Excerpt from Chapter 22. Cultural Identity

Posted: January 26, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Subchapter: Cultural Identity in Immigrant Groups

When I was six, shortly after World War II my family and I emigrated from Germany to Australia. We always felt as aliens there – even after we had attained Australian citizenship. Ten years later, we all returned to Germany as Australian citizens. We were aliens in Germany too, having to keep renewing resident visas and work permits for the subsequent thirteen years that we lived there. Then my German wife Gigi and I moved to New Zealand, where we lived for over seventeen years – as aliens. After that we moved back to Australia, where we live now.

For most of my life I’ve been an alien wherever I have lived. In childhood Australia, I was frequently taunted about my German name and roots, but my parents had instilled me with sufficient self-esteem, that I could cope with it. But I hated the taunting. Back in Germany, which is rich in heritage and customs, I was unable to attain the cultural awareness and mind-set of my friends, so I remained on the cultural periphery – never a part of it. Colloquialisms, subtle local semantics and word-plays were usually beyond my perception.

Gigi’s history was similar, moving from city to city within post-war Germany with her family for most of her pre-married life. Having a non-local dialect wherever she lived, she was always taunted as an outsider and never really felt at home anywhere. Then, when we moved to New Zealand, she was faced with the added handicap of not knowing the language at all. She couldn’t laugh when others laughed – she didn’t understand. After decades away from Germany, she still speaks with an accent and rarely understands jokes. Cultural dissociation comes at a high emotional cost.

The importance of cultural identity was really driven home to me in 1988.

While living in New Zealand Gigi and I embarked on a bureaucratic, spiritual and emotional odyssey, to adopt twin two-and-a-half-year-old Indian sisters from Fiji. Inter-country adoption is a very complex issue and the New Zealand Department of Social Welfare had very stringent qualifications prospective adoptive parents must meet. One of the department’s main concerns, quoted in their information sheet (88), was this:

Within the adoption process, there is always a gap between the belonging a child could have had in his/ her birth family and that which can be provided by an adoptive family. The size of that gap is in direct relationship to the differences between the heritage and cultural backgrounds of the adoptive family and those of the child. Where an adoption has inter-country and intercultural elements, this gap can be too big to bridge satisfactorily and there is a high risk of disappointment, frustration and unhappiness for not only the child, but also the adoptive family.
These views are endorsed internationally. Most overseas agencies which place children will not accept international adoption applications unless they are satisfied that the couples are able to provide satisfactorily for the full range of rights and needs. 

 

The issue of cultural identity is vital to wellbeing. Social Welfare authorities recognise this and will only approve such adoptions where they are completely satisfied that adopted children will have sufficient connection to their original cultures. The 1989 United Nations ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child’ (79), clearly states the importance of a child’s connection to their culture and declares this as a specific right, to ensure the child’s on-going wellbeing.

Our family knows what it is like, to be aliens. We have always been aliens. But there is another facet of cultural identity that mitigated our alienation: Cultural Blending.

When people from one culture migrate to a country of another culture for whatever reason, there is a high possibility of disorientation arising from the loss of cultural identity. The problem is often not so acute with first-generation immigrants themselves. They know why they migrated, and their culture is usually still a strong part of their identity. Immigrants will inevitably get ridiculed and taunted by local xenophobes and rednecks, but their cultural identity and their hope of developing a better lifestyle will usually give them the resilience to overcome these obstacles.

It is an entirely different situation for the immigrants’ offspring who are born into their new country, or those who arrive very young. These children grow up in their new environment and mostly assimilate into it, not knowing anything else. They will also talk the local dialect and make local friends like everyone else, and will emulate them. They will even often feel like a local.

Their desire to fit in will often cause them to neglect or even feel some shame about their cultural heritage because they are now a generation removed from it. To embrace their parent’s culture would be a declaration of their difference, contrary to their desire to fit in and be accepted.

Most of these youngsters don’t have homeland bonds strong enough to assert their original culture. But the cruel twist is that most of their local friends and acquaintances still see then as foreign ethnic kids, and will often tease them about that. This even comes from trusted friends, delivered in jovial, teasing jabs but always received as poisonous, barbed darts. This eventually causes identity confusion, which easily festers into frustration and anger. If left unresolved, the confusion can deepen pathologically and end in tragedy.

A common escape from this cultural identity crisis is that these confused young people will find solace among other taunted migrant youth who share the same dilemma. So without understanding how or why, we have created angry young ethnic gangs. Such outcast-groups then wear their outcast status with pride and gain their recognition and identity through their group notoriety. This, of course, provokes more animosity and revulsion from the locals, leading to deeper xenophobia.

How do I know all this? Because during the fifties I was the taunted ethnic kid. I watched some of my ethnic friends band together in troublemaking gangs, some of them burning down schools.

We mature local people have the power to create alienation and ethnic gangs with derogatory, malicious taunts and xenophobic attitudes. With these attitudes we drive immigrants into ethnic enclaves, which are then the only places where they have dignity and receive the acceptance they crave – among their own kind. Then we hypocritically condemn them in their enclaves and accuse them of not integrating. We address this dilemma again within another context toward the end of this chapter.

Right here is where your attitude is challenged. This is where you have the opportunity to choose peace over conflict, so make this world-changing choice wisely. If you decide to act in favour of peace, be aware that there are others concurrently inciting conflict out of ignorance, apathy or malice. There is a lot of ground to win but it is well worth the effort.

We can break these barriers, invite migrant neighbours into our homes and communities and show interest in their cultures. We also do well to visit cultural events whenever they are held. Apart from broadening our own minds, personal contact creates a safe framework of acceptance and dignity for immigrants. Within this acceptance they can gradually adjust their identity and build pride in their new homeland and its particular ethnic culture.

It is necessary for immigrants, to respect the culture of the host nation, and yield those aspects of their own culture that clash or run contrary to that of their host nation. Some cultural customs may even be illegal, so the host country laws must always take precedence to maintain its own cultural and national identity. It cannot be expected to change its culture or laws to accommodate the cultures of its diverse immigrant groups. This is discussed in another context in the sub-chapter ‘Colonisation Today’.

When a spirit of acceptance, mutual interest and respect is established we create local peace. Our immigrant friends will then develop affinity with their new country and its people, and share in our national pride. Then we can all work together through our individual social and cultural networks, to propagate world peace.

New Zealand is quite advanced in cross-cultural acceptance. Apart from the predominant Maori and European cultural groups there is a very large contingent of Pacific Islanders with their own particular cultures. It works well in New Zealand because it must work well there. The alternative would be massive strife.

From my first-hand observation Australia has far less cross-cultural acceptance. That may be because the European people groups heavily outnumber all other ethnic groups, including the Aborigines. Subsequently such an overwhelming majority doesn’t really have a strong incentive to make it work the way that New Zealand does.

There are streaks of elitist attitudes and denigration of other cultures embedded in the cultures of many people groups. These streaks are a serious hindrance to finding peace and must be reformed. For all its lethal faults, political correctness is slicing through established social strata and cultural barricades with total disregard, proving in an obscene sort of way that we are certainly able to tackle this kind of reform. But in this book we go about our quest for world peace with common sense and sensitivity rather than with the raw political correctness frenzy at work now.

  BIBLIOGRAPHY

79. United Nations. UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – United Nations General Assembly resolution 44/25 of 20 November 1989. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). [Online] 20 Nov 1989. [Cited: 18 Jan 2010.] http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/crc.htm.

88. New Zealand Department of Social Welfare. NZDSW Information sheet 0017n/0621n. Wellington : New Zealand Department of Social Welfare, 1988. Information Sheet.

 

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