If I answered, “I am from Palermo” I feel I have cheated, while if I entered into a more complicate and lengthy discourse I feel I am being conceited. To me ‘where are you from’ implies the belonging to a certain cultural identity and I haven’t got a one-word answer to that. Using this essay I intend to reflect on the make-up of my cultural identity, touching also on some contrasts between my self-identity and social identity. The word limits and the ongoing development of my personality dump my ambition to reach a conclusion, but I welcome the opportunity to share my frustration and privileges in a literary articulated approach.
At the age of eighteen with a Sicilian cultural background and an identity fashioned by close family’s ties, machismo and an imposed Catholicism, I landed in London alone. Since then – for the past 14 years – I have lived in the UK, Brazil, Northern Italy, South Africa and Indonesia. What is critical in travelling is the focus on differences between ‘home’ and the ‘rest’. In every new place I lived and every new situation I entered I took with me my ‘history’, which – like a backpack of silent memories – influenced the way I interacted with people.
Every event changed me to a tiny extent, and now, the sum gives me the psychological impression that ‘I don’t belong anywhere’. Althusser on his interpellation-theory once said, “we recognize ourselves to be, and therefore respond when called” (Fiske, 1990,175). I can only apply this theory to a certain extent. My identity is made of many elements each needing acknowledgement; yet none is predominant to the point of comfort. My cultural identity is within two to three nationalities and not entirely in any of them.
I have lost ‘clear and unequivocal cultural reference points’ with the consequence that – now – my identity is largely constitutes through the process of ‘othering’ and I find easier to say I am not entirely this or that, than to say I am this or that. Home (Palermo) presents the biggest cultural shock. The ‘obviousness’ of life as it had seemed to me is now questionable, and what used to be familiar is now like that anymore. Family and friends are forced to change the way they interact with me to accommodate my ‘changed identity’. I am not longer a local; I am the ‘other’ in my own home, just like I am the ‘other’ everywhere else I live.
My dress code has gone from strictly Italian to an international mixture often deemed of dubious taste. My food preferences have shifted and my choices are now often frowned upon. I have lost my accent and with it another tangible cultural trait. Under the pressure of other means of comparison, my attitude to sex, religion and politics have also changed. However, if I had to pick-up a single element that best highlights the transformation between who I was, and what I am becoming I have to say ‘ languages’. The ability to communicate in a new language implies the assimilation of different cultural traits.
In fact it isn’t enough to be fluent in a specific language; you need to feel it, to understand the humour, the proverbs, to dream in it… After few years in London I started struggling to find words in my mother tongue, but I couldn’t still articulated – as I would have liked – in English. Then one day I found myself in need to speak neither Italian nor English but Portuguese. With time the borders between languages became thinner and thinner and my multi-languages skill turned into the mirror of my cultural make-up and multi-facets identity.
I express my musicality best in Portuguese, my feelings in Italian and my logical-thought-process in English. Languages are rooted in my past – through memories – and in my present – through my work. Memories created before the age of 17 are best recalled in Italian and seem to be dug out of a different personality. Recalling certain situation I laugh, because ‘that situation’ is based on an Italian cultural environment and a part of my self-identity relates to its concept of ‘funny’. The same situation in Cape Town would not be deemed amusing.
Furthermore, the British dry sense of humour is miss-understood in Italy, Brazil and Indonesia, but having lived here, I can relate to it and appreciate its subtleties. The concept of ‘memory’ is important in forming one’s identity and deserves more attention. Philosophers have long being debating about it: according to Locke, self-identity and memory are intertwined; paraphrasing him ‘self-identity exist as a being sum of its past memories, or more accurately the being consciousness of its memories’ (http://mbdefault. org). I agree to a point, in fact often these memories are not consciously remembered; they are like a knee-jerk movement.
I feel more comfortable with the definition given by the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga who suggested that “human beings have an interpreter located specifically in the left brain, whose job is to string together our experience into narrative that seem to make sense. In short we all have a novelist in our head, called memory that continuously redraft the story we call my life” (Ash, Guardian Review). My travelling has increased the need ‘to string together my experience into a narrative’, which in itself can be regarded as an introspective-subjective-journey.
My diary, reflections, articles and shorts stories have become the mirror of my evolving personality and the best taster of my becoming self-identity. Giddens theory supports my belief; he says that ‘self-identity is the self as reflexively understood by the person in terms of his biography’ (Barker, 2000, 167). Writing takes me to my present and to my profession. Words and my multiculturalism are what I sell. Currently I contribute to the Jakarta Post (Indonesian broadsheet) Nirvana (Indonesian travel magazine) Island Life (Singaporean lifestyle magazine) and Index On Censorship (English Human Rights Magazine).
While I write in English, the style, content and angle is culture specific. The psychological Rorschach’s test is instrumental in demonstrating the importance of cultural differences; it shows that people from different cultural environment tend to visualize different images from the same picture. On these base it is my mixed cultural identity that allows me ‘to feel the pulse’ of the readership and ‘to see what they visualize’ in a specific place, at a specific time. I could never write for any Indonesian publications hadn’t I digested some traits of their cultural identity.
It is a privilege to be able to convert my socio-cultural capital into economical capital and one achievable merely thanks to a shift in world economy priorities – quoting Rifkin: ‘from making things to making experiences’. In this framework Rifkin argues that ‘our society is full of people whose identity is defined less by tangible work and products and material possession and more on how many vivid experiences and relationships they have access to’ (Rifkin, 2000, 198). In this context, my self-identity finds a space, a justification and a realization.
But coming to terms whit ‘who I am’, has been a long-winded road, during which I often sought guidance and comfort in literature. Jack Kerouac in On the Road deals with the joy of finding one’s own self-identity through judging each encounter against his personality. A frustration he encounters is the difficulties in overcoming the racial divider. I can relate to that. Sameness gives a sense of security and – often – people identify more with their social identity than they do with their self-identity. In this case race is the first medium of identification.
Another good example is Tony Wedemeyer a white Jamaican from German origin, who clearly underlines the weight of race in his culture: ‘in my language there are 17 different skin colours gradation, each with a name and for the barer a destiny already written’ (Orizio, 2000, 59). In my experience I found that the construction of general stereotyping is particularly strong when applied to the notion of race. Having a different skin colour means being ‘the other’ and being invested with all the qualities of the bad or the good this implies.
I was always given the attributes that go with the general idea of white Italian, and only sometime given my merits and faults as an individual. I was believed to be rich and educated in Brazil and Indonesia – regardless of my real socio-economical status -, a womaniser in England, a light-head in Italy and so on. But race isn’t the only element of identification for people. Religion, social ranks and sexuality are others. Abiding by social identities – above my self-identity – has often reacquired an effort on my part, yet it turned out to be a necessity in order to integrate.
The result is acting ‘on my part’ (aimed at looking like them, talking like them, eating like them) and less work and understanding ‘on their part’ (because all they have got is what I show them). But who they think I am is only a social mask I wear. Pirandello’ s novels ‘Il fu Mattia Pascal’ and ‘one, nobody and a thousand’ are emblematic in demonstrating this self/social identities struggle. His work should be compulsory reading for everybody. But as I had said at the beginning, the struggle between ‘interior and exterior’ and/or ‘self and others’ is not going to be resolved with this essay.
Also I realize that in this postmodern society the perception of ‘not belonging’ is not a prerogative of mine but, a very widespread feeling, to which there isn’t a ‘one-fits-all-solution’. In general, for my part I have stopped approaching the question of identity from the point of view of origin, something that is given or an already accomplished fact but I have learnt to look at it as a never-complete product. With this in mind I have overcome some of the frustration of being ‘misunderstood’. As far as ‘self versus social identities’ goes, I have to mention that – paradoxically – virtual space has offered me ground for coherence.
Where usually other people experiment with different personality, I feel free to manifest the kaleidoscope of my identity. Internet allows me to be who I am, regardless of the social conventions that bound my interlocutors. In writing to my friends all over the world – often with group e-mails – I feel relieved from the need to oblige with each and every perception they might have of me. Sadly, This convergence disappears as soon as I meet them and their specific ‘territory social conventions’ demand from me behaviour adjustments.