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What am I? to Who am I? : Cultural Identity

yml's picture

            There is one question I have had ever since I came to America: what is my cultural identity? I came to America when I was 13 and now after almost ten years, I still have not been able to answer to this question. What am I? Moreover, I struggle everyday to answer to this question. What is this identity anyway? Is it in my head? Body? Language? I would like to take a journey of searching what is cultural identity and how my experience and myself fit into that.

             I will begin this journey with brain and culture, and their interactions. According to Prof.Grobstein’s model [4], an individual and culture/social-organization have bidirectional interactions in that they both influence one another. And the individual is comprised of mind, in a nervous system, in a body and each has to interact with another in order for the mind to receive information about the outside of body, that is culture and social organization [4]. This is very interesting and logical way of explaining brain and culture. I understand how brain can both reflect and contribute to social organization and culture. Individuals are affected by cultures everyday and individuals what create culture; so the bidirectional interaction is completed. However, I cannot, not matter how hard I try, come up with idea of how I, my brain, contribute to the cultures. I am influenced by (mainly) two different cultures. In that two cultures, there were lots entities that have specifically affected me. For example, middle school in California, Quaker high school, Korean elementary school, family in Korea, etc. However, I cannot figure out how myself has affect cultures, which culture, in what way? I think I feel this way because I do not feel like I belong to any of these two cultures. Different entities from two different cultures were interacting and created something very unique in me when it was interacting with me.  Arrow coming out of culture in direction of an individual seems like it is much bigger and stronger for my case and the opposite arrow lost its way into culture. It does not know where it should be directed. Similarly, the interacting system between mind, brain, and body in myself also seem like they lost their ways, or maybe the arrows are even broken in some parts. The whole interactions between each part got so complex for myself and too much are trying to come into the mind box, yet the process is not conventional, therefore confuses my mind even more.

             Another point I wanted to make with this model is this process being unconscious as well as conscious. Prof. Grobstein wrote through unconscious processes, one’s conscious experiences and understandings are influenced and become stories [4]. I strongly agree with this idea of process being unconscious. I was influenced by these cultures mostly unconsciously. I was aware of what was going on, how they were different or similar, and that they will affect me in some way. But when and how they affected were totally unconsciously. Moreover, I was very oblivious to this process when I was growing up in Korea. Surely, I must have been affected greatly when I was living in Korea. However, until I came to America, I was unaware of this. In fact, this was not even a issue. Realization and seeking to establish cultural identity got even bigger when I went back to Korea for school breaks. Until then, I was not at all interested in this issue, as many of the readers of this paper would be. You might ask, why does she care so much about her cultural identity? I would have felt the same way, if I had not physically gone back and forth between two cultures.

This is discussed in one of the article I read. It talks about people who have lived in two or more cultures often do not face the issue with cultural identity until they go back to the country, or the culture, they are originally from [2]. When other people see them as being influenced by the other culture, people start to feel like they are being an outsider and realize about this unconscious process that happened between themselves and the cultures. When I first came to American, or even now when I am in America, I feel very Korean. I miss everything about Korea, I get very into sporting events that Korean play, I get very upset when there is misunderstanding or negative things said about Korea, and I am proud to be Korean. However, when I go back to Korea, I am not very Korean in that culture. When I first realized this was when I was talking with my Korean friends from elementary school, who have lived in Korea for their entire lives. I was behaving differently, thinking differently, etc. I was very surprised that this has happened. I thought I was too Korean to have American cultures penetrate so fast and so broadly. Since then, I realized that although I consider myself as Korean, I do not really belong to any one culture. I feel like an outsider to some extent in both cultures. Although there are many factors that cause me to think and feel this way, I think language is one of the most crucial factors.    

Above article present an interesting issue of language in cultural identity in terms of “cultural schizophrenia”. Wikipedia defines the term as “[it is used] to explain the elements of confusion in children constantly exposed to changing cultural and moral environments” [1]. The article describes cultural schizophrenia to be common in people who have had to learn a new language along with the new culture. Also, it gives an example that people who have immigrated to different country when young experience feeling like a child when speaking the original language [2]. Do I feel like I am a child when I speak Korean? I never thought about this before; I guess since I was not too young when I came to America, I might not experience this feeling. But I do feel and behave differently when speaking Korean versus English. Even the physical features of voice changes: different tone, different speed, etc. I used much more body languages speaking in English and say “excuse me” more naturally. This is where my “cultural schizophrenia” emerges. It seems like unconscious reflexes are attached to the speaking of one language. However, this idea of cultural schizophrenia gets littler crazier for me. The problem arises when two languages merge together. I am more comfortable speaking in Korean, but I cannot necessarily say that I am fluent in Korean. I am most comfortable when I mix Korean and English when I speak. So here, it is not just two separate identities but they merged into one self and created much complex one.

Now, I want to move to a topic of why culture matters so much. Why do I want to define my cultural identity so much? Is it our propensity to want to belong somewhere, share similar experiences, therefore understood? A paper by McDermott and Varenne presents interesting idea of “Culture as Disability”. It stated that “The problem in assuming that there is one way to be in a culture encourages the misunderstanding that those who are different from perceived norms are missing something, that it is their doing, that they are locked out for a reason, that they are in fact, in reality, disabled” [5]. If one does not fit into the norm of a culture, he/she is “disabled.” In this sense, I am disabled, too. I am outside of the norm of both cultures. We say each individual is different and no two people are same. Biology suggests human bodies are infinitely diverse and no body is identical, according to a posting in Serendip [3]. The writer asks can we escape culture, which creates concept of ability and disability. I say no. Science put much emphasis on finding universal features of human brains, whether it is at the level of gender, culture, or entire human beings. Back to my questions earlier in this paragraph, I think people tend to perceive things in terms of group and this is true for perceiving individuals too. It is universal truth that living organisms are attracted to others with similarities. As much as we cherish diversity of each individual, we like sharing similarities, belong to some group. Culture exists everywhere, not just in terms of different countries, but in different social organizations.   So people show propensity to define ourselves in terms of culture and that is why I am dissatisfied with not being able to be defined under one specific culture. Truth is that I do not know if I will ever find concrete cultural identity and I am not sure if it is necessary, after all. I should ask who am I before I answer what am I. Maybe no one really belong to any culture, or no one is out of the norm from a culture, if we manipulate the boundary of separating the cultures. Then, here comes the next question, what is personal identity, what is sense of identity?





3. /exchange/node/5793

4. /exchange/brainculture

5. /sci_cult/culturedisability.html



Rising college senior's picture

Dual Consciousness

I learned about WEB Du Bois's Dual Consciousness, the two-ness he describes in Souls of Black Folk, but I never thought of connecting that to Fanon. Further, I've never seen that dual consciousness as a privileged position, to make an impact on both cultures - as in both WEB Du Bois and Fanon's case, they were part of subjugated minorities, fighting against Jim Crow and Colonialism, respectively.

I do see how that separate consciousness can be so fruitful, and now I see better how and why Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is included in the postcolonial literary canon. Thank you for helping me make that connection Professor Grobstein!

Paul Grobstein's picture

cultural and individual identities

"I cannot figure out how myself affect cultures"

A wonderfully rich set of thoughts.  And perhaps one that has within it an answer to the question you pose.  As you say, you don't feel differently, or perhaps act differently, until you move from one culture to another.  This "cultural schizophrenia" is what Fritz Fanon and WEB Dubois have called "dual consciousness," and occurs in many people who for one reason or another live lives in several different cultures.  Maybe it is people with dual consciousness who have the biggest impact on cultures, if for no other reason than because they themselves transmit to one culture aspects of another?  And perhaps because they are aware of (conscious of?) both the ableing and the disabling aspects of cultures in ways others aren't?  So maybe indeed its best to ask who one is before asking what one's cultural identity is, and that's most readily done by people who have experience with dual consciousness? 

Interesting also to think more about what dual consciousness means in terms of brain organization.