Culture Is A Book In My Library.

Many students at Queen Mary have another cultural background. Yet when asked whether they feel more British or more their other culture, many struggle to define and weigh up how much they feel that they belong to one culture or the other. Many will say that they are both. A hybrid; a complicated mixture. They attempt to defy the binary frameworks – the ‘either-or’ categories – which are unthinkingly imposed by friendly enquirers. I can relate to this experience, as I also have two cultures – Danish and British. My parents are from Denmark, but I have grown up in the UK. Neither of these cultures entirely define me; rather they are references, which I draw on to create a sense of self. They are, so to speak, simply books in my internal library.

Culturally hybrid individuals are sometimes presented as stuck, straddled or torn between two cultures. Nietzsche suggested that these individuals may struggle with conflicting ideas and values and that they may have the “profound desire […] that the war they are should come to an end” (Welsch, 1999).  However, Nietzsche also stressed that having multiple cultures is not necessarily a negative experience. He in fact made clear that he himself was glad “to harbour many […] souls within” (ibid). Indeed, the experience of two cultures gives us an alternative standpoint. Danish books, films and idioms have provided me with new references. The inside jokes within my family and our discussions are often coloured by such references. In addition, multi-cultural individuals may have a broader culinary palette, and many are able to speak another language. This other language gives us a new way to express ourselves and to communicate. Of course, within our minds, aspects of our different cultures become jumbled together and so something new is produced – a hybrid-self, that is neither one culture nor the other, nor stuck in-between.

I am sure that many people with two cultures will have similar experiences of drawing on aspects of both of their cultural backgrounds. And for many this can be a highly positive experience and not an experience of being ‘torn’ between cultures. It is in this light that the metaphor of books can be useful. We may have multiple books on our shelf; we do not need to decide between them. The books, just like our two cultures, can co-exist. We do not need to get rid of an old book to buy another one, just as we do not have to get rid of our old culture when we move to a new place. When we present our culture to others, we may only highlight the ‘best’ parts, just as if we were persuading them to read a particular book. Additionally, culture can provide us with a framework and vocabulary to define ourselves, similar to the way that reading provides us with conceptual pillars to build our ideas.

Yet culture is not the only ‘book’ on our shelf. Other sources may equally shape us as a person – the books we read, the films we watch and the sum of our experiences and interactions influence the way we think and act. A book on Nietzsche or a film on Frida Kahlo, for example, may encourage us to embrace suffering as a part of life. Or doing a course on Marxism may convince us that capitalist society is inherently exploitative. Alternatively, we may come to believe that capitalism, although flawed, spurs innovation and harnesses natural human competitiveness. The point is, that our identities are constantly changing, shaped continually by the new ideas that we come across. Our values are determined through a constant negotiation between competing ideas. Having another culture is just one aspect of the self, but we may also define ourselves in many other ways.

However, is it wrong to see culture as just another source in the personal reference library? Undoubtedly, it is common to attach greater emotionality to culture than to other intellectual concepts. If you dismiss someone’s ideas on say, Nietzsche’s philosophy or Marxist economics, people are less likely to be offended than if you criticize aspects of their culture. It is interesting that we have such a great attachment to what is seemingly just an “imagined community” (Anderson, 1993). Certainly, culture is a book that was placed in our personal library much earlier on in our lives. The idea of cultural belonging has been engrained in us by our families (and this is not meant in a negative sense) when they make cultural references, uphold particular traditions and give us certain foods. It is an idea fed to us by politicians, who encourage solidarity with the nation-state or who depict immigrants as ‘outside’ the nation – as belonging to a different culture. Moreover, when we are asked to introduce ourselves, societal convention typically commands that this includes an explanation of where we are from. Thus, the question, ‘who are you?’ so often becomes conflated with the question, ‘where are you from?’

One final thought: the Turkish-German author Özdamar highlights in her book, ‘Mutterzunge’, the way that culturally hybrid individuals often end up mixing their different languages – she wryly suggests that they have a “twisted tongue”. So, if I mix up and negotiate between many different beliefs and values in my mind, do I then have a twisted mind? Of course, I only say this mother tongue-in-cheek.

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