Why My Cultural Identity Crisis Was a Good Thing
RETURNING TO MY HOME in Bulgaria after my third year of living in the United States felt strange. I clumsily leaned in for the typical greeting kiss whenever I ran into friends, only to realize that I had completely forgotten which side comes first, causing many awkward stumbles. On top of that, I could no longer handle my rakiya shots at parties and spoke with a noticeable accent. The height of my cultural confusion came on the day of my cousin’s wedding, when he asked me to lead the horo as a guest of honor and for the life of me, I couldn’t remember the steps to that dance. The worst part was that when I looked at the faces of my family members, I could see the sense of humiliation reflected right back at me, as though I had betrayed them somehow.
As a traveler who’s lived in multiple locations around the world since age 16 and can order fried rice in four different languages, the predominant feeling that haunted me in moments of self-reflection was that I didn’t belong anywhere culturally. My physical appearance and views on politics and media no longer suggested my Bulgarian origin. I spent some time living in Spain while attending a college in the US, but had a very hard time adopting the leisurely, “no pasa nada” attitude, and would often be told that I worked too hard, like “an American.” During my 6 years in the United States, I was always seen as a foreigner with “an exotic accent,” who was much better versed in world geography than the rest of the group and asked for a Heineken in a bottle at college frat parties. Thus, I struggled for a long time, trying to figure out which culture I should stick with, trapped in a realm of uncomfortable self-doubt and questionable fashion choices.
In 2013 there were 230 million expats scattered around the globe. So you can’t tell me that I’m the only culturally-confused kid out there: Take Laura Dekker for example — the remarkable 14-year-old Dutch traveler crossed the globe alone, braving storms, meeting new people, and redefining her relationship with the concept of “home” (all beautifully depicted in the documentary Maidentrip). Throughout the movie she often says that she doesn’t identify with Holland anymore. In fact, half way through the trip Laura replaces the Dutch flag with that of New Zealand, where she was born. She falls completely in love with the Caribbean and comes to very deep conclusions about life, nine-to-five jobs and modern day aspirations.
Trying to figure out where I belonged culturally, like Laura, brought quite a few awkward moments to my life. I would often go shopping for Bulgarian feta cheese at a Russian store and avoid other Bulgarians because I felt that I had been too “Americanized” and would seem completely alien to them. I was embarrassed by looking like a total “white girl” in my fluffy
North Face jacket, ordering burritos in a Mexican restaurant in Boston, while trying to explain to the baffled cashier why I spoke perfect Spanish without having any Hispanic origin. I felt like a woman with no country and no culture, comparing myself to those tasteless Indonesian crackers that assume the taste of whatever other food happens to be in your mouth in the given moment. I wished that I had a strong identification with a culture, just like the dedicated Australian expats in NYC, who venture far and wide for a jar of vegemite, a breakfast staple of the land down under. But alas, I couldn’t choose which culture I belonged to. Then finally things started to shift.
“You’re a very special girl you know,” an older gentleman from Guatemala who I worked with said to me. “I feel like you’re one of my people, even though you come from the other side of the globe.” That last remark really got to me. I had always asked him questions about Guatemala and spoken to him in his native Spanish, without realizing that the desire to become familiar with a new culture is what determines who you are, not your passport. In discussing the cultural struggle of Puerto Ricans in the US, Professor Christa Verem of Montclair University writes: “Cultural identity isn’t necessarily defined by where you come from. It also isn’t defined by where you are. Cultural identity is what you define yourself as.”
I was a woman with no one country, because I carried elements of many cultures in me. I didn’t just belong to Bulgaria or Spain or the US, and I didn’t have to choose. Instead of feeling awkward at restaurants and parties all the time, I decided to represent all of my cultures. I’d go to the Russian store and ask the salesgirl to teach me basic words, while she’d shower me with questions like why I had no Eastern European accent and how I got the chance to move to the US and then Bali, coming from a poor country like Bulgaria. I’d take my American friends to see European DJs and teach them the cons of wearing khakis and polos to the club. I’d cook typical Catalan recipes for my French friends and argue on the subject of champagne vs. cava. My new approach had suddenly made me extremely interesting to everyone who met me, because they couldn’t identify my origin and because I was interested in relating to their culture.
It’s okay to be multi-cultural. Just like Laura Dekker, you can identify with whatever culture you please, without having to pick a single one. You can be kind like the Thai, make a mean chicken tikka masala like an Indian, and study at Oxford like the English, without having to be bound by the rigidity of a single culture. Travel brings a great dimension to one’s personality and we have to represent it proudly.