I recently wrote an academic essay on the topic of cultural identity, which is an actual account of my life story (in a way). It’s something that I’ve always wanted to share (and I’m sure many immigrants feel this way) but don’t know how to do it. So here we go.
The highly globalised world economy in recent decades sees an increasing number of people leaving their homelands to immigrate to different parts of the world since the 1990s. (OECD-UNDESA, 2013; United Nations, 2013) It has become only common to see people of different national backgrounds congregating at any random city, usually a developed one. This is a result of technological advancements and increasing opportunities across the globe, where moving from one country or city to another is not only limited to the rich and capable. (Stone, 1997:20; Du, Park & Wang, 2005) Flight tickets are much cheaper these days than decades ago (Thierer, 1998; Hanlon, 2007), and many multinational corporations (MNCs) have set up overseas branches in almost every continent to reach potential markets. (London & Hart, 2004) These are just some reasons to account for the increase in rate of migration around the world. Hence, the issue of cultural identity has become more important and relevant than before, since people who have moved to new countries would have to adapt to their host countries’ cultures and search for a new cultural identity for themselves.
My parents were one of the many immigrants back in the early 1990s, when they decided to move from Shanghai to Tokyo, and eventually to Singapore in search of better job opportunities and a better educational environment for their only child. They were not considered expatriates, but they were not low-skilled workers either; they were just an ordinary couple coming to Singapore to work average-paying jobs that were not popular with the locals back then in hope of a better future for the family. And that was how my bicultural identity started.
This is me at about 3 years old, before moving to Singapore.
As a toddler at the age of three who was obviously ignorant about the idea of immigration, I did not know what kind of life lies ahead of me. I was only told to stop speaking my native language, which is the Wu dialect (commonly known as Shanghainese), and to start learning Mandarin Chinese and English. My parents thought that it was the best way for me to adapt to my new environment, which coincidentally was in line with the Singapore government’s “Speak Mandarin Campaign” then. (Fishman, 1998:31) It was not long before I adapted to my life in Singapore, since I started going to preschool at the same age as my Singaporean counterparts. As languages were taught by local teachers, I could speak the Standard Singapore English (SSE) and the Standard Singapore Mandarin with no hint of a Mainland Chinese accent. I also picked up bits and pieces of colloquial Malay, and Chinese varieties such as Hokkien and Cantonese throughout my school years from my friends. As a result, I could code-switch fluently when I am speaking the Singapore Colloquial English (SCE). This has naturally led me to think I was a Singaporean, or rather to think that my emotional identity was as Singaporean as my native Singaporean friends.
At the infinity pool while celebrating my 21st birthday at the Marina Bay Sands hotel.
However, just when I thought I was comfortable growing up in my host country, I realised I was still not considered a “true” Singaporean to some of the people who have come in contact with me. There are three things that gave me away – my name, my passport, and my parents – of which I was immediately stereotyped as someone whom I did not think I was. Firstly, my given name is a single word. There has been a rising trend in Mainland Chinese parents using single character names for their children (Dai, 2006:1), and so when Singaporean strangers sometimes see my written name on an attendance sheet, I was asked if I was from China even before I could speak a word. Secondly, although I am a permanent resident in Singapore, I still hold on to China’s passport. The passport per se speaks a lot because people, myself included, use nationalities to classify others in general. This has unfortunately caused unwanted stereotypes for me because of the notorious and infamous things that some people of the said nationality had done in Singapore. This includes the China expatriate who crashed his Ferrari and killed a Singaporean taxi driver (Yahoo News Singapore, 2012) and the China family who told an Indian neighbour off for cooking curry (Moore, 2011). Both incidents had therefore led to anti-immigrant uproars, which targeted at the Chinese. Lastly, unlike myself, my parents moved to Singapore in their late twenties. Although they do not speak with strong Mainland Chinese accent, they do not speak with a notable Singaporean accent either. In other words, they do not fit in as much as I do on the surface. They have tried hard to adapt for more than twenty years but they could not acquire SCE as competently as I could since they have passed the sensitive age of second language acquisition. (Flege, Yeni-Komshian & Liu, 1999) With these, I occasionally would face unintentional stereotypes with a hint of prejudice against me, even from my friends. As much as my close Singaporean friends would claim that they see me as one of them, they would still jokingly annoy me when the news report about negative incidents that involve the Mainland Chinese such as those mentioned above. The notion of joking may seem harmless on the surface but deep down, it was questioning my sense of cultural identity and where I actually belong.
Sunset in Shanghai by the Oriental Pearl Tower, 2013.
On the other side, most of my extended family members still live in Shanghai. Whenever I return to pay them a visit, they would only speak to me in Mandarin Chinese, for fear that I would not understand them in the Wu dialect. However in reality, I still do comprehend this Chinese variety, albeit I have become a passive learner over the years. When asked to try conversing in the Wu dialect with my relatives, they would always exclaim how awkward and unnatural I sounded. Instead, they described me to be speaking with a “Singaporean accent” because it is unfamiliar to them. Just from a simple language barrier back in my homeland, I could feel that I do not fit in back in Shanghai as well. To my grandparents, I am raised in Singapore and therefore I do not possess the skills of a local Shanghainese when making transactions at the stores, which were described as aggressive and straightforward. This has again, made me feel slightly unwelcomed because I do not behave like one of them. I do know they still love and accept me like a family member, but they have already assumed that I am no longer a Shanghainese since the day I left for Singapore. To simply put this phenomenon, I do not have a home-country identity.
The issue of cultural identity is tricky, because there is no right or wrong to it, but only how one truly feels about himself/herself. Many developed cities, usually those with a relatively high population of foreigners, are described to be cosmopolitan. This supposedly meant that the people living in cosmopolitan cities have a high tolerance of foreigners’ behaviours in general because they are aware of the vastly different cultures that are present in this world. (Young, Diep & Drabble, 2006:1688) However, due to the nature of ethnocentrism, there will always be people who feel more superior just because they are born in that particular place. The recent rise in xenophobia among Singaporeans (Tai, 2014), especially towards people from Mainland China as a result of those sensitive incidents (Suhartono, 2011), has caused uneasiness for immigrants like me who have already developed a certain sense of patriotism for the host country. The dilemma of which ‘side’ to fend for always tears an immigrant apart because of his/her hybrid identity.
Until today, I am still in the process of creating a cultural identity for myself. Quoting the Pulitzer-winning writer in Newsweek magazine, Jhumpa Lahiri (2006), “Like many immigrant offspring I felt intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new, approved of on either side of the hyphen.” I have come to terms that I do not belong to a specific country, and I should embrace both cultures as equally as I could. In addition, I have to admit that I am fortunate enough to immigrate to a country where my ethnicity is not a minority. There are many people elsewhere who are facing more serious identity crisis such as those who moved from Asia to Western countries (Benet-Martínez, Leu, Lee & Morris, 2002), and even third culture kids (TCK) who are always moving around the world. (Fail, Thompson & Walker, 2004:321) With these, I can only hope for more and more people to see themselves as citizens of the world so as to eradicate hatred and intolerance for cultures they deem inferior or wrong, and be more sensitive towards others. This would definitely help people like myself to feel better at all the homes we have had, or are going to have.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Benet-Martínez, V., Leu, J., Lee, F., & Morris, M. W. (2002). Negotiating biculturalism cultural frame switching in biculturals with oppositIonal versus compatible cultural identities. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 33(5), 492-516.
Dai, L. (2006). Indexing personal names. Indexer, 25(2).
Du, Y., Park, A., & Wang, S. (2005). Migration and rural poverty in China.Journal of comparative economics, 33(4), 688-709.
Fail, H., Thompson, J., & Walker, G. (2004). Belonging, identity and Third Culture Kids Life histories of former international school students. Journal of Research in International Education, 3(3), 319-338.
Fishman, J. A. (1998). The new linguistic order. Foreign policy, 26-40.
Flege, J. E., Yeni-Komshian, G. H., & Liu, S. (1999). Age constraints on second-language acquisition. Journal of memory and language, 41(1), 78-104.
Hanlon, J. P. (2007). Global airlines: competition in a transnational industry. Routledge.
Lahiri, J. (2006). My Two Lives. Newsweek. Retrieved October 11, 2014, from https://www.artsrn.ualberta.ca/sslemon/engl315/lahiri001.pdf
London, T., & Hart, S. L. (2004). Reinventing strategies for emerging markets: beyond the transnational model. Journal of international business studies,35(5), 350-370.
Moore, M. (2011). Singapore’s ‘anti-Chinese curry war’. The Telegraph UK. Retrieved October 10, 2014, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/singapore/8704107/Singapores-anti-Chinese-curry-war.html
OECD-UNDESA (2013). World Migration in Figures. Retrieved October 9, 2014, from http://www.oecd.org/els/mig/World-Migration-in-Figures.pdf
Suhartono, H. (2011). Singaporeans’ culinary anti-immigration protest: curry. Reuters US. Retrieved October 10, 2014, from http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/08/22/uk-singapore-curry-idUSLNE77L01020110822
Stone, G. C. (1997). Interdependence in Dewey’s Theory of Community.Individual and Collective Contributions Toward Humaneness in Our Time, 19-39.
Tai, J. (2014). Concerns raised over racism and xenophobia. AsiaOne Singapore. Retrieved October 11, 2014, from http://news.asiaone.com/news/singapore/concerns-raised-over-racism-and-xenophobia
Thierer, A. D. (1998). 20th anniversary of airline deregulation: cause for celebration, not reregulation. The Heritage Foundation.
United Nations (2013). International Migration Report 2013. Retrieved October 9, 2014, from http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/pdf/migration/migrationreport2013/Full_Document_final.pdf
Yahoo News Singapore (2012). Ferrari crash fuels Singapore anti-foreign sentiment. Retrieved October 10, 2014, from https://sg.news.yahoo.com/ferrari-crash-fuels-singapore-anti-foreign-sentiment-193659157.html
Young, C., Diep, M., & Drabble, S. (2006). Living with difference? The’cosmopolitan city’and urban reimaging in Manchester, UK. Urban Studies,43(10), 1687-1714.
Post written by François Grosjean.
Biculturals take part, to varying degrees, in the life of two or more cultures. They adapt their attitudes, behaviors, and values to these cultures and they combine and blend aspects of the cultures involved (see here).
It has long been known that there are many advantages to being bicultural such as having a greater number of social networks, being aware of cultural differences, taking part in the life of two or more cultures, being an intermediary between cultures, and so on. Recent research shows that biculturals are also characterized by greater creativity and professional success.
In a recent paper, comprising three studies, researchers Carmit Tadmor, Adam Galinsky and William Maddux compared the results of bicultural participants to those who were not bicultural. In the first study, MBA students at a large business school in Europe who had lived abroad for an average of four years were given a creative uses task. They were shown the picture of a brick and were given two minutes to write down as many creative uses of it as they could think of. When three components of creativity were examined, the biculturals exhibited more fluency (they generated more ideas), more flexibility (they generated a greater number of ideas), and more novelty (they were more creative in their suggestions).
In a second study, the researchers examined how biculturalism affects real-world innovations in a group of MBA students at a business school in the United States. Here again the participants had lived abroad and came from different countries of origin. The study examined how many new businesses the participants had started, how many novel products or services they had invented, and how many breakthrough process innovations they had created. Biculturals once again did better than the other participants.
Finally, in a third study, the question asked was whether being bicultural leads to professional success (as measured by the rate of managerial advancement), and to an increase in managerial reputation (as judged by peers). This time, the group of participants were Israeli professionals in the United States who had worked on the West Coast, primarily in Silicon Valley, for slightly more than eight years on average. What was found is that biculturals achieved higher promotion rate and had more positive reputations than those who were not bicultural.
The authors of the study explained this enhanced creativity and professional success in biculturals by means of a psychological mechanism, integrative complexity, which is the capacity and willingness to acknowledge the legitimacy of competing perspectives on the same issue, on the one hand, and the ability to forge conceptual links among these perspectives, on the other. It is a capacity that involves considering and combining multiple perspectives.
According to the authors, biculturals have an enhanced ability to carefully weigh the merits of alternative perspectives. They view things from these different perspectives and integrate them into a coherent whole. They also recombine different existing ideas to make novel connections between concepts.
The enhanced integrative complexity that biculturals show has implications for a number of tasks such as effective information search, greater tolerance for ambiguous information, less susceptibility to information overload, and so on.
As a bicultural myself, and always interested in pursuing alternative perspectives, I wrote to the senior author of the paper, Dr. Carmit Tadmor of Tel Aviv University, to enquire whether one can't develop integrative complexity by remaining monocultural. I felt I had experienced one way of doing so in my English school during my youth by taking part in the debates that took place once a week. We were given the task of defending or opposing a particular position without being able to choose the side we were on. Thus we often spoke in favor of a point of view that was not ours and hence we were forced to see both sides of an issue.
Carmit Tadmor replied that you can indeed achieve higher levels of integrative complexity in a number of ways such as the one I had mentioned to her, among many others. Biculturalism is one such way but not the only way. I came away from our exchange, feeling relieved for monoculturals and happy for biculturals–an optimal best-of-both-worlds situation!
Photo of a group of students from Shutterstock.
Carmit T. Tadmor, Adam D. Galinsky & William W. Maddux (2012). Getting the most out of living abroad: Biculturalism and integrative complexity as key drivers of creative and professional success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 3, 520-542.
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