Saturday, June 11, 2011

How not to lose your identity while still respecting the culture

Actually if you want to know the truth, it is impossible.  Living abroad changes people. The ones who change the least are ex-pats who have a lot of money and who tend to form a mini America around them.  Peace Corps volunteers though enter a country with open arms and with a desire to integrate into the community.  Their mannerisms change.  Their values change.  Their reactions to situations change, even their language changes.  Is there a middle ground?  Is there a way to be your American self while also becoming part Chinese?
For the past five years, I have been struggling to find the answer to the question how do I maintain my American identity, while integrating and changing to fit my environment.  Have I found an answer?  Not really.  After three years in China, I kind of hate the person I have become.  Well maybe hate is too strong of a word.  I sometimes miss the American me.  I feel like I have lost much of who I was in America, parts of me that I really like.  My American self has been censored so hard that parts of it have disappeared.  It has been replaced by a split personality of an American who hates hiding but does so to become the ideal friendly foreigner, never completely Chinese, but also never completely American.
If China is like a parent, and you want to be the good little child who is loved and accepted, you change to respect your parents.  You change to fit China's expectations or you become the ugly rebellious American teenager trying to push as many boundaries to become your own independent person.  Chinese teenagers often don't rebel and keep their complaints to themselves while secretly wanting a different path.  As good children, they follow their parents' expectations.
China is our parent.  When we first enter the country, the pressure of responsibility is not heavy.  We are like babies exploring the world around us learning how to eat, how to be polite, how to say thank you, but as we graduate from Peace Corps school, we enter the real world.  We are thrown into situations that make our American hearts cringe, get angry, frustrated, and isolated but as good little Chinese children, we swallow our reactions and become a responsible Chinese citizen saving face, creating guanxi (a social network of relationships that help each other), accepting Chinese values, and doing our best to create a harmonious society.  As months turn into two years, no longer do our American values scream at us in frustration.  Like our new found Chinese friends we just accept the world around us and endure it.
After three years in China, I don't try to change the world around me.  Instead I change to fit into my community complaining under my breath feeling the hopelessness of the situation, but just accepting that this is the way it works in China.  I no longer am an American who feels like I can control my environment and my future.  My identity and values have changed.  It is the guanxi you have and the people in higher positions who control a person's environment and future.  No longer do I expect to know the exact date of finals, the exact date of end of classes.  No longer am I surprised when someone tells me that they need this document or these photos immediately.  No longer am I shocked when I enter an empty classroom because everyone forgot to tell the foreign teacher that class was cancelled for a school wide event.  No longer do I fight cheating or students who lie.  No longer do I see the point of failing students since eventually they all pass.
Am I happy that I have changed?  The thing is, if you don't change, you will miserable.  As a guest in China, is it my role to fight the system?  No.  I learn to live with it however I can.  I also have evolved to be able to explain why people are thinking and doing things in a different way.  It becomes easier to accept rather than becoming frustrated and judgmental.  Well, actually I probably still become frustrated but have learnt coping mechanisms like how to rant to a compassionate ear and how to let go faster.
Not only do I change, the people I meet and interact with- my students, the leaders, the locals- also change and learn about Americans.  Maybe not as much as I learn about the culture I am living in, but they learn what kinds of things make me happy and what kinds of things disappoint me.  My students know that I hate it when they plagiarize and cheat and even if they don't stop doing it, they still know that I am unhappy about it.  Leaders learn that Americans like knowing in advance as I joke and smile asking every single day, is there a holiday next weekend?  Even though they don't know if there is a holiday, they learn that Americans like schedules and being able to plan in advance. 
Through our interactions we learn about each other.  To have an exchange of cultural differences, I must remain vocal about my values but never demand or force change.  When deal breakers arise, I respectfully decline and remove myself from the situation, but it is not my role to force others to change.  I am not an ethnocentric volunteer with the attitude- my way or the highway.  I remain American by communicating my needs and values, by discussing with understanding local friends my confusion and frustrations, and by asking questions to find ways to interact within the cultural norms to meet my needs.
My biggest challenge is being the ideal foreigner.  Just like how our Chinese students hide their boyfriends and girlfriends from their parents because it will be frowned upon, I hide many things from China.  China knows me as a friendly, conservative, outgoing, energetic foreign teacher.  My students think Lady Gaga is super weird and greatly dislike her.  What if my American identity was similar to Lady Gaga's?  In order to be accepted and loved, I have to hide her hating every second of it wishing that people could accept me for who I really am.  I feel like I am forming false friendships based on only half of my personality, friendships that allow me to explore the culture, but friendships that don't stimulate my other personality, my weirdness and curiosity for unanswerable questions.  The question is do I really have to hide the parts of me that I assume wouldn't be accepted by China? 
How do I not lose part of my identity while still being accepted and respected by the culture?  I have spent five years abroad.  What has my overseas experience taught me about this question?  Human beings tend to be judgmental.  They tend either to accept with respect or outcast by avoidance based on what they believe is a good or a bad person.  Also, people are open to learning about different people and are open to accepting differences.  There are sometimes characteristics that are deal breakers and other characteristics that may be different from the majority but are still accepted.
In order to be accepted and respected by a culture, I must know the cultural norms, what things are deal breakers and what things even if they are different will be accepted.  For example, I have boyish short hair that many Chinese barber shops will refuse to cut because they feel it will not be beautiful.  It is not a cultural norm for women my age to have short boyish hair, yet I still wear this hairstyle and have not lost respect.  Instead students feel it is cool.  My haircut is not a deal breaker, but what if I dyed it pink or blue?  I also wear ethnic clothes and pants with Chinese dresses.  People find it weird, and students from other departments often stare and giggle under their breaths.  I can handle this attention without any problem and therefore still wear the fashion I like.  If it started getting on my nerves then maybe I'd go more mainstream because of the peer pressure.  There are some characteristics that I hide though because I am not exactly sure if they are deal breakers that would lead to being an outcast.  I am not willing to risk losing the respect of my community to reveal all of my identity and so I lose part of my identity by burying it.
In Africa I even lied about my identity, saying that I had a fiancée/husband.  I preferred losing my identity as a single independent woman rather than fight off a line of suitors, future husbands.  In the heat of the noon sun it was worth sweating buckets to wear a head wrap and dress in long sleeves like a married woman rather than to be harassed by male strangers.  I gave up parts of my identity and my freedom to wear whatever I wanted to survive more peacefully and less frustrated in Africa.
Sometimes I feel like I have given up and hidden too much of my identity and feel like it is impossible not to lose oneself when trying to respect the culture.  The thing is I have had an extremely successful Peace Corps service teaching, starting and completing projects, learning about culture while teaching about my own and being respected by community members.  Finding the best personal compromise, I was able to find a balance between my American identity and the identity I form as I integrate into a community.  During times when I feel like I have lost too much of myself, I must remember all that I have gained by being open to change, by evolving into a different identity, and by keeping secrets.

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