My Cultural Identity Explained

I am a white, cisgender, straight, neurotypical male born in the Pacific Northwest, raised by a single mother, and firmly part of the American middle class. From early on I had to “code-switch” within my family because my mother’s side of the family did not go to church and did not identify as Christian, while my father’s side of my family goes to church routinely, identifies as Christian above and before many other identities they possess. I had switch my language somewhat dramatically when in the presence of my Christian family, careful not to say “Oh my God” or “Jesus!” as terms of exasperation or surprise. And considering my mom was raising me without being married to my dad and without my dad playing a major role in my childhood, this was controversial on that side of my family and I had to play diplomat. Furthermore, my dad’s half of the family were more recent rural immigrants of northern European descent, lacking any generational wealth and higher education aside from my dad at the time of my youth. In contrast, on my mom’s side of the family, I was a fifth generation Seattleite, urban, educated, wealthy, industrialists, and quite comfortable with the trappings of west coast high society.

Nevertheless, both sides of my family left me feeling ethnically identifiable as part of the dominant culture in the US, of anglo-saxon descent with a very American and Pacific Northwest social imaginary about my local place and the world. Fortunately, the bit of religious code-switching I had to do among my father’s side of the family began my training early on in taking the other’s side and trying to speak their language and learn their social norms and expectations. Otherwise, I would have floated along in a world that made sense to me and included many assumptions about the world that other cultures balk at, and I never would have fathomed such opinions and customs could exist.

That religious code-switching early on combined with my social interactions in middle school to begin to create my multi-cultural awareness and take me down a more globalized identity pathway. My best friend in elementary school was part of a proud middle class, well-educated, multigenerational Japanese-American family. They told me of the Japanese internment camps of WWII, how the government had seized their accumulated wealth at the time, shops, business, homes, and possessions. They told me how the Japanese-Americans had contributed to the settling and development of the Puget Sound region. And yet this family is fully assimilated into the American dominant culture on their own terms, owning an admirable fusion of cultures, a transcultural identity that has only grown stronger through the generations.

In middle school, we added a Chinese-Korean-American friend, who’s family lived and worked in the International District aka Chinatown of Seattle. This is a strong immigrant community, his parents were both first generation immigrants, he spoke a bit of a second language at home, ate much different foods than I did and had a much broader perspective on the world than I did. And yet, we identified each other as lovers of basketball, shoes and action movies. These relationships changed my identity in a way that I did not perceive at the time, yet I was already growing accustomed to being in the homes of families that did not look like me, sound like me, or see the world the same as me or my parents.

In high school, my heterosexual white male identity was dominant. I was a jock. I was a jock that was good at school. I was a jock that was good at school and somewhat popular and normal. I partied, I liked girls, I played on the basketball team, I liked typically urban male things like sneakers, rap music and hanging out with my friends in the popular crowd. I look back on this as my least tolerant and least multicultural identity phase. My identity pathway had narrowed and the dominant white urban American culture had come into stark focus. The whiteness of Seattle had won out.

The last major change of my identity took place over time starting in college. I began to seriously study the Spanish language, I studied abroad, traveled abroad, lived and worked abroad for the first time. I loved it. I felt empowered to explore the previously unknown corners of this endlessly interesting Earth. I found that interacting with a person from a totally different background was exhilarating and always edifying. I found that while I struggled all the same with the challenges of authentic encounter with the other, and butting cultural heads with my new friends and acquaintances in other countries, I never was discouraged by it, never focused to heavily on the confirmation of negative stereotypes and mostly found greater and greater nuance in the peoples I met across the globe. I attempted to become an intimate insider in Latin America and succeeded to a limited extent, proficiency in the language, long-term relationships and work environments provided the portals for entry into a deep understanding of people who did not grow up like me at all.

Consequently, I have come home with a mixed identity that I do not recognize in many of my oldest friends in Seattle who have not left, or who have not had these international experiences. Some of the cultural and social norms that I took for granted before now seem silly, frivolous, questionable or even more sensible and right than I perceived before. At this point, I feel like my identity is globally oriented while locally rooted. I know where I’m from and I’m proud of what my local place stands for in this world, and I’m proud to be a part of the PNW culture. Yet, I yearn for international exposure and count myself as a world=traveler who will spend his life seeking to understand foreign places and peoples as best I can.

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