Let me decide my own identity: the complexity of culture

Finding one’s identity is a complex, confusing and personal process. Coming to Edinburgh, a university that has so many students, has got me thinking about my identity and where I belong. My identity is something that’s been in the front of my mind for a long time. I’ve moved every two or three years and have lived in three different countries before coming to Edinburgh.

After having a lifetime to think about my identity, coming to university was the final push I needed to choose a definitive identity. But it’s not always been easy. I’ve had to work to cement my identity and stand strong against people’s assumptions about me, where I come from, where I “should” be from, all made by them by only looking at my appearance. I’m using this opportunity to write about what I’ve learnt, hoping it will help other people in the process of forming their own identity.

I was born and brought up in India, lived there for twelve years, then lived in the States for two years and then moved to Berlin, Germany, where I lived for three years before coming to Edinburgh. It’s possible the general reader may already have made assumptions before finishing the previous sentence.

That’s the thing.

Many people have made up their mind about my identity before I’ve had the chance to explain anything. Yes, I know it can be confusing to the people that have met me that I look Indian, sound American and say that I come from Germany, but it’s not out of the ordinary and at the end of the day, my identity is mine to decide.

If I were angry, I would tell you “don’t tell me where I’m from,” a sentiment that I’ve had to express to people in social situations through awkward phrases and facial expressions. Respect my life, my experiences and my decision to decide for myself where I belong and what I identify as. It may not align with your idea of where I should “be from”, but I get to choose my identity because I have the final say in how I choose to interact and socialise with the world and how I choose to represent myself in different communities and groups. Trying to confine my identity to one place or culture you think I’m allowed to have, doesn’t allow you to understand the full complexity of my identity which, to me, is insulting.

I personally believe one’s nationality is simply not their whole identity. Identity is malleable. It is a trial and error experiment for people who are trying to discover their identity and trying to decide where they fit in.

My German identity was something I stumbled onto by chance. I moved to Germany when I was fourteen years old and lived there for three years. While living in Germany, I used to celebrate Christmas and Easter by going to church with my family. All this while considering myself Hindu, religiously speaking. I discovered German food, culture, and language. Yes, Germany has a unique culinary culture, and no, it’s not just bread, potatoes and beer. Coming to uni, I was able to take those experiences along with my broken German and tried calling myself German. It felt obvious at first, considering I came to Edinburgh from Berlin, and over time I realised that three short years in Berlin had such a big impact on me that I couldn’t ignore it. After those three years, I wasn’t simply Indian. I hadn’t lived in India since I was 12 years old, and in Germany, I found a new culture in which I felt I belonged. I was always Indian, but after living in Germany, I was also German.

The people who have been able to respect and acknowledge my varied background and accept my adoption of German culture are some of the people with whom I’ve had some of my most interesting conversations. We talk about cultural differences and culturally educate each other, and we come out learning new things every time.

Moreover, there are so many Indian people I’ve met in Edinburgh and they’re all Indian to different degrees; and they own it.  They’ve all chosen to embrace there Indian heritage or background in their own way and to the extent that they find comfortable.

On the other hand, having lived in the States for two years, I don’t identify as someone who’s American. I did at one point though. In my first year, I used to consider myself American. But after talking to people from the States and seeing that they didn’t really accept me as American, how I find the current popular culture claustrophobic and toxic, and how the way I live my life isn’t really American, I chose to drop the word. I simply stopped describing myself as American to other people. It was that simple.

If it’s so easy to accept the idea that someone is of a certain nationality, but doesn’t relate to that culture or consider it as part of the identity, why do we have such a hard time accepting and embracing the opposite case? Someone’s nationality may not form part of their identity and vice versa. Why can’t people be accepting of people who choose to embrace cultures and languages they weren’t born with? Why does it sound like a different conversation? Because it really isn’t. Someone’s identity is something that can be added to from one’s experiences with a culture and shouldn’t be confined to one’s nationality or nationalities. For some people, the places they’ve lived form a large part of their identity, their world view, values, and everything they do. The languages I speak and the communities I choose to engage and socialise with are an extension of the identity I choose to uphold and share with the people I meet here at university but also anywhere else. That means trying to connect more with people from India and Germany, and involving myself with the German Society, but at the same time also having an open mind to other people who come from different places, but have the same values and beliefs as I do.

Simply choosing to disagree with someone whose identity doesn’t fit your notion of what their identity should be is such an injustice to not just who they are, but also who they’re trying to be.

So let people decide their own identity. Everyone’s trying to find a place to belong, and no one else can decide for them where they do or don’t. Some people are still trying to figure out their identity, and it’s hard in places where communities are less diverse or people with similar experiences or backgrounds are hard to find. But if everyone simply has an open and inquisitive mind, there can be flourishing and accepting conversations and communities despite any lack of similarities.


Image: Annelieke B via Flickr

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