Cultural Identity: Should I Change to Fit In?

Cultural Identity: Should I Change to Fit In?

By Ryan Murdock

If you live abroad for long enough, you’ll eventually find yourself caught between two cultural identities.

You’re not really a part of the foreign culture you’ve moved into, but you’re also completely out of touch with life back home.

And if you moved to a place where you’re required to live in a different language, you may find yourself getting worse at your native tongue while never quite attaining fluency in the language of your residence either.

I’ve seen this happen to so many people. But I never really gave it any thought for myself, until a friend asked, “Do you try hard to fit in or become more Maltese, or do you fight to keep your home cultural identity as much as possible?”

I laughed at first, because I never really fit in here at all—just the opposite, actually. And we’ll get to that in a second.

But my friend raised a larger question of cultural identity that touches on every expat life…

How much of your identity is based on the place where you live, the community you live among, and the people you’re surrounded by? And how much of your identity is intrinsic; something you carry along with you?

I laughed at the idea of trying to become more Maltese, because I had the opposite problem from the moment I landed on this tiny rock. I found that I just couldn’t relate to people here in Malta at all. In fact, most of their values seemed to clash completely with my own.

I find it impossible to connect deeply to a society where books aren’t valued and no one reads. I was surprised by the total free-for-all on the roads. I couldn’t relate to the way people will just tell you anything, whether they mean it or not, either to get rid of you or because they think that’s what you want to hear. And it still angers me the way people here take no personal responsibility for anything. A shrug seems to be the universal excuse.

All of those things clashed very directly with my deepest personal values. I’ve never reconciled myself to them. And I hope I never do.

By now you should be asking me a pretty obvious question. “Murd, then why the heck are you living there?”

Well, I like the sunny weather for one, and I love the history. But even more, I love the location: right in the middle of the Mediterranean, equidistant between Europe and Africa.

You see, I never identified with Maltese culture. But I did find myself absolutely at home in Europe from my very first visit.

I loved the cafe culture from the moment I arrived: sitting in a plaza watching other people, or reading a book. Ordering a single espresso and lingering for hours without anyone bothering me. And I loved being invited to exhibit openings and other art scene events.

In many ways, coming to Europe felt like coming home. I always felt like the odd one out growing up in small town Ontario. 

I loved camping and hiking and the outdoors. But I didn’t skate or play hockey, and I couldn't care less about the NHL playoffs. I wanted strong espresso-based coffee, not watery Tim Horton’s. And I obsessed over books and art when no one else around me did.

That isn’t a judgment on the country where I grew up. Just an observation about my uneasy place in it.

I love the fact that history is all around me in Europe, in every stone and carved facade. I found myself walking among the stage sets where so many important events had played out. And I’d read about every one of them. I knew how to navigate through that world.

I love the way Europeans speak 2 or 3 or even 4 languages, and take it for granted. Cultures mix so fluidly here, and borders barely exist.

And most of all, I love that art is a part of everyday life on the continent. People care about it and talk about it and feel that it’s relevant to life. Normal people go to exhibits and openings, not just highbrow snobs. It’s a real topic of conversation.

So while I may not feel like I fit into Malta, I did find a home in Europe: intellectually, culturally and temperamentally.

For now I choose to keep my base here on the fringes, in a country with great weather and a low cost of living, but I’ve come to see Europe as one big backyard. And my approach to Lifestyle Design involves shifting around to different parts of the continent according to the needs I’m feeling at that time.

If I want to cut myself off to work on a project and spend time by the sea or in nature, I go to the Algarve or Spain. If I need a dose of culture or exciting new ideas, I’ll spend a month or so in Berlin. And of course if I’m craving real travel and solitude, the Sahara is a short flight away.

I guess that’s my longwinded way of answering my friend’s “identity question.”

Travel has taught me that I can feel at ease anywhere. Every place belongs to me, because I no longer belong to any one place.

When that same friend asked, “Where is home for you?” I told him that, while I’ll always feel closest to those small town Canada childhood memories and the people I shared them with, home for me is Europe: mentally, spiritually, and culturally.

Where is home for YOU? And is it a physical location? Or is it a state of mind?

Please share your experiences with me in the comments below. I’d love to read about them.

Ryan Murdock is Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Outpost, and has written several features over the past decade for Outpost—on France, Jordan and Namibia, to name just a few. He’s also author of “Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America,” and you can see more of Ryan at www.ryanmurdock.com, and twitter.com/roadwisdomStay tuned for more of his columns on The Expat Life!


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