarrassed of where you and your parents come from just because other people don’t understand your culture. Own your uniqueness, and embrace your multi-cultural identity. It’s a gift.
What are your experiences as a traveler with a multi-cultural background? Let us know in the comments!
If you liked this article, check out our other guest posts, like ‘How You’re Being Prejudiced Against Immigrants Without Even Noticing‘. If you’re interested in becoming a contributing author, check out our call for submissions.