Ask Sahaj: I worry my community judges me for ‘acting like a White girl’ – Lifotravel



Dear Sahaj: I’m a child of immigrants from Hong Kong, raised in a community which included many people who are of a similar background. However, my interests, whether it be food or music or whatnot, don’t seem to “match up” with what’s expected of me. In fact, everyone seems to expect that I’m at least somewhat knowledgeable about my ancestral cuisine. Thus, I feel very self-conscious around people of my ancestral culture, worrying that I’ll be judged for “acting like a White girl.” How can I overcome this?

Anonymous: It sounds like you need to heal from something deeper than you let on: an innate sense of shame for feeling like you are not “enough” as the child of immigrants from Hong Kong. Existing between two contrasting cultures — American and Hong Kong — is creating an inconsistent sense of self. In short, you don’t seem to feel entitled to your culture because you aren’t acting, behaving or representing it in ways you think others expect of you.

Feeling inadequate is a common response to biculturalism, or straddling two cultures.

In fact, self-esteem levels can depend on how well we feel we fulfill the values of our culture. For example, if your heritage culture is inherently group-oriented or collectivist, you may be more likely to experience shame for not embracing the culture as wholly as others around you. This can make you feel like you are betraying your community — or are worthy of judgment — when your tastes don’t match up. But it’s okay that your values or tastes are different.

Reflect on your past experiences with your identity and how these reinforce a narrative that you aren’t culturally enough. What created your fear of judgment? Were you bullied? When do you feel embarrassed of identifying with your heritage or host culture? Many people I have worked with, like you, who straddle two or more cultures often also straddle feeling pride and shame. Think about positive experiences you’ve had with your heritage; this may inspire you to feel more confident in who you are.

I’m curious who the “everyone” is in your letter. Whose cultural definitions and expectations are you living by? Whom are you seeking validation from? When you consider who you are trying to appease, you can start to understand where your beliefs about your cultural identity stem from. There isn’t one way to embrace culture. As a product of two cultures, you have to allow yourself to have a fluid relationship with them both.

It’s also important to note that your feelings of inadequacy may be rooted in bigger systems that are set up to make you feel this way. We have to take into account the historical context of immigration and how immigrants were restricted or permitted to move to the West. This context is important to understand the beliefs in your family and community related to survival, assimilation, cultural erasure and so on. ​​These beliefs are valid, but may reinforce a singular narrative of what it “should” look like to identify with your culture. Cultural identities are fluid and are products of access and inaccessibility; power and oppression; privilege and marginalization; history and history in the making. The fear passed down in your community or family could be mistaken as a norm. But as a child of immigrants, you are navigating two cultures. Neither is good or bad.

Part of building confidence in your biculturalism is resisting this categorization. Accepting that you are not one or the other liberates you from having to try so hard to fit into any one box or one label — “too White” or “not enough.”

Have a question for Sahaj? Ask her here.

Finding people and places where you feel safe to explore or express your cultural identity may help you build your confidence. Start by thinking about relationships where you feel like your most authentic self and nurture those. You may also look into joining online groups, like Brown Girl Therapy, for community with other bicultural folks, or finding a culturally sensitive therapist to help you dig deeper. Finding spaces with others who can share in your experience will help you feel less like you’re the problem.

Often people who don’t feel “enough” are unable to articulate a tangible goal that will make them feel so. By setting unrealistic expectations, you are deepening your feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness and the goal posts will just keep moving. But you are enough. You already are enough.

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