Cultural Identity: ‘My Roots’ vs. The External Influences of Everyday

Written by Beth Mendleton, Olivia Adams and Lafan Hasan

Artwork by Amelia Field

We live in a culturally charged society where day-in and day-out we experience and engage in fragments of cultures from across the world. From the hundreds of diverse food options we have on UberEats to the endless foreign shows available on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Regardless of whether you realise it or not, each and every one of us is influenced by the cultural diversity we so freely consume. This is particularly true in university, the Cardiff University student body is a melting pot of diversity and culture, it is almost impossible not to be intrigued by others and ultimately be influenced by other people’s ways of being. This prospect begs the following questions: ‘who am I really? What is my family’s cultural heritage? Do I even have a cultural heritage? What are ‘my roots’ in this world?

The following pieces were the responses Quench received from fellow students at Cardiff University sharing their own influences that have impacted their cultural identity.

Beth Mendleton’s Cultural Identity

What makes up each individual’s identity is constantly wavering, whilst in the past our heritage, ethnicity and cultural roots would make the biggest impact on our identity, I question why this is no longer the case, at least for myself.

When I have to describe my ethnicity, I of course identify myself as White British, but like many other Brits today my heritage is not as simple as that. The intricacies of my racial heritage are not visible or relevant to how the world sees me and treats me. With my great-grandmother on my mum’s side hailing from the Middle East (Iraq and Israel), and great-grandfather on my father’s side from Poland, I have a lot of unexplored cultural heritage that I know very little about, and do not identify with at all.

I took a 23andme DNA test earlier this year to find I am 10% Western Asian (Arab, Egyptian & Levantine) and North African, 55% European and 44% British, it urged me to think more about why, despite very recent ancestors being far from British — this is not present in my identity at all. Moreover, how my identity is more greatly shaped by external factors, rather than what my roots are, and my very genetic composition.

When I describe my identity, my mind goes to my left-wing politics and values, to my pride in womanhood and deaf-culture, to my friends from different backgrounds and cultures who have helped shape who I am. These are things I have developed over time due to external influences — the media, places I have travelled to, the people I have met, how society wants to me behave and how I have reacted to that. I like to think these are things that make me unique, but in this time of globalisation and cultural homogenisation our ‘external factors’ are becoming one-size-fits all, surely what makes me unique now, is my genetic makeup. We are all consuming the same media, the same trends, the same ideals and values of society due to mass media and technological advancement so our identities are perhaps more and more similar as a result.

In the nearly 20 years I have been alive, I have been fortunate to engage with fragments of cultures from around the world. Growing up in a somewhat diverse town with a large Pakistani Muslim population, friends from backgrounds I could learn from, whose cultures and traditions I could soak up and partake in and educate myself. I have family from Germany, Ethiopia, South Africa, France, in Australia, and whether I have deep-dived into each of these cultures or not I feel privileged to know even a small part of me is connected to them. Even domestically, coming to university in Cardiff has opened me up to Welsh culture — food, cultural traditions and community values I already consider to have had an impact on my identity.

In this global village we live in, I can consume media from the US and Australia, consume dishes from Mexico and India, be influenced by trends started by black women or drag queens. I find more of these globalised ideals and values as contributors to my identity, more so than values that are present in my own familial background such as Christianity and lack of exposure to other cultures.

I suppose the media has the biggest influence over my identity, with it arguably being the greatest contributor to globalisation and the resulting homogenisation of culture. I wonder whether this reality is sad and depressing and that I have no individuality, I find myself jealous of friends who have a strong ethnic and cultural identity they are proud of. However, this is just the white privilege and western romanticism of the East and Africa, and lack of cultural identity that many white British people associate with and accept. Because in reality, having an ethnic and cultural identity isn’t equivalent to having individuality unless you view it from the western lens — in that it seems that way against the background of a majority white country. Again, from a privileged, white perspective it would be wrong to label and trivialise having an ethnic identity as ‘quirky’ or to put it on a pedestal. This doesn’t mean we don’t have a tendency to perceive it that way, in turn we should recognise our white privilege that allows us to romanticize and possibly appropriate these identities, rather than appreciate and normalize them as simply different to our own.

Although surely there are many in this position who are in fact estranged from their roots and fit only in the box of white British with their ancestry unexplored. However, it can be argued that in a way, I and many others have come full-circle, we are so heavily influenced by other cultures through globalisation, multiculturalism and diverse relationships that these may be the very cultures we come from in the first place — that we had lost connection with. Alas, maybe this is clutching at straws for some hope that I am not just a product of capitalism copy and pasted, have these fragments of other cultures really enriched my identity or made me the same as everyone else?

Olivia Adams’ Cultural Identity

Previously, when caught having to think about both my culture and my identity, I would tend to switch off. I would say this is mainly because I think of myself as a boring Brit that blends in with the crowd, and I will admit that trying to figure out my cultural identity has been a challenge. I have had to think hard about my influences, my roots and myself as a person, and to be honest, at first glance and without much thought, I am just your average white, british, non-religious, female citizen. Well, that is what the numerous job applications and forms I have filled out will tell you anyway. Except, once I delved deeply into thinking about this topic, I realised that yes; my cultural roots aren’t wildly varied or exciting, but rather my external influences are more fascinating and have made my cultural identity more diverse than I had realised.

Being brought up in the New Forest and living on a farm, where I was surrounded by horses, cows and endless rolling fields, I would say I have had a sheltered upbringing. My family’s heritage consists of a bloodline of white, British members, with our culture being, if you hadn’t guessed already, western and British. We are what some may call a ‘stereotypical British family’ who drink too much tea, love to watch the football and eat a Sunday Roast all year round – yes, even in the summer! Although we are not religious, the celebration of events like Easter and Christmas, are especially important to my family as they give us time to get together to appreciate one another and all that we have. Everyone I grew up with and the areas that I have lived in are all very similar to one another, which meant I was never really exposed to many different cultures. When I was younger, I found that I didn’t have much knowledge about many other cultures, and this isn’t to say that I didn’t want to be more culturally diverse and educated, but rather that it was my environment that was, unintentionally, limiting. Even at both primary and secondary school in history lessons, the main focus of the curriculum was on Britain’s past and it largely ignored various other cultures. However, I do feel that since getting older and having the freedom to explore, learn and understand whatever I wish to, that I have developed as a person; becoming more cultured and aware than what I used to be.

A major external influence on the way that I learn about cultures, countries and movements is through social media. I am an advocate for both social and environmental change and I would say this has something to do with my growing interest in the world and making a difference. Whether through sharing a social media post, signing a petition or writing about it, I want to help impact lives in a positive way, and contribute to making it a better place. Social media makes doing these things a lot easier, while also being able to spread awareness and educate.

Not only has social media influenced my knowledge, but also being a student at university and living in Cardiff, I have found that I have learnt a lot about the Welsh culture. Living in the city has not only made me enjoy watching the Rugby, which I would never have done before, but has also enabled me to meet people from all walks of life. With the university being welcome to people from different backgrounds and countries, I have met a range of students and staff that have contributed to expanding my knowledge of the world, making me aware of things I had no previous idea about!

As well as this, as I have been lucky enough to go abroad on holiday, I have found that it has helped me to discover more about other countries, like for example Spain, Italy and Germany, as the excitement of being somewhere unfamiliar makes you want to learn and fully immerse yourself into their different cultures. I think visiting these countries, or any country, and being older, I have become more aware and intrigued by their cultures, which may be because I am more capable of understanding them.

Although I don’t think that the countries I have been to have influenced my own identity too greatly, in terms of food I would say that my travels have definitely contributed to my diet. Over the years, I have been more open to indulging in a variety of food and can say that I prefer meals that have come from outside of the UK. I still love the odd classic pub lunch; however, I seem to have more of a craving for anything from Thai noodle dishes, to creamy Indian curries or even a spicy Mexican burrito! Dishes that I have tried from different cultures seem to have shaped my identity and stuck with me more than anything else; unlike with music and television.

Apart from listening to the radio while abroad on holiday and hearing the occasional foreign song, the music that I choose to listen to is usually by British or American artists. This is also apparent with the television programmes and films that I consume. I would say this is probably down to the environment I have been brought up in, and so therefore got used to, as we would listen to anything from: McFly to The Black-Eyed Peas on the way to school, and finish the day off by watching Disney channel. This is also down to the fact that I feel I can identify with the artists and music that I listen to, and the actors/actresses and situations that I watch on TV. In saying that, I am making more of an effort to watch series and films that are subtitled and I find it most effective to learn about different cultures and their representations through film and documentaries, as I find I am more engaged when being able to watch and listen.

In reflection, I may be viewed and categorised as a British citizen with a non-diverse cultural heritage; but since growing up, moving away and becoming intrigued to learn about different cultures, I believe I am more than that. As I am sure many people can relate, in the UK we are constantly surrounded by Westernised culture, and therefore I feel as though I identify most closely to this. However, I still feel as though I am currently, and will continue to be, influenced by many different cultures throughout the course of my life. I am excited to continue this journey of exploration of the world by: trying new foods, travelling, listening, reading and, most importantly, learning!

Lafan Hasan’s Cultural Identity

When we talk about our origins, we refer to them as our roots. I do not think a better metaphor could have been allocated to describe them. Imagine a plant, at the base of the plant are its roots. The plant cannot be without them but with time, growth, and care, what is noticeable is the beautiful flower that blooms above rather than the sturdy roots that hold it up. I would like to think of my identity through this analogy. My roots will always be the foundational element of the person that I am. I say this with utter confidence because our roots are the first sets of influences that we are exposed to as individuals in life. That being said my everyday influences that arise as a result of experiences with people, consumed products and media I’ve interacted with, all contribute to the construction of my identity. Ultimately, I say this because I think that identities are just coalitions of influences from every walk in life, those chosen and those imposed.

Before unraveling my identity crisis for you all to read I would like to point out one important thing; I think identities are very fluid and vary depending on different factors such as language, place and people. Personally I was born into a Muslim Palestinian family who reside as expatriates in Qatar and in addition possess a Jordanian nationality. I grew up speaking Arabic at home and a mix of both Arabic and English (primarily) anywhere else. Accordingly, my fluency in English surpassed my fluency in Arabic in all senses, written, read and spoken. The interesting thing is that when I speak Arabic I feel like my identity differs to the one I have while speaking English because of the mere difference in my expressive capabilities. I can speak with greater depth in English than I do in Arabic even though the Arabic language exceeds the English one in intricacy. My hobby of writing poetry only exists through the English language because I don’t possess the lexical tool kit to produce my thoughts in Arabic. Funnily enough meeting me in an Arabic setting, you may think I’m a woman of few words when really I lack the variety in expressing myself as I do in English.

Places have the exact effect as well. I’ve lived my whole life in Qatar except for these last two years because I’ve had the privilege of studying in Cardiff university. Being in Cardiff and being exposed to the newfound freedom I felt once venturing out on my own had an immense effect on my identity. My parents always say “it’s a privilege to go out and study in a new place like this because you’re lucky enough to pick and choose the greatest aspects of what you’re used to and what’s new to synthesize the greatest version of yourself”. Keeping this in mind I’m constantly reflecting on what I would want to take from the Cardiff life to enhance my life back home. One of the things that has made a stamp on my identity is the ability to seek and make the most out of opportunities. Maybe it’s the university life or maybe it’s the never ending drive of working men and women in the city, but I’ve witnessed the lack of excuses people make here because of the availability of resources that we just neglect to find. Sometimes in the past I found myself waiting for an opportunity to fall into my lap when all along I had to get up and grab it, so today being a go-getter is an instrumental part of my identity.

In my case specifically my Palestinian roots are the core of my being because I am the medium in which my country is deemed to exist as it’s land ceases to. Growing up on a Muslim household, I was taught to be very appreciative of everything I have in life through the many ways I practice my religion. Through this I’ve become a person who barely takes anything for granted and makes the most out of every situation. Immersing myself in Arabic culture has made me a very social person because it’s centered around d hospitality and community which I’ve adopted as part of my identity.

Everyday influences can be as monumental as the reason for a person being creative to something as trivial as wanting to own a pair of Yeezy’s. We live in an age where the diversity in content feels almost infinite due to the nature of social media. This yields so much chance for the formation of identity because you can find communities that you never knew you wanted to be a part of until seeing them. Trends amongst celebrities can incite a change within a persons style and persona to try and emulate their confidence and the list could go on. For me, personally everyday influences serve as a way to strengthen my identity even if that means tweaking a few things about it. Watching how I met your mother for example strengthens and solidified my habit of reflecting and my belief in destiny. Listening to Dua Lipa’s future nostalgia boosted my confidence solely because of her bassy tunes and empowering lyrics. Identity can mean many different things for many different people but for me, I think identities are the morals we hold ourselves to and act upon and those can be planted through your origins or can grow through our everyday influences.