As of lately I have been thinking about what cultural identity is and the impact it has on immigrants living in foreign countries. Cultural identity is the identification or sense of belonging to a particular group based on religion, ethnicity, nationality or gender. Let us take it from the beginning and allow me to properly introduce myself. I am a female in my mid-twenties, born in Burundi but immigrated to Scandinavia at the tender age of eight. Both parents are from Burundi they immigrated to Scandinavia in their early twenties during the 90´s. At the time I was the only child, over the course of years our family expanded and my mother gave birth to three more children. Since coming abroad I can count the number of times I have been back home on one hand. When coming to a foreign country as a child you already know that you are different. This realization hits you rather fast the moment you set your foot in a country that not only has a different climate, infrastructure but also a population that looks different from the one you come from. So the process of integration starts, with learning a new foreign language and the cultural practices but you also find yourself quickly assimilating to your environment. In as much as you conform to your new environment, the environment at home is like an alternate world. Your parents are of African descendant, they immigrated to a foreign country but they carry with them their cultural values from home. These are the same cultural values that you are raised by and bringing the westernized values with you back at home might not always merge well. This creates a dual cultural identity, a Burundian and Scandinavian that only appears depending on social circumstance.
So what differentiates the first, second and third generation of immigrants from their parents?
In my household, we have four generations that have different experiences and views on the perception of cultural identity. Which got me thinking how important is cultural identity?
Looking at my parents, for instance, they left Burundi as young adults with dreams of accomplishing a better quality of life with the ultimate goal of eventually heading back home. Meaning they immigrated with the sole purpose of developing their skills within the educational and professional area and through that improve the quality of life not only for themselves and their children but for their family back at home. Moving to a foreign country, especially one that is not primary English speaking at where your educational background might not be useful combined with the responsibilities you have towards the family you brought with you including the one left back at home creates pressure with a defined purpose. With all that being said add the challenge of raising children in a foreign country and teaching them not only their cultural values but also trying to pass on the language as well. The everyday life filled with all its challenges and responsibilities not to mention the race against time to try and build something that will be of economic value for the family makes us reprioritize certain values when raising our children here.
Our parent’s values differ from the first generation of African immigrants abroad due to the fact that we are more integrated and assimilated to the new culture. We do not bear the same responsibilities as our parents giving us more space to pursue what we really want. This is not to say that there no expectations from our parents which there are BUT the difference is that we do not have that tie back to our home countries due to fact that we are raised abroad.
As I’ve gotten older I´ve come to value my culture and taken more interest in learning more and finding ways of preserving it. I do speak and understand my native language and have been traveling more to Burundi on a regular basis. I see my future back at home and with grand plans on changes, I would like to pursue and implement. Leaving abroad and never really fitting creates this romanticized idea of how well you would blend into society once you are back home. So when you do start traveling back you realize that in as much as you are Burundian you´re different. Different in the terms of, the way you reason, the way you talk in terms of the accent both when speaking English and the native language etc, you’re westernized. Making it easy for anyone to spot you out. Once again you do not quite fit in and end up feeling like a second citizen. This is a conflicting feeling as you feel like a second citizen in Europa and back at home.
Looking at my siblings that are born and raised in Scandinavia I once again wonder the importance of cultural identity. They don’t speak or understand our native language nor do they know much of the cultural values that we have. They identify more with the Scandinavian culture than their own. This is where the parents come into place if they don’t take the time to pass cultural values down while the children are still young it becomes difficult as the children get older unless they develop a natural interest for their culture as adults. In defense of immigrant parents with all the responsibilities and challenges that surround them passing on the native language and cultural practices, for instance, might be something taken for granted thinking that the children will take interest in it when they grow up. This is a dangerous assumption when cultural values and language are not passed down and there is no knowledge or interest in it there is a risk of it dying out. Which not only is a loss for the generation growing up within the western world but also for the continent as African immigrants contribute to the social and economic development of the continent.
As an immigrant what is your view on cultural identity?
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