Culture Shock: The Rocky Road of Conflicting Cultural Experience

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The definition of culture is the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group. Sure, it sounds like a simple statement, but after years of examining this undersized definition, I am no closer to realizing where I fit into this expression of the human spirit, than when I started.

I was born in Belgrade, Serbia, the capitol city of a tiny country with a disproportionate amount of history to its name. A country that had been through so much, but had no chance to rest because more was about to hit it. I was only two years old when my mother and I picked up and left our family, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins because of the Balkan Wars. We traveled half way across the world to the land of opportunity…and mass confusion.

I was born in another country but raised an American. Not by my mother, but by the culture in which I was immersed. I was brought up on American values outside the home, but on the often contradictory Serbian values at home. It was as if I stepped into a different world when crossing the threshold into my house. The most blatant oddity to the casual American was the echoing of a foreign language my mother never allowed me to forget. I was already speaking Serbian when I moved to the United States, and as I grew, I learned Serbian and English side by side, to the point where I have no accent in either language. But learning a language is not the key to learning a lifestyle. I had to have schooling- in both cultures. I was so privileged that I even had overseas “field trips” every summer to the country of study.

As I grew older, I realized how different the attitudes and beliefs of people here were compared to people in Serbia. This difference in beliefs was most apparent to me during the bombing of Serbia in 1999. This was the worst year of my life. I was in a constant state of contradictive being. There were two of me. There was me who would listen to and agree with, for fear of losing the friends supporting the bombing because of what the President and their parents had said, and the other me who would come home and listen to the laments and angry outbursts of my mother. Needless to say, I sided with my mother, as I often do these days. The point is, I had to change my actions and behavior depending on where I was. It was like political correctness for the culturally unsound.

My confusion did not stop there, however. When I arrived at high school, I felt the most lost about where I should fit in. The high school years are ones of growth and discovery about oneself. This usually includes the formulation of specific political opinions. When told that I was a Serb, my peers would either ask why we are genocidal maniacs or if electricity exists in that backwater mud village I come from. Similarly, I have been labeled an American by Serbs who often wonder if ice cream or poor people exist in America. I realized with these questions that, in each place, I have become the expert on cultural values of the other place. Although I myself have been struggling to find some balance, to these people I am the only connection they have to the answers they seek. I am also the only connection I have to the answers that plague me.

Merging two worlds together has not been, and will never be an easy task for me. I am both American and Serbian, and not just because I hold dual citizenship. Learning to accept the values of both cultures and live with both is the defining characteristic of my cultural experience now and forever. I know that to be me, not just American and not just Serbian, but me as an individual, is to be the pioneer of the best of both worlds and the bridge between them.