When you hear the word “culture,” what first comes to mind?
Beyonce swinging her hips and mimicking Michael Jackson? High tea and all its refinement? The Louvre? Artifacts sold in an African bazaar? A petri dish in the lab?
“Culture” and its companion, “nature,” prove two of the most difficult words to define in a simple, singular way. Yet even most the youngest speakers among us seem to grasp their intuitive meaning.
Let’s take a look at the Merriam Webster’s classic first definition:
“The beliefs, customs, arts, etc. of a particular society, group, place or time…a way of thinking, behaving or working that exists in a place or an organization (such as a business).”1
With all due respect to Webster, I find this definition bland. For me, culture is alive – something always changing, shifting, creating, moving. It is precisely that dynamism that captures my imagination.
The cross-cultural elements – i.e., comparing and contrasting aspects of different cultures – explode into intercultural relationships that are all about the creation of new things. This excites me!
What strikes me as I think about this dynamic, intercultural interaction of two or more cultures (as defined by Webster), is that it captures the story of me!
So, Who am I?
Looking at me, you cannot see such an unusual blend of cultures, but the seeming simplicity masks the reality.
Dad is 100% pure Italian – spaghetti, meatballs and all! Though a third-generation American, he looks, thinks, talks, and acts Italiano. Dad is all about family, connecting people, telling stories and seeking to mend broken relationships.
The consummate dreamer, my now 80 year-old Dad hungers for attention, affirmation and the spotlight. He’s held many different jobs but didn’t settle on a singular, defined career; indeed, he’s a high-tech wannabe who contends he was simply born in the wrong generation.
Dad seemed to be always searching for “that thing,” the idea or invention he’d make rock the world. For him it never materialized. In the end, his greatest claim to fame is being a faithful husband and father – a worthy accomplishment, especially in our modern era.
Mom is German and Czech, 50-50. Efficient, list-making, tidy, time-conscious. She can whip up a meal in a minute, cleans up her yard at 6 am, and still, at 78, outpaces the Energizer bunny.
The first woman in her family to get a graduate degree and establish herself in a respectable career, Mom retired after 42 years, well-liked and respected by her colleagues. She labored hard at home and work, day in and day out all those years, usually not drawing much attention to herself.
I once asked my mom what would make for a perfect day and, after pausing to think for a moment, she responded, “I guess accomplishing everything on my list!” Enough said.
The Sum is Greater than its Parts
So you mix all this up in me, one of their two daughters, and what do you get?
While an undergraduate at Stanford University, I found this to be a combustible mixture. For a long time, I could not see the intercultural treasures emerging from the conflicting cultures of my background.
Psychologically, I connected all my accomplishments with the “efficient” side of myself, the German, the mom portion.
When I was unable to achieve something, I immediately connected it with my Dad – a lack of focus, of too much dreaming and not enough doing.
But as I’ve matured, I have come to appreciate the relational gifts I’ve received from my Italian side. I’ve also come to realize I am me, a new product! I’m a combination of all the character traits, producing so much more!
Learning to become comfortable in my multiethnic skin, even though masked as simply a white product of the European continent, has taken time. Understanding who I am as a new, intercultural product of my parents, has been a revelation. But it’s been a gradual one as I’ve journeyed through my life.
I felt as if I “outgrew” the struggle, the clash of cultures, as I emerged into adulthood, married and started to have children of my own, and worked hard. Fact is, I just got busy. And I convinced myself that “the new me” was somehow independent of this upbringing.
Growing into my Skin
But as I’ve moved into the second half of my life, I’ve become more circumspect. I’ve come to recognize more deeply how we do, indeed, draw from our past. But I now do so more intentionally, creatively and wisely, to pull out the best parts. To create an Intercultural ME to best represent who I really am.
In fact, such growth can produce a renewed appreciation of our roots and, especially of our parents. I now can better understand and appreciate why my parents think and behave the way they do and often even celebrate the similarities – and the differences – among us.
Remember, even if your parents shared the same ethnic background, culture runs deep. In many respects, each family represents a “cultural unit” distinct from all others.
In my case, my husband is also half-Italian, with his mother Northern European as well. But our family cultures, including our fathers’ way of dealing with their Italian heritages, proved as opposite as one could imagine.
And, since we have similar ethnic heritages, you’d expect that to play out in our approach to raising our children. It hasn’t at all. Where we are similar, it is intentional because we believe it’ll be best for our children as they move into adulthood.
Have you taken time to consider if and how you may be an intercultural product of your parents – something new?
Share some of your own discoveries with us!
Photo credit: Escribo.com, Creative Commons
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