Who am I? This is a question that many humans choose to ask and people may spend much of their lives unravelling an answer enabling them to understand their identity. Supposedly the people who find an answer that is satisfying and brings peace are in a good position to journey through life joyfully. People have a private self as well as public self that they show to the world. People are born with an innate sense of self, genetic inheritance and particular qualities that make up their character. Yet people’s identities are also shaped by their individual qualities, families and the culture that they are born into.
The desire for or a need to belong or to feel connected to society is common to humans. Often it is affected by a person’s experiences and their sense of who they know themselves to be and the degree to which they recognise that they belong. Parents and the family to which an individual belongs can shape an individual’s identity. Parents are in the position to help a young person to develop certain traits. Parents, for example, can raise their child develop a strong work ethic, a sense of family pride, to improve one’s status in life and to commit themselves to continuous self improvement and excellence.
Alternatively if a child is born into a family situation where the parents are unstable or are ill a child may develop into an adult who copes poorly and is unable to meet the challenges of life without it being stressful and perhaps painful. In the text Growing up Asian in Australia the story “Perfect Chinese Children” shows the reader the difficulties that both the Chinese mother and her daughters experience as a result of parental influences. The mother has high expectations for her daughter and nothing less than a perfect score is unacceptable.
What also becomes confronting for the daughter is to ensure that she does not bring shame upon the family. We read how the daughter struggles to please the mother, how she retaliates in anger and defiance of what seems to be unrealistic and unfair demands. She knows that when she does this she is behaving more like an “Australian” than a “Chinese” girl and this makes her feel uncomfortable. The mother models resilience, intelligence and a will so strong that the daughter is forced to concede that this mother of hers will never change and the only way to deal with this situation is to accept her mother’s character and cultural perspective.
Yet the daughter is able to survive partly because she takes the best from her mother who wanted the best for both of them. At the end of the story the daughter can recognise her mother’s “sacrifice” and see inherent within it her mother’s love behind the expectations. She also recognises that she is both Australian and Chinese and she can accept that. The makeup of a person’s character can directly influence their sense of identity. If an individual thinks positively, performs good actions and is generally respected by others their self esteem can be very strong.
Such a person may be in a position to inspire others and make a positive difference. However the opposite can apply if a person chooses to inflict harm on others or is cruel it may be more difficult for that person to draw the positive affirmation that builds and reinforces a healthy self esteem. A person who has a strong sense of self and is able to make connections with individuals who share similar values, interests and backgrounds is more likely to feel that they belong than someone who finds it hard to fit in.
In the story “Lessons from my school days” by Ray Wing-Lun we read about a student who struggles to study despite his teachers taking an interest in him. An intelligent, highly motivated student Ray confides in the reader that he lacks ‘discipline’ and that he cannot study for his final exams. He is a student who has found a way to feel connected with others by participating in a TV Quiz show and becoming part of the social elite. Yet in his final years of school we learn that he feels guilty for not making the most of his opportunity. The pressure of his upbringing is striking a chord within.
Recognising this and also that he “thought differently” from others he shows initiative by organising a workshop programme. In this case we read about that internal struggle that he experiences as he processes the conflict between his innate qualities and what he has been taught by his parents. By resolving the issue he is able to move forward. Culture can shape a person’s identity because it is something that directly affects all people. People who grow up in a culture that is quite different from that experienced in the home or local community may feel isolated and may struggle to forge an identity.
At times it is necessary to make some concessions in order to belong. Very often new arrivals to Australia find themselves grappling with the demands that their original culture places upon them as well as the pressures of Australian culture. Sometimes this inner conflict can go on for years as a person struggles to find new ways to keep connected to their first culture and to find their place in Australia. Having to learn a new language, begin again and create a new life and unravel the cultural expectations is confronting and stressful for people who may be traumatised or experiencing a total change in social status and employment.
A person can navigate their way through this journey between two worlds by finding ways to fit in and accepting the best and sometimes the worst of each situation. In the story “Chinese Dancing Bendigo Style” by Joo-Inn Chew we read how two sisters delight in being Chinese as well as Australian. For years they participate as representatives of The Chinese Association in the Easter parade. They are applauded by class mates, strangers and the public. It is an uplifting experience.
They know their place in this community partly because of community acceptance of the Chinese within Bendigo but also because they know that to be both Chinese and Australian in this community is totally acceptable. They make a positive contribution to the culture and it is affirmed publicly and this enables to feel at ease in both cultures. The National Australian identity is based on numerous factors including the ANZAC legend, Australia’s participation in several wars, our love of sport, our lay-back attitude and larrikin attitude of anti-authoritarianism.
For a new arrival to this country the process of fitting in is bound to be difficult. Patrick White, an Australian author, writes about Australian identity. He says that “Australians will never acquire a national identity until individual Australians acquire identities of their own. ” This sense of being “Australian” and being connected to this country and to a national identity can be a challenge for many of its citizens. However it is Australian’s capacity to welcome new arrivals, its pride in being a multi-cultural society that creates a spirit of willingness to allow people to find themselves.
The struggle to come to a point of understanding about who a person knows themselves to be can be daunting. Yet those who do embark on this journey and deal with the pressure and face the conflicts that either come from within or from combined heritages often experience some success. Individual traits, the goals of parents and the culture that a person is affected by do shape identity. It is how a person chooses to deal with each of these influences and their ability to process what is happening to them and recognise who they are that makes all of the difference.