Monday, July 23, 2012

Born Into The Cultural Divide

By Heidi Noroozy

As the child of a German immigrant mother and an American father who grew up in an ethnic Swiss community in Boston, cultural roots have always been a fascinating subject for me. How much does the culture of a person’s childhood shape attitudes later in life? Quite a lot, I think.

Growing up, I always had a keen sense of my German-Swiss heritage, reinforced by trips to visit relatives in Germany and holidays at my Swiss-American aunt’s house in Boston. Her home always felt more European than American, with its small rooms crammed with heavy furniture, lace antimacassars on the backs of chairs, and letters she’d read aloud to me from Swiss cousins, translating as she went along.

Although English, not German, was the language spoken in our home, learning German came easily to me when I studied it in high school and college. That’s what “mother tongue” really means, I thought. The language was in my blood.

It wasn’t until years later when I moved to Germany for a while that I realized just how American I really am. The way people thought and interacted with each other did not come as naturally to me as the language had. The formality of social interactions and the obsession with rules and Ordnung (order) irritated me at times—not to mention those little old ladies with sharp umbrellas who liked to butt in line at the grocery store. To this day, I’m still never sure at what point in a relationship one moves from the formal you (Sie) of an acquaintance to the informal one (Du) of a friend.

Some years ago, a conversation with an Iranian friend confirmed my belief that we are shaped by the culture we grow up in. My friend was born in Tehran but moved to California with her family when she was just a year old. On a trip to Iran as a teenager, she discovered just how American she was. “Everyone expected me to know exactly how to behave,” she complained. “But I was clueless.” She found the experience quite disconcerting.

But then, on my most recent trip to Iran, a new acquaintance poked a big hole in my theory. At a dinner party in Tehran, I met a woman who’d been born in Iran and moved to the States at the age of 17. When I met her, she was back in her home town visiting relatives and confessed to feeling disconcerted when people treated her like a foreigner. “Everyone can tell I’m not from here,” she said. “Taxi drivers, shop keepers, bank tellers—they all ask me where I’m from, and they don’t mean what part of Iran.” Okay, maybe this issue is more complicated than it seems.

As a writer, the question of cultural identity fascinates me so much that I’ve been exploring it in the fictional life of a bicultural woman who was born in Tehran and grew up in California. I constantly ask myself how she’d feel in one situation or another. Is she more Iranian or more American? How does she juggle the expectations imposed by one culture with her need to make a life for herself in another? And what will happen if I send her back to the country of her birth after spending half her life in another culture?

While I still believe that our original culture has the biggest influence in shaping who we are, I think that every new culture we experience more than just in passing also leaves its mark. So what does that make me? An American with German, Swiss, and Iranian layers.

What about you? Did you grow up in more than one culture, or have you lived in another country? If so, how has it changed the way you view your own identity?


  1. I have often asked my self the same question, Heidi and realize no matter how we might think we are really connected to our ancestral roots, the truth is we are just a stranger in a strange land. Back in 1980 I made a pilgrimage to visit the homeland where my mother grew up in southern Poland.
    My mother told me so many stories of her childhood , the landscape and old buildings that I was very excited to experience this with my own eyes. But there was also a more important reason for my trip. At the time I was excited about learning to play a very rare type of Polish bagpipes made from the body of big white goat ! This fascination brought me an invitation to come to Poland and not only learn about the folk culture but share my own musical talents in a grand festival called the Festival of The World. It was not easy as I did not know the language. Despite this handicap through the generosity and patients of the Polish people I was able to begin my musical odyssey . A few years later I received a fellowship to live in Poland in a traditional village and learn from the old masters. By this time I did take the time to learn some basic Polish language skills , but was pretty much a “greenhorn” when it came to social skills . Once again the people accepted me and welcomed me into their community . While I lived there there were many times when I thought I was I was fitting in and was just like every one else and then a little misunderstanding of a word or phrase made me run back into the safety of my room. The longer I lived there, the more I wanted to fit in, but it was no use I was an American and would never be able to be one of them. In the end I came to accept this and embrace it! Yes, I am from the USA but I still can share my travels to other lands with my own people .

  2. I love that story, Rik! Thanks for sharing it. I've known a few people who seem to fit right into a culture they weren't born into. It's as if they were born in the wrong place and then found their true home later. But that's pretty rare, I think.