Disclaimer: None of the contents of this piece are meant to offend or imply things about a certain group of people.
Cultural identity is overlooked by the daily hustle of the working individual. While one might not realise at an immediate glance, your cultural identity has some part to play in where you work, how you get to work, and how you drink your coffee at work. From art to food and language – discovering one’s cultural identity is eye-opening for many. In an interview with Tímea Koppandi, we learn about how language, location and her interactions with a variety of different cultures helped her discover her own cultural identity.
AD: How do you define cultural identity?
TK: It is such a difficult and intrinsic journey, understanding what specifically your cultural identity consists of, or where it is coming from. Because of this, I don’t think I can offer a definition of what cultural identity is, in terms of concept and theory. However, I think that we often choose to identify ourselves with moments of our lives that represent us. For me, that cultural identity belongs in the stories that I grew up with, in the landscape that I have seen ever since I was a child, and in many more traditions and thoughts that I have noticed around me. I grew up in a beautiful place which has taught me so much about life, however there has always been an element of alienation that I have felt about myself and from the space that I was inhabiting. At that point I didn’t think too much of it, but moving away from where I grew up, made me realise that the reason why I was feeling like that was partly because I inhabit two cultures at the same time. Even explaining my heritage becomes a difficult task. I was born in Brasov, and I am half Székely (an ethnic Hungarian minority) and half Romanian. I think those two aspects are the more substantial parts of my cultural identity.
AD: From that definition, what would you say your cultural identity comprises of?
TK: I have realised that I’m most responsive to experiences stuck in the past. I am a very nostalgic person, and the beauty that I see in my city is almost entirely due to the history that it has. I think there is something so beautiful in the culture that the people of my city have cultivated, from the very beginning of its existence. However, if the majority of things which form this cultural identity that we’re discussing of, is formed by elements of the past, then how can that constitute a current cultural identity? Perhaps this is what has made me feel so alienated, and because of that, I still don’t have a full answer to that question.
AD: Would you say that your movement from Romania to the UK has affected what your cultural identity was?
TK: If anything, it made me realise why I don’t feel like I belong there, and it also gave me closure that it truly is okay not to wanting to belong somewhere. I usually don’t like talking about my life here when I go home, and I think the fact that most of the things that I can relate to at a certain level are in the past, I feel alienated from most discussions. For me, there is a level of comfort in the thought that I am not chained somewhere, but I have the freedom to belong anywhere or nowhere. I really love the fact that I have that choice.
AD: What are some of the attributes of your individual cultures (Romanian, UK/English, Hungarian) that you think most contribute to your current cultural identity?
TK: I think there are certain elements which are most noticeable in the way I do certain things. For example, I don’t like wearing shoes inside my room and I usually wear home slippers. This is just one of the many small things which stuck with me. Sometimes, I have also absorbed opinions, thought processes and other apsects of social cultures from the area that I grew up in, which I feel does become part of my cultural identity.
AD: How has language - a part of your cultural identity - affected your experience here and where you’ve grown up?
TK: Language has never represented a signifier of my cultural identity to me. I have always used it as way of expressing myself and my feelings, and I have chosen the one that made me the most comfortable in doing so. I have always had a fascination with the sound of the English language. Even though it is not the most complex, or the one that has the most extensive vocabulary, it’s the language that understands me the most. Although there are many other languages which I admire for very different things, the English language helped me understand myself greatly; much more than any other language I speak (I speak 4!).
To answer your question, I think one of the most restrictive experiences that I have ever had in relation to language, is knowing that I shouldn’t really speak Hungarian in a mainly Romanian environment. Because of the previous conflicts between the two nations, a mutual hesitance and sometimes even hatred has formed between the two. It was always difficult for me to understand that I could never indulge in both cultures equally and be accepted. Which is partly the reason why I moved. I think the saddest part is that this conflict and the oppression that comes with it has become normal for me, and I have been able to see the full picture only when I moved away. It is an issue which both parties ignore and try to move forward from without discussion; or at least that’s how I see it. It is a complicated situation and I was tired to be part of a narrative that trapped me in a place of cultural dilution and exchange: I felt like I needed to give up one for the other to be able to fit in. When I grew up mentalities felt rigid and conservative. I don’t know how things are now, but I am hoping they are for the better.
AD: Do you think cultural identity should be seen as multi-faceted?
TK: From how I look at it, the only way you can view cultural identity is as a multi-faceted aspect of an individual. Culture is fluid, relative and it travels with you. I like to look at identity as a bag, and at cultures as things that you put in the bag. There is nothing wrong with having more than just one thing in your bag. More than that, you have so many overlapping elements when talking about culture, I really think it’s inevitable to have only one perfectly encased, which has not been influenced or didn’t borrow any aspects from any other culture in the world.
Foreword and Questions by Amitesh Das. Written by Tímea Koppándi.