A couple weeks ago I was talking to some students in a college class. I asked them to guess what my background was. One girl raised her hand and said “Latino.” Then I asked the group to guess again, but this time I told them to base their answer on the way I dressed and talked. Someone else raised his hand and said “white.”
I then asked: “So what am I?”
While I was raised in a white middle class household, I’m not white. While I may have grown up in “white america,” I don’t necessarily feel like that defines me. When people look at me they see I’m Latino. I’ve even gotten extra questioning at airports. I’m sure my appearance had something to do with it. At the same time, other Latinos would call me gringo (white American) because I couldn’t speak Spanish. Their message was clear; you may look like us, but you are not like us. This left me feeling like an outsider to both cultural groups. I used to struggle with it a lot. I tried to figure how I could change myself to fit into one these groups.
What I eventually realized was that I had no culture. I know it’s impossible not to have any culture, but I couldn’t clearly define what mine was.
I know I’m American, but I don’t completely identify with Americans. Growing up there was a strong German influence in my house. At Christmas we would have German cookies and we often said a German grace at dinner. I was even fluent in German at one point. However, as I spent more time in Central America, that culture became a part of me as well. I started to like the music and learned how to dance. I learned the different sayings and copied the way they dressed.
All of these experiences gave me the freedom to enjoy other cultures. Experiencing other cultures meant being an outsider to the group. Since I grew up constantly feeling like an outsider I’m not scared to be only person in the room of a different race or background. I’ve learned how to blend in and mimic the people around me.
I feel like people are too often defined by their culture. Are you in the group or not? Since I’m always an outsider I no longer worry about fitting in; I can experience new ideas or cultures and let them them become a part of me.