On Cultural Identity

The following post was written in response to an assignment for the “Global Issues in Technical Communication” course taken in Spring 2018, which I particularly enjoyed. The goal of the write-up was to view your own cultural identity using the framework provided in the course.


For those who do not, or have not yet, had a chance to see themselves from the outside in, the world is easy to put in categories. This person is this nationality, or this gender, or this religion, or this political affiliation. From a young age, I believed what we teach small children: that the world is black and white, simple, and happy. Which led me to believe that it was me who was strange, and I would just have to find a way on my own.

I grew up in a religious community, and though I looked like many of the young girls who were part of that church, I was not. I was raised for the first four years of life by a forward-thinking woman, who was born to a forward-thinking woman herself, inside the shell of a military family.

My mother was the victim of domestic violence. I lost her at age four, sat through trials for her murder at age 7, and knew that I was different. Nobody else I knew had a dead mom. Nobody else I knew had a step-dad in prison. Nobody else I knew had ever had to pack up the car in the middle of the night to run and hide from a loved one. I was other before my first day of kindergarten.

Even within my broken family, the trauma was unique to me. Only I had lost my mom, only I had lived with an abuser, only I had been on the lam with my mommy before she returned only to be attacked. Only I had had my world destroyed by someone who had vowed to protect me.

As children are apt to do, I internalized everything. Still, I was the descendant of a suffragette, and my gut instinct was strong. I clashed – quietly and painfully – against the culture around me that said I was supposed to be a certain way when I had never even had the chance to do so.

Childhood

From the start, my cultural identity was one of an outsider, a misfit. I knew I could count on myself and not much else, so “being true to myself” became the priority. I was both desperate for friendship and acceptance, and quick to jump ship on any situation in which I felt trapped or fake. Things were rocky.

Childhood solipsism being what it is, I wrongly assumed that everyone else was the same as me: unable to hide my emotions.

If I could not see your struggle, I wrongly assumed that you did not have one. This led me to (1) envy the ease of your life, or (2) presume we had no common ground and write you off. I made friends with other outsiders and learned to appreciate them. I also villainized the people who were able to fit in – whether by luck or by force – and was a prickly person to get to know as a result.

I viewed myself as an island and permitted people on that island only if they had proven that they were what they claimed to be. This is not the norm for a kid sitting on the playground while others are just trying to stop picking their own noses, but I honestly had no idea.

The Iceberg Model

Spoken rules were my catnip. I could follow instruction instantly and completely. Homework and teacher’s instructions were cake. Obedience was the norm in my military-family household and so it was easy elsewhere, too.

Unspoken rules were a different story entirely. They did not make sense. Why would you want to save face if saving face meant you weren’t the real you for other people? That’s basically a lie, and lying is wrong. Furthermore, why lie to make someone feel good for a moment? And why lie now when the truth could be more powerful and useful for someone in the long-term?

Also, saving face required tact and I had none. It was so hard, and so low down on my list of values.

The unconscious rule of my predominantly white, emotionally reserved, patriarchal community was to button it up and not ask questions. Again, I assumed I was the problem and as time went on it was easier to just be quiet.

Uncertainty Avoidance

Anyone who can’t handle the unspoken gray areas of life is likely to find great discomfort in the unknown. I gripped onto what was safe and known for two decades. As noted in the reading, the statement “uncertainty [was] a continuous threat that must be fought,” rings true.

Thankfully, life experience is powerful and the way I labeled certainty shifted in time: it went from “comfortable” to “safe” to “fear.” And I wanted to be fearless.

Individualism

To say I was individualistic during my younger years would have been an understatement. As noted above, I knew I could rely on myself and so put all my faith in that. Putting the value of “Being Myself” on the top of my priorities led to a few defining traits, such as:

  • A willingness to fight over saving face
  • A willingness to be alone, even when it hurt
  • A deep-seated loneliness
  • An appreciation, and ultimately a need, for quiet time
  • A strong imagination
  • Resourcefulness as I learned to do things alone

I moved out when I was 18, bought my first house when I was 20, and got married and graduated with honors at 21. Of course, I had no fun in my life, had no close friends, was divorced by age 24, and my family ties were tenuous at best. But I was being myself, right?

In my twenties, everything came to a screeching halt. I had no job, no home, no husband, and “being myself” seemed to have done nothing but give me a way to distract myself from loneliness through creative hobbies. I entered counseling to tackle early childhood trauma, which helped me to shift gears and make people my priority.

Friendships, with my family and female peers, became paramount at this time. I dated a lot of different types of people and judged them on the connection we shared rather than where they were headed or the things they had accomplished.

It was awkward and terrifying, and getting married again and having children years later has made keeping close friendships difficult in entirely new ways, but I am still friends with those I pulled close ten years ago. I love them and appreciate their willingness to help me forge an unknown path.

Feminine vs. Masculine

Popular culture has thankfully begun to shift away from perceiving bossy as bad and unfeminine, and toward a marker of blossoming leadership skills. However, I was a “bossy” girl raised to believe bossy was one of the worst things I could be.

If the world is black and white and I am not feminine because I speak my mind and know what I like, what am I? I liked boys, so I wasn’t gay, which seemed to explain some women’s tendency to be masculine. Makeup was hard to master, and doing my hair wasted time better spent on other things. I didn’t look like other girls my age and subconsciously believed that any boy who thought I was girly or pretty had something wrong with them. At best, femininity and appealing to the male gaze seemed pointless; at worst, it felt insincere, and I was having none of that.

Despite disagreement with cultural beauty standards, I wanted to embody femininity. I wanted to succeed, better the world, maybe even own a business. I also wanted to create a home, build a family, and kiss boo-boos.

I wanted to believe in egalitarianism and women’s fair treatment but did not want to be known outwardly as a man-hating feminist. I like men, but I also respect them and want to see them live their best lives and succeed. Really, I wanted everyone to work together.

This battle of masculine-feminine waged the longest and, eventually, I decided that any scale of feminine versus masculine had to be a continuum. For my own sanity, gender identity had to be dependent on the context, not just the clothes I wore or how thin I could be. (Seeing it as a continuum in our course readings was life-affirming.)

Immediacy and Context

When your mother dies when you are four, and she is only 26, the loose sense of time natural to childhood is dashed away. I realized I, or anyone I love, could die at any given moment. I had no patience for anything. I wanted everything to happen right away. This is one element of my identity that I never tried to fight, much to the chagrin of my caregivers.

I am also extremely low-context, even within the American culture. With changes to technology, America has become more low-context. To higher-context societies, our need for confirmation may make us seem distrustful or overbearing. My desire to check-in, stay updated, and not waste other’s time was natural to me but unnatural to my peers and even coworkers until fairly recently. Technology and the shift in customer mindset have caught up to my demands for immediacy and updates.

I’ve built my reputation on a deep respect for both the brevity of life, and people’s time. My career hinges on clear follow-up, quick turnaround, and my passion is for quality user experience. My personal sense of time has become society’s, and an aversion to wasting it has become invaluable to my career efforts.

There can be no greater gift than that of giving one’s time & energy to help others without expecting anything in return.” – Nelson Mandela

Conclusion

Twenty years bottled up, feeling alone is a very long time, but there have been upsides to feeling like an outsider. I never had a chance to be what culture dictated as normal and so my habitus was malleable. Once the vastness of it all could poke in, change came quickly and naturally. It was actually delightful. The world was bigger and brighter than it had ever seemed, and I wasn’t trapped at all.

Understanding the “other” came naturally, whether it was someone with a different religious perspective or someone with an entirely different cultural upbringing. I seek to understand, not judge, and have this early hardship and confusion to thank.

Also, I seek to seek. I never settle down long enough to get trapped by thought patterns. I step outside until I understand, and then I step outside again. It has proven invaluable for working in a large organization, as well as making friends with genuine, interesting people, and in raising children.

I would never wish this sort of loneliness and confusion on another person, but what would the world be like if everyone could step outside their own identity and see the world with fresh eyes? That would truly be something. Until that day comes, I’m happy to be a safe place for those who stumble into it as I did.