I am culturally American
How your cultural identity changes when you become an expat
Cultural identity can become a difficult point for any expat. A new feeling for home arises, you learn a new language and develop new habits based on the new culture. However, all of this is a perfectly normal part of the emigration process. So if you're feeling weird about your cultural identity changing, remember, you are not alone.
What is cultural identity?
Cultural identity makes us who we are and gives us a sense of belonging to certain groups. It encompasses many aspects of our life such as:
- place of birth
- public holidays
- Family structures
- Social behaviors
- Art, literature and music
… and much more
Even if you still live in the place where you were born, you can have multiple cultural identities. For example, if your parents come from different countries, you will grow up with at least two different cultures. Whatever your situation, your cultural identity is as you describe it and even that can change over time.
How my cultural identity as an expat has changed
What happens to your cultural identity when you move to a new country? Much more than I expected. I moved from the USA to Hamburg four years ago to start all over again. One of the reasons I came here was because, at first glance, German and American cultures didn't seem that different. But the longer I was here, the more I noticed that they are very different and just as these differences have influenced me, they also changed my cultural identity.
Two cultures create two identities
Whether the identity changes experienced as an expat are positive or negative depends on the individual. For me it's a bit of both. There are some aspects of German culture that I have enthusiastically adopted and love. With others, however, the meaning behind it doesn't make sense to me. If you choose to become an expat, you can't expect that the new country you live in won't change. It is inevitable. And that's what I wanted to experience after growing up in a small Oregon village that has more cows than people.
So what slowly began to develop in me were two identities. There is me, the “American” and me, the “American expat in Germany”. I cannot say here that I am German, because I do not have the feeling that I have lived in Germany long enough (although that of course also depends on the person). So these are two totally different identities of mine because they are made up of completely different things. For example, my “American” identity wants to drive everywhere, my “American expat in Germany” identity has totally got used to not having a car and relying on public transport.
My definition of home
I've always asked myself what “home” or “home” means to me. Is Oregon my home? Is Hamburg my home? How long do I have to live in Hamburg to call it home? Can I have more than one home? There is no right or wrong answer to these questions. The conclusion I have come to is that my “home” has a lot to do with the people around me. When I feel really good with the person I am with and enjoy what we do, then I feel at home. I feel at home when I watch Netflix with my partner at the weekend (a third identity is developing because he's Turkish), but also when I went on a road trip through Iceland with other expats, for example.
I once met someone who answered the question about his or her origin with “I am a global citizen”. He was born in France, but spent 10 years in India as a child, then lived in Russia, Switzerland and later in Germany. He said he has no mother tongue and no national identity. He was a mixed bag with no firm roots. Even if he is perhaps an extreme example, I always remembered this answer. Somehow I feel better about not having to choose an identity or a home forever.
Way of speaking
In most cases, a new country also means a new language. But even if you move to a country that speaks the same language, you will notice some differences. Languages are local, so there are different dialects, accents and words even within a country.
When I moved to Hamburg, I first had to change the way I speak English, because most Europeans learn British English. I had to swap “flat” for “apartment” and “lift” for “elevator” to make sure people understood me. Now that I've lived here for a few years, I don't think I can speak proper American English anymore. When I talk to my family on the phone, I have a hard time remembering certain American expressions. Also, my sister says that I don't really say “yeah!” Anymore.
When I started learning German, my way of speaking changed a lot. The better I got and the more I spoke, the more English words I forgot. I also developed a different personality when I spoke German, because the language is naturally based on the culture. If I Speak german, I am much more energetic and serious than when I speak English.
Ultimately, I can only emphasize again that the cultural identity will change. If you're an expat, just let yourself go with the flow.
Friends become family
If you're an expat, your definition of family will likely change too (especially if you are like me and your family is on the other side of the world). Soon after moving, I realized that my attitude towards friends was completely different from that in the United States. In the past, going out for a beer with friends was enough for me, but here I was much more focused on making friends who I could call if I needed help and someone who understands how difficult it can be to become an expat be.
Unless you are a special type of person, you need your family too. It is she who gives us support and makes us feel loved. As an expat, I learned that a family doesn't have to be defined by tradition, religion, or even by the same language. Family are people who are there for me, support me and go through thick and thin with me.
Upside down culture shock
Another aspect of cultural identity that I wasn't expecting was how weird it would feel when I went back to my home country, also known as flipped culture shock. Yes, I was still American, but something inside of me had changed. I saw the US in a completely different light and it even felt a bit uncomfortable. One experience that I still remember was sitting in a café for the first time. It felt so loud to me and I had to think about why. I suspected it was because I could understand everyone. I was so used to ignoring people who speak another language, simply because it is so common in Germany. In Hamburg I hear more than four different languages around me almost all the time. In the US, on the other hand, that doesn't happen nearly as often. It concluded that not only had I developed my expat identity, but that it had also changed my original American identity.
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