Many youths today live away from their home countries. How do they cope with their personal sense of self? Do they turn to separation or marginalisation? Magdalena Noga shares her own experiences and those of others.
I didn’t grow up with a sense of a dual identity. I was born and lived in Poland until I was eight years old, when my family won visas to the USA through the lottery system and we packed everything we could fit into overflowing suitcases. Things were better in post-communist Poland, but in the Eastern region, still not good. My parents wanted something more for me and my sisters – for our whole family. What was to be initially a trip for one year turned into a permanent move. My mom never booked the return flights. So we stayed, and studied, and worked very hard to build a good life here.
At some point, home became an abstract idea, and I think it always will be: I live here, my family is here. In fact, my life is here. But the roots of my home will always remain planted in the golden fields of Poland.
It is not easy for people who find themselves in an unfamiliar environment to simply make sense of things and integrate smoothly. One’s sense of self, personal identity, can be at odds with what was always true and the new, and oftentimes conflicting, facts being presented. It is usually at this point when a person has to choose between taking on a new aspect to their identity, to a greater or lesser extent, or isolating and opting to live in what could be called an imaginary world, neither reflecting the surroundings nor keeping up with the developments continuing to take place in the old country.
I don’t think I can remember the moment when I first started feeling like an American. Was it at 14 years old, when I put my right hand over my heart and swore allegiance and became a naturalized US citizen? Was it when I would travel abroad and come to America’s defense when some people would criticize the country as a whole for the actions of its government? It may be that it just happened. Somewhere in me developed the feeling of optimism, opportunity – an American spirit. Yet I became an American without losing my Polish identity.
Living in the USA means that there are communities of immigrants from literally all over the world. So I am able to attend Mass every Sunday at my Polish church, I am able to shop at the Polish deli and butcher, and my nieces and nephews now attend weekly Polish school—just like I did. I am still able to actively be Polish. I am also aware of being a foreigner. For example, I can’t understand it and am horrified when people don’t take their shoes off when they enter a home; and I learned quickly that someone asking, “Hi, how are you?” in the USA does not mean they want you to answer honestly. In America, you smile and say, “great!”
By now, I have lived longer in the USA than I have in Poland. I don’t have an accent when I speak English, though some people think I do, particularly if they look at my name and have trouble pronouncing it; thus, they label me a foreigner. In the USA, I am always the European girl, the Polish blonde. But when I moved back to Poland for a year, a few people suggested that while I was Polish, I might not be Polish “enough” anymore. To me, the addition of my American identity did not mean subtracting from my Polish identity: I was gaining something new; I was enriching my life. I did not feel less Polish just because I was not living in Poland anymore. Still, a dual identity does not come without any complications.
Where exactly do I fit in? Where do I belong? These are questions I have dealt with for as long as I have had a dual identity. And so have a lot of people who have ever moved to a new country. With the hopes of discovering some new perspectives on the issue, I spoke to some people of various backgrounds who have found themselves in unfamiliar circumstances.
Paula, born in Brazil, now lives in Italy—the country of her familial roots.
I have been aware of my dual identity, she says, ever since I can remember. I grew up hearing family stories about the background of my grandparents and great-grandparents, about their arrival in Brazil, about their struggles and successes in their new land. The European immigrant in Brazil, particularly the one from Italy, is generally perceived as the successful immigrant, and this means that most Italian families take pride in reconstructing and recounting their story. My family was no different in this regard. However, unlike most romanticized narratives I heard from other families, my parents have been less biased in their accounts: they also told me stories about how Italians could be racist and about how much easier life was for white immigrants.
After completing a dual Master’s degree in Poland and Austria, Paula moved to Italy to pursue her PhD. However, moving to Italy did not feel like a ‘homecoming’ for her, after all.
P: I do have a primary culture – Brazilian – and still feel that I have to integrate into another – Italian. Although both of my parents have Italian roots, they were born and raised in Brazil, and the influence of this distant Italian descent on me was very limited. I have always been aware that I am “Italo-Brazilian”, but this identity made sense in the Brazilian context, formed as it is by several different peoples. In this light, moving to Italy was no different from moving to any other European country for me: although I did not have to face any formal, bureaucratic burdens, I still had to adapt myself to a country that was not my own. I still feel and am treated like an immigrant.
E&M: Have you ever experienced any negativity from others due to your dual identity?
P: In Italy, I am often perceived as an immigrant and judged (negatively) on that basis. When people learn that I have Italian descent, their attitude toward me tends to change. It is as if I no longer represented the “other”, but was rather part of a larger, worldwide Italian nation, with which most Italians identify.
However, Paula discovered another side to her dual identity.
P: At first, the chief positive aspect of my dual identity for me was completely formal: I have never had to apply for a visa to reside in Europe. Today, I feel like I can take advantage of and truly participate in two worlds: the one of samba and the one of pasta.
Some people are born with a dual identity, they do not acquire it over time. Like Paula, Thomas was always aware that his identity was made up of more than one culture. Thomas, born in Colombia to a Colombian mother and English father, now lives in the USA.
E&M: Did you have one primary culture and felt you had to integrate into another at some point?
T: Not really. I obviously did have a primary culture – Colombian, because I was born and raised in Colombia, to a Colombian mother and an English father – but it never felt like it to me. I was always keenly aware that I was neither entirely Colombian nor entirely British. Nor entirely anything, for that matter. And I also learned pretty quickly how to use each one of those identities to my advantage and under different circumstances: there were moments when I had to be British, moments when I had to be Colombian, moments when I could play the “dual culture” card. Add to that mix that I also went to a German school, so most of my formal education was either imparted in German or by teachers closely related to Germany. So there were times when I could highlight the fact that I was nearly German.
So, every summer we went to England, and I would join a very British family and take part in very British activities. I must admit it did feel strange –and it still does– to be surrounded by family who I only saw once a year. They were part of me, and yet they weren’t. I had to explain things to them that I did not have to explain to my Colombian family, I had to integrate into the English culture every summer, every year, make sure I behaved like an Englishman (or sort of) and then go back to Colombia and be Colombian again. In that sense, distance is a powerful reminder of who you are, and who you are not.
Language is also powerful: although I grew up speaking English with my father at home in Colombia, I never felt I was truly bilingual when I was with my English family. I still remember when I was growing up how I used to invent words in English, or do literal translations from Spanish, or play with some of the phrases that my dad said. One example: every night, I asked my dad to give me a “bendition” (literal translation of the word “bendición”, blessing). It was, I have come to think, my reaction to the fact that I had a father who was different from my friends’ or even cousins’ fathers.
E&M: At what point in your life did you become aware of your dual identity?
T: I have always been aware of the fact that I was different from those who surrounded me when I was growing up in Bogotá. Two things helped to reassure that difference: my name, which is very English and clearly stands out in Colombia, and my father, who, as I explained, was an Englishman learning to live in Colombia.
One exception was my school: because it was a German school, there were a lot of expats, and plenty of kids were half German, half Colombian. We all shared to a certain extent, and maybe without realising, the idea of being foreign in a country that was nevertheless our own. Many of us were also blond and had blue eyes, and that stood out in Colombia as well. My school undoubtedly helped me understand that despite being different, I was not alone in my differences.
Later on in life, two other events made me think more intensely about my identities: my mother’s death in November 2003 and my move to Europe in 2009. My mother was my closest link to Colombia, the reason why I am Colombian and why I grew up there. When she died, I also felt I lost part of my Colombian identity. Since I have no siblings, my direct family is now only my dad. And that also means that no Spanish is spoken at home any longer. All this created a strong desire to leave Colombia and, to a certain extent, a rejection of my “Colombianness”. I started highlighting more and more my British roots, I felt the need to criticise some aspects of Colombian culture and society, and I rejected any notion of patriotism towards my own country (only last month, for the first time since I can remember, I got a football shirt of the Colombian national team).
My rejection of Colombia lessened only in the last few years, and that change was brought by the fact that I learned to appreciate and miss my country (with all its problems) while living abroad. I lived in Germany, then in Poland, then for a brief period in Spain; and since 2011 I have lived in the US. And all those different stages have helped me understand that I am definitely not alone and that having more than one culture is more common than I originally thought.
E&M: Do you identify one identity as your primary?
T: It depends where I am and who I am with. I know, it is strange, but it’s true. When I am surrounded by Colombians, I obviously highlight my Colombian roots. Nevertheless, the same does not apply when I am surrounded by British people. There, because I have never lived in England extensively and my accent is not entirely British, I feel a bit strange saying I am English. I do say my father comes from England and I’ve got family over there, but that’s about it. But when I am with my dad we do say we’re British –maybe just to avoid having to go into complicated explanations about our identities and living conditions, but also because we are. We are British!
I tend to think of my identities as if they were a couple: sometimes they get along very well, sometimes one tries to trump the other, and every now and then they hate each other as well. Most of the time they live happily together, as long as they respect each other’s space.
Obviously this means that maybe unconsciously I have tried to avoid being too Colombian, too British, too German. I have tried to be a bit of everything so that I can always use each card when I need it. That, in turn, means that people have trouble identifying me. Here in Washington, where I live now, I have been asked on different occasions whether I am British, German, from Northumbria (!) and whether I have indigenous blood. Note that I have not been asked whether I am Colombian, because that comes to the forefront only when I speak Spanish on account of my accent.
All this means, in short, that my primary culture – if there is one – is at the same time the one that is less visible to the naked eye. I am perhaps more Colombian, but nobody would guess that just by looking at me or reading my name.
Despite the complications, Thomas sees many positive aspects to having a dual identity:
On a very basic level, it has made me intensely curious about the world and other cultures. That’s something I absolutely love! One the other hand, it has prompted me to reflect on who I am and where I am going, and I believe that is very positive as well. Third, it has allowed me to feel very comfortable in all those places that are multicultural: I feel more at home where people are confronted by different cultures and identities, and I believe this is a positive aspect for me as an international journalist.
Moreover, I believe that it has helped me to adapt very easily to different cultures and circumstances, be it in Germany, Poland or Miami. I feel that my identity mix has allowed me to be part of nearly anything, and that has proven useful as I continue with my life as an expat. I love the idea of having more than one identity, and this is something that I am trying to develop as I travel around the world: I like to feel that every country has left a little mark on me, that every city has turned me into a more global person.
My dual identity is without a doubt the main reason why I decided to leave my country and pursue a life abroad. I wanted to understand the world, and by understanding the world also understand myself.
Linda was born to Polish immigrant parents and now lives in Sweden.
L: Do I have a primary culture? It is complicated. I was born and raised in Sweden, but I spent every summer in Poland. My father is a real patriot and he wanted to integrate me into the Polish culture – without pushing it. However, in Sweden I grew up as a normal Swedish girl and attended the common Swedish school system. When I studied in Krakow, Poland, I really felt integrated. I met so many people with the same Polish roots, living all over the world. I really accepted my Polish side and felt it deepening—that feeling of really being Polish.
E&M: Do you feel any complications surrounding your dual identity?
P: Today, I don’t feel any. I’m only grateful to have this opportunity to get to know these two cultures. It enriches my life. But as a child I felt really bad about having a surname people had trouble pronouncing and made fun of. One day, I came home from kindergarten and told my parents I wanted to change my name to a typical Swedish name. But this changed by the time I was 14, an age at which you want to be unique.
Thanks to my dual identity, it’s easier for me to understand different cultures and understand people and the way they are. I am more curious and understanding of different traditions, and why people do what they do. While I lived in Spain, I became more well-rounded as a person. I met a lot of women who were like me, and I lived in a country that let me be the way I felt I truly was. I felt understood. I felt so much calmer. I accepted myself for who I was: that’s me, take it or leave it.
Like Linda, Katerina has felt some initial complications having a dual identity. Katerina was born to immigrant parents from Greece and lives in the USA.
E&M: Do you identify with one identity as your primary?
L: It is definitely complicated. While I say that I’m completely Greek (because I am, both of my parents were born and raised in Greece) and completely American (because I was raised here), I recently have started to feel like I am more American for reasons that are difficult for me to explain and even difficult for me to completely understand. It actually started with an internship at the Permanent Mission of Greece to the United Nations a few years ago where I was working with other interns and officials who were from Greece. This internship magnified differences in my mind – differences in mannerisms, ways of thinking, ettiquette, etc. These differences led me to think that being raised in the US and in an American school system greatly impacted me and resulted in differences between me and the interns from Greece. A semester later I interned for a US government office and didn’t experience this phenomenon, I felt like everyone there was like me – simply because we were raised in a similar school system. The daily formalities and exchanges with colleagues were nothing new to me.
Katerina believes that everyone with a dual identity will face some hurdles.
K: I think everyone with a dual identity will experience complications or negativity – and it typically stems from choosing one identity over the other (or treating them as one hybrid identity). There are drawbacks to either of these scenarios. If you treat your identity as one hybrid identity, for example Greek-American, pulling cultural elements from each identity to form a hybrid version – you are still abandoning certain elements. Being slightly more of one than the other is seen as betraying one of your identities by many external observers. And, you are not completely one or the other. Similarly, if you do not adopt a hybrid identity you are constantly at odds with one of the identities.
Most interestingly, when I’m in Greece I feel very American and when I’m in the US I feel very Greek. It seems like those I’m around like to focus on the differences and magnify them.
Have I experienced negativity from others over this dual identity? Of course. People like to focus on the differences, as I said. When studying abroad in Greece, I had a young Greek classmate not believe I could read or write in Greek. He proceeded to test me in front of other students asking me to read sentences in Greek.
Indeed, the realities of having a dual identity can sometimes be harsh. Many of the difficulties stem from other people’s acceptance, or lack thereof. It is unfortunate that we sometimes have to prove the very essence of ourselves. We sometimes feel like we have to ask ourselves: are we enough? But what is the criteria of being Greek enough or Polish enough or anything enough? We are still people, but with multiple aspects to our identities, and we call more than one place home, whose traditions and patriotism can certainly transcend borders and passport colours. The life we live now, whether we have adopted a new location, language, or set of customs, does not automatically mean we have forgotten and discarded our very roots. We might face confusion surrounding our identities at times, but almost always, we reinterpret ourselves, and continue to develop, evolve, and grow as human beings with diverse backgrounds.
Cover photo: Chris Barbalis (Unspalsh)