Bicultural Identity

My bicultural self has been working overtime these last few months and as far as I can tell, it has mostly to do with this year’s US election. I find myself uttering the following a whole lot: “…as a European, I don’t quite understand…” I don’t know why, but this election cycle, more than any other during my 20 years here, has me baffled and a little lost. I am not sure if it is because of the candidates, the topics being discussed, or the fact that much of what I read, see and hear is like a reality show on steroids and not a serious political debate in the tradition of a western democracy. This is not a blog about politics, I promise, it’s just that it has been a long time since I have felt so different from what appears to be mainstream America.

Moreover, it has been a long time since my friends and family back home have sounded so confounded and have asked so many questions about what is going on over here. And it has been a long time since I have had to say, “I don’t know, I don’t have a clue” when responding. Usually I feel comfortable shedding light on cultural phenomena in the US, and for years now I have considered myself fairly fluent in ‘being bicultural’. I have been able to move about competently in both cultures, feeling confident that I understand what is going and that I can express myself appropriately.

Developing a bicultural identity is not something that comes easily. It has taken me a while to balance my Swedish and American selves and function as a whole person in both cultures. For many years for example, I was playing name acrobatics. I wasn’t quite sure if I should Americanize the pronunciation of my name, so sometimes I did and other times not. My mom would always scold me if she was with me when I used the Americanized version of my name. She could not understand why I would want to twist my name to sound more native when to her it was perfectly fine the way it was.

I find it very comforting that my kids, who are all born and raised here, identify very strongly with their Swedish heritage. My oldest even lists my old hometown as her hometown on social media profiles (which is a stretch). As my son has gotten older he has started wondering why we didn’t give him a more Swedish sounding name and all of a sudden he wants to speak Swedish with me (which he never wanted to do as a younger child). I think because they feel so at home here in the US, because they know all the rules for social engagement, having access to this other culture and heritage is a plus to them. It enriches them rather than hampers them. It sets them apart, but it doesn’t place them on the sidelines.Some years ago, I decided to stick to my Swedish pronunciation regardless of where I was on the planet. Maybe I felt immersed enough that I was now comfortable with my foreign sounding name. Some of my long term American friends who have known me by my US pronunciation are a little surprised to hear me say my name in Swedish and they ask me what the deal is. I have no explanation other than that I had been trying to fit in and make life a little easier.

—Felicia Shermis

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