Culture: A need to have an Identity

Recently I moderated a panel for the Hungarian Cultural Association in Columbus, Ohio entitled “Growing up in a Hungarian Household.”  After having spent many years in California feeling sensitive about everyone elses culture amongst my clientele, it felt good to be home, talking about people whom I grew up with.  Culture is very significant in our lives as it gives us unity, people who look out for us, strength, sensitivity, compassion, but most of all identity.  When I look over many groups of people in the US, the most significant factor is having a place to call home amongst your own people.  This has a huge effect on displaced persons, immigrants, and those who find a job away from their families in other states.

Cultural factors need to be soothed in order for them to grow throughout generations.  Once a person enters this country from another, the rituals, customs, beliefs become watered down over time.  This however is dependent on the group.  For instance, in California, the state itself goes out of its way to make it a home for Mexicans.  Everything is bilingual.  There are celebrations for holidays such as Cinco de Mayo.  Many neighborhoods are Latino specific, non-profits that support Spanish Speaking, the architecture, the foods, it would be hard to feel that you are not at home there if you are from a Mexican background.

Jewish people have a very strong support system as well.  I can’t imagine one place I could go in the U.S. that didn’t have a temple or a Jewish non-profit center with resources available.  Sure maybe a very tiny town, but on the metropolitan level, I really doubt it. This is definitely not a watered down culture, especially since it can be seen as both religious and ethnic.  Although from their perspective, perhaps the Orthodox may not agree with me.

Europeans however have been washed away over time due to acculturation and so many countries to choose from.  Here in Ohio, it was once very significant to be Hungarian or German.  Now unfortunately, German Village is really just a place for tourists.  Hungarian Village is a bunch of boarded up houses and low-income housing.   There is no sense of a Magyar ethnicity as their once was when you drive down these streets.  So when we gathered together to speak about their culture, it was an eye-opening experience.  It was a chance to revel in their heritage and feel as if they belonged to something.  It was certainly a humbling experience.

There are differences with cultures and the foods they eat, the region they are from in their country, the language they speak (e.g. Spanish has a different dialect in every Latin country, just as we have here in the U.S. with English), but also the customs they partake in.  So many distinctions yet when they come together as a whole, there is recognition and a sense of belonging.

We all need to belong to something.  In a time where families are becoming more and more separated across the U.S. and half of all marriages fail. Too many children are raised in single parent or divorced parent households and often don’t even know their paternal heritage.  This is not necessarily because the mother is withholding either – she may not know enough about him.  What I saw as a social worker is that when kids found identity through their spirituality or through their ethnicity/culture, they were able to lean on this for strength.  They had an easier time surviving.

So what to do when you don’t belong to something?  First, realize you do.  You may have to dig deep in your family tree.  Ask the elders in your family first. If you are over 40 and no longer have elders, invest (about $30/month) in Ancestry.com and get a tree started.  Find out where your roots lead.  It may take a century or two to get back there, but you will learn where you began.  Most people who don’t know their roots already, will have several groups to choose from.  The longer you are here in  America, the more of a variety you will have.  Start from the strongest network and go and do research on it.

It may take some time but eventually you will find a part of yourself and begin to see some similarities with the people you come from.  If anything at all, you will begin to know your family more than you ever have before.  It helps to go outside oneself and consider that you are a part of many people.  You might have people who came over on the Mayflower, served in the Civil War, or World Wars, you may even be related to someone significant in history.  It will be interesting to do research on this and imagine that you have been shaped into the person you became based on this.

For kids who have been adopted, have no fear.  I am German, Irish and English, not Hungarian.  My stepfather adopted me at the age of five and so I was enmeshed in this culture throughout my life.  Even still, it shaped me into the person I am today.  I can’t ignore this.  The European thought processes are very similar too.  I can fit in with any of the European groups I have hung out with and have an understanding of the mindset.

In fact, the only time I ever feel a loss with any culture is when I can’t speak the language. This is another aspect of culture that we have sorely disregarded in our “Speak English,” only country.  The U.S. born citizens are the only one’s worldwide that are not bilingual.  I have met people with a third grade education who have learned to speak both English as well as their own language.  That is pretty sad (for us).  I highly recommend learning another language in your own growth process too.

Overall, culture is very important to us as individuals and for establishing a group that you know you will always be accepted in and respected in.  As a young adolescent, it can be a place to turn to when your parents are driving you mad, as you try to find yourself.  As an older adult it is useful when you have had to move to another state or even country.  Even if you have remained in the same place, it adds dimension to who you are as a human being.

So…What tribe do you belong to (European, African,  Asian, Native, Mixed, Religious based)?  Where did you come from?  What rituals and customs did you have growing up? If you have been a part of your culture how did this effect you and strengthen you as an individual?  Here is my question on a professional level – I wonder what the statistics are in mental health for those who are very involved in their culture vs. those who have none that they are aware of?  Also, knowing your culture but not preserving it, embracing it, getting involved are two different mindsets.

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