Kilroy J. Oldster, the author of Dead Toad Scrolls, once wrote: "Culture is not fate, but none of us is immune from the great octopus of culture; its tentacles touch us every direction that we turn. Our self-identity is subtly influenced by the prevailing political-social culture as well as affected by our perceived social status, economic or otherwise."
What it means to be a 29-year-old, queer, white woman like myself can vary drastically from culture to culture. If I found myself living in a different culture, there would be new societal norms that would change how I view my "self" and how I would present that self to the world at large.
I can tell you from firsthand experience the role that cultural context plays in one’s identity and presentation of self. For two and a half years, I lived and worked overseas in Botswana, a small country in southern Africa. Before moving to my village of approximately 800 people, I received two months of cultural and technical training to prepare for what I would encounter in both personal and professional settings. I can confidently tell you that I could have spent the entire two and a half years in training, and I would still not have felt entirely confident navigating the culture.
As an "outsider," you learn early on that certain luxuries that you might have become accustomed to back home, such as "blending in," would not be afforded to you in your newfound home. My identity as a young, queer, white woman took on a whole new meaning in the drastically different culture of Botswana.
In a recent training put on by the Diversity Council, a question was asked that left many people in the room stumped: Are cultural identity and personal identity two separate and distinct parts of one's identity? As there was not time to address this question during the training, I would like to use this opportunity to delve deeper into the relationship between culture and personal identity, using my own story as an example.
The relationship between culture and personal identity is a very close and intimate one. Neither one occur in a vacuum. An individual cannot go through life without culture affecting their personal identity and vice versa. It is a continuous, back and forth relationship.
People may argue that they can list facets of their identity that are solely personal or solely cultural, but that does not mean that they are not interrelated. If we somehow managed to erase culture completely, I would still personally identify as a 29-year-old woman who dates only women. Without culture those identifiers are simply words. It is culture that makes sense of the words. With culture I become a young, white, queer woman. Those identifiers become embodied with meaning provided by the society I live in.
For example, as someone who identifies as a proud member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community here in America, it was a bit unnerving when I found out that I would be moving to a society where “homosexual acts” are not only frowned upon but are actually illegal. Prior to this, I had spent the majority of my adult life living an openly queer existence in a society that when compared to the rest of the world is not a terrible place to be if you identify as LGBT. Then I found myself living in a society where compulsory heterosexuality was actually a stark reality, as opposed to academic jargon one might stumble across while reading the work of a 1960s’ American, feminist scholar.
With that said, going back into the closet was not as hard as one might imagine. The heteronormative assumption of the culture made it easy to pass as straight. However, suppressing my queer identity was something that caused me a great amount of inner turmoil. It was not a comfortable existence having to suppress such an important part of myself for so long. I oftentimes felt on edge and nervous, always fearing that I might be “found out.” As a result, I had to hold people at arm’s length, resulting in superficial relationships with the people I was there to build rapport and work alongside. As a result, they only got to know a “culturally appropriate” version of myself, a very different individual than who they would have gotten to know if we had met in America.
Being white and being American were probably the two facets of my identity that had the biggest impact on how I experienced life in Botswana. Prior to living overseas, being a white American was not something that I often thought about back home, as I was mostly surrounded by others like me. It was not until I found myself in a culture very different than my own that I was forced to think about how it really affected my life. Due to my nationality and skin color, I went through the two and a half years there never really feeling like I belonged. Being white, I stuck out like a sore thumb. For a lot of people I interacted with, I was the first white person and the first American they had ever met. This undoubtedly affected how I moved through the world in those years. I had to mentally prepare to do simple tasks, such as grocery shopping, knowing that I would multiple times be shouted at or stopped because of my "otherness." This did, however, force me to reflect on and see my white privilege back in America in a whole new light.
Age was another facet of my identity that impacted my time abroad. In Botswana, age is closely tied to status and respect. The older you are, the more you are respected and valued in this society. Interestingly enough, individuals are considered youth until they are thirty-five years old! Therefore, people are not seen as adults until they are almost forty years old. As opposed to America where people lie about their age to appear younger, people in Botswana actually lie about their age to appear older. This cultural difference proved to be a huge obstacle for me in many respects as it was very hard to earn the respect of my community and be taken seriously as a twenty-five year old.
Lastly, gender played a major role during my time in overseas. Botswana is a very patriarchal society with rigid gender roles and divisions. In addition, men and boys are viewed as more valuable to society than women and girls. This belief surrounding gender coupled with my young age made it extremely hard in both work and social settings.
As you can see, the cultural views surrounding sexual orientation, my nationality, race, age, and gender all affected my experience living overseas and how I came to think of myself and present myself to others. The cultural context gave each facet of my identity a different meaning than it had back home. I began to view myself differently, through the lens of the culture I was living in. Negotiating and managing each facet was challenging in different ways.
My sexual orientation was probably the least difficult to deal with, only because it was the one I could suppress and hide. The others were non-negotiable. I could not change my nationality, age, or gender to better my situation. I just had to learn to cope with the consequences of being young, female, and a white American in a foreign country.
After spending two-plus years trying to negotiate my previous identity with this new self that I had come to embody in Botswana, I learned quickly upon returning to America that the identity I formed abroad was not just a temporary character that I came to perform. It had actually become a part of my identity. Therefore, just as I had struggled to negotiate my American identity in a culture so very different from my own in Botswana, I struggled to fit back into American culture when I returned. I realized that my experience living overseas would forever be a lens through which I viewed the world.
This experience abroad gave me much insight into the fact that identity is not stagnant. As the culture around you shifts and evolves, so do you as an individual. It might happen in a blatant and obvious way like it did for me. However, it does not have to be a two-and-a-half-year hiatus to another country that changes your idea of self. In reality, culture affects our sense of selves on a daily basis. It is found in the mundane or, rather, what we find to be mundane, only because it has become normalized to us. Our surroundings and interactions influence the person we are and the person we are to become. As hard as one may try to escape the grasp of the “great octopus of culture,” we are forever under her spell.