*The cover photo was taken by the talented Léa
Long before I thought about my own cultural identity, I was telling myself that three simple facts could define me: my first name, my age, and my nationality. Then, growing up and traveling mainly, I realized that other, much more significant features could also characterize me, although putting words or theoretical terms which, such as “cultural frameworks” or “small cultures” on all this, does not really help to understand the complexity of this issue.
I had to leave, travel a little to understand something: I am constantly changing, I open my eyes to the world and I confront my opinions, which transforms my identity. Traveling and becoming more adult, has taught me that you cannot be associated with one feature only. I am still Alessandra (although few people call me that, but rather Aless or Ale) and still Swiss, my age differs over the years as does my identity. It’s not something that is anchored or stabilized. Over time, it changes.
I see my identity as wave movements with a base that does not move: Alessandra, an age, from Switzerland. It is not linear; my identity goes up and down, it changes, refines itself, and even sometimes forgets itself to end up finishing its “fight” on the shore; this represents what others and what I perceive of myself, while not seeing the complex mechanism that is played behind our perceptions. Defining oneself and understanding one’s culture is a difficult but equally interesting task. It is a challenge that evolves over time but fails to address all the subtleties of our identity.
I move between a patchwork of different “small cultures” (Holliday, 1999). I do not belong to one broad culture, but rather to several according to Holliday’s work. They are not particularly interconnected, and I recognize that there are many factors that impact how I construct my identity, but the boundaries between them are blurred. Therefore, in the end, to facilitate interactions, I might simply introduce myself as Alessandra, although if you dig deeper, you can discover that I am a football fanatic, have played basketball, love reading, hiking in the mountains, esotericism, and can lose track of time by talking with any animal I meet. Among other things.
Thus, my identity is something that always accompanies me but might change from one context to another and that has been shaped by my experiences, whether good or bad they were.
Moreover, I cannot leave out that my cultural identity is shaped by my country of origin as well. If we look at the three facts that characterize me, I mention my nationality. Being part of a nation like Switzerland can be an invaluable source of identity and belonging, though I do not recognize myself in a national culture described by Hofstede (1980). The population of a nation is different in many ways, but he states that we share the same and unique culture within a country (McSweeney, 2002), which in my opinion, concerning Switzerland, is wrong since I can face something rather paradoxical: I might feel like a total foreigner in my country. Indeed, what I love the most about Switzerland is also what is hard sometimes to handle: its diversity. Switzerland is not just one nation, but many for me. It is a multicultural and multilingual country and I believe I could be perceived in the same way. If we speak in terms of cliché, the risks of misunderstanding are greater than snowfall in the mountains, since, with four national languages, it is enough to sometimes make me feel as if I am in another dimension, and this in my own country, although I speak fluent Italian and cope with German; this is because we do not share the same identity, nor the same cultures.
I can’t deny that this is where I belong, where I feel most at home. Home, of course, does not mean a particular place; it is a state of mind, a spiritual place for me. It doesn’t mean that I choose Switzerland because I am accidentally Swiss. It’s just that I feel very deeply that snow-capped mountains, sparkling lakes, and even delicious Swiss cheese are part of who I am.
Switzerland does not entirely define me, yet I am proud to call this country “home”. While traveling, I have also felt this sense of belonging in other places. For example, I have been lucky enough to travel to Berlin almost every year and live there for over a month. Edinburgh, thanks to my university exchange, has also won me over. I can say that I love the Scottish capital, that it has shaped my personality and my identity, and that one day I will go back there.
Those situations may provide me with an opportunity to sense in my bones that culture cannot be just classifications as Hofstede’s (2001) study states, but that my perception is rationally focused on Holliday’s (2010) approach which highlights a wide range of cultural realities collected around personal life trajectories.
Finally, this leaves me with the simple but rather complicated question: Who am I? In the end, I might admit that the answer still escapes me in its entirety, even though I am starting to recognize my own cultural identity. This requires a continuous and often unconscious questioning of what defines someone. A path of identity, where one must also lose oneself.
Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Holliday, A. (1999). Small cultures. Applied linguistics. 20(2), pp. 237-264.
Holliday, A. (2010). Complexity in cultural identity. Language and Intercultural Communication. 10:2, pp. 165-177. DOI : 10.1080/14708470903267384
McSweeney, B. (2002). Hofstede’s model of national cultural differences and their consequences: A triumph of faith – a failure of analysis. Human Relations, 55(1), pp. 89-118.