Expats and Changing Cultural Identity

My sister has posted on her blog an interesting discussion of cultural identity through the eyes of Mandopop fanaticism (the subject of her blog being a Taiwanese pop band and other related topics).

The specific subject of her post is my own Chinese music obsession of the moment, Wang Leehom, and his adaptation of a song about Chinese heritage to reflect his own family story. I won’t paraphrase more than that; her words regarding the song itself are more articulate than mine could be on this subject. The Cliff Notes version of the accompanying story is that Leehom is an American-Born Chinese (ABC) who has moved back to East Asia, learned Chinese, and become re-associated with his cultural heritage instead of becoming immersed in the great American melting pot. What caught my eye about the post was her comments about not feeling similarly about our own northern European heritage; this led me to think more generally about the expat experience.

I was never particularly prone to identify myself as “American” in my European travels prior to moving to England; if anything I hoped to be mistaken for something other than an American (especially once the Iraq “war” started). In America, and apparently in contrast with my sister, I identified pretty strongly with my grandparents’ European roots. Our grandparents were all approximately 100% descended from a single European country (give or take the odd outlier in the family tree) and both our grandmothers were the first generation born in the US.

I think it goes without saying that the generation that migrates and the first generation born in the new country are most likely to reflect their prior roots. Interestingly, sometimes in the modern US it is not uncommon for the first generation born as American to distance themselves from their background and assume a strong position of American solidarity, which is perhaps why the Leehom story is such an interesting contrast. (Although it also parallels the experiences of one of my first-generation American friends, and his own recent and difficult attempts to learn his mother tongue.)

Having moved away from America, I suddenly seem to have switched allegiance from my European roots to my American ones. I rely on my American-ness as a crutch when I have a difficult time with something in the UK. My personality is too bold and I’m too forward? Blame it on being American. I’m too capitalist in my approach to my job? It’s definitely because I’m American, what did you expect, really?

I wonder how this will play out in the longer term. Will I continue to associate myself with America, or will there come a time when I return to feeling more at home in the UK? Will I be able to think of myself as a Norwegian transplant with a temporary three generation bump outside Europe? I hope so. I get tired of feeling American all the time.

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2 responses to “Expats and Changing Cultural Identity

  1. Strong cultural ties, though, not strong *nationalistic* ties… If someone in the U.S. had asked you your nationality, you would not have answered “Norwegian” before “American,” or at least, I assume you wouldn’t.

    The Leehom song in question is this ultra-patriotic anthem in China and follows along the line of “once a Chinese, always a Chinese…” no matter where in the world one is from. Although I can make all the appropriate foods from our heritage, have (as noted) visited the relatives on their own turf, etc., my feelings about Norway don’t come close to that song or even to Grandma’s (who to this day does not admit that Norway was ever subjugated by the Swedish).

    Of course, for Chinese in the U.S., racial distinction and a long history of discrimination, not to mention the fact that it is a newer migration – heavy on the second generation Americans like Leehom – all mean there is naturally a stronger pull to China/Taiwan than there would be for Northern Europeans like us.

  2. Food for thought on how we identity ourselves culturally. Do we remain in our “original” cultural identity (in my case, American) if we are just travelling in another country, or temporarily living abroad, knowing that we will be “going home” at some point. In my case, I am married and living permanently in France, and find myself wanting to integrate totally into the culture of my adopted country. I’m exploring this whole question of cultural identity and learning a new cultural code in my blog Sharoux’s World: An Adventure in Cultural Identity.

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