The Culture Conundrum: How much does culture shape your identity?

Image credit: Geralt

Identity is a question that has always bothered me. It is something we all try to puzzle out and define as we grow, but for me, it is also something that has deep roots in the culture to which I belong, and the country I am from.

The influence of culture on identity is not merely conjecture on my part; psychologist Merlin Donald suggests that ‘the key to understanding the human intellect is not so much the design of the individual brain as the synergy of many brains’. Identity is certainly linked to individuality, and yet it cannot be completely detached from culture.

Culture is itself an abstract concept. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘the distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviour, products, or way of life of a particular nation, society, people, or period’, yet most nations and societies are far from isolated in this age. Growing interconnectedness of the world entails the blurring of boundaries and differences, but herein lies a problem for me.

Home, for me, is Singapore. It is a small, young country, one which will celebrate only 52 years of independence this year, and its culture can perhaps be best described as a coalescence of Asian and Western influences – about 80 percent of people speak English as their first language. I have always thought of myself as existing in the overlapping sphere of two worlds – one, with its Asian traditions, and another, dominated by Western ways. It is an inevitable symptom of our young, mixed culture, particularly reinforced by the way in which I was raised with a leaning toward the latter Western world.

I grew up celebrating Christmas and Easter, watching the Discovery and Disney Channels, devouring books from Roald Dahl to Orwell. I picked up American slang from lms and incorporated that into my language. I was, in many ways, a product of Western culture. But I celebrated Chinese New Year too, lighting candles during the Lantern Festival and watching my grandmother burn incense. Learning your mother tongue is compulsory in schools, so the Chinese language was a part of my life for many years. I remember labouring over Chinese characters, railing against how I had to learn them even though English came so much more naturally to me.

Singapore represents two vastly different cultures pooling together to form an entirely new one, but the pull of Westernisation grew stronger the older I got, and eventually there was a compromise of Asian culture. The seeds of it are, in some way, already planted in Singapore’s culture, but I made an unconscious decision to take it further. I never watched local television programmes or incorporated Singaporean slang into my words. I knew more about American and English history than I knew about Asia’s, and the Chinese language now trips heavily over my tongue.

Yet, I remember the looks we would get when we travelled overseas, the instant pigeonholing of us as loud and ostentatious Chinese tourists. Even here in Cambridge, I am often instantly assumed to be a tourist, or to be vastly ignorant of Western ways. For many years, I struggled with the unfairness of how my compromise still never fully changed the way I was perceived. I existed in the overlap of two worlds, yet I could never embrace just one fully; I used to resent how Singapore’s culture seemed to innately present an identity crisis. Not all Singaporeans feel this way, of course; it was the personal way that I reacted to the diverse culture that engendered this particular feeling.

It is still something I think about today, but with much less resentment. Along the way, I have come to realise that so much need not have been compromised. I based decisions on the desire to conform to what seemed like a homogenous Western culture and perception, but why should I define myself based on strangers’ eeting opinions? I am no less less annoyed when I am dismissively judged by other people because of the way that I look, but it does mean that I feel less of a need to reject certain aspects of Asian culture. There are some things that have been irrevocably lost, but there are future compromises that no longer need to be made. 

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