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Commentary: How to Preserve One's Own Cultural Identity

By Vida Vanchan

Buffalo, NY – If you look around your workplace, places where you shop, restaurants where you dine, and places of worship, you may come across other people with at least one of these characteristics: very different outfits, different skin colors, body language, and accents. You're not alone! Regardless of where we are, those whom we consider as foreigners are entering our way of life every day. While millions of Americans are crossing borders to all parts of the world for business or vacations, millions are attempting to cross the borders into this country to pursue a better life. As a matter of fact, many foreigners are taking the oath to become U.S. citizens every day. Welcome to globalization!

Before coming to the United States, I had limited knowledge about the US and its culture besides the fact that it is a free country with a very fundamental component -- freedom of speech. It took me a while to get adjusted to the American culture after I arrived in this country several years ago, and to learn to better communicate with my American counterparts. I learned to undauntedly say "no," to things that I do not like, and to bravely speak up for what I stand for and want. I learned to look people in the eye when I speak to them so that they do not think that I am dishonest or have something to hide.

In my country, Cambodia, discussing personal issues or needs directly is rude and imprudent; bluntly rejecting offers or telling others "no" is uncouth and insolent; looking at older people in their eyes is offensive and disrespectful, and looking into the eyes of a member of the opposite sex is a sign of attraction. I am still learning new things, a new way of life here every day, and making mistakes as I go along.

As a foreigner, I find this country very accepting and welcoming to people who do not necessarily share the same culture, views, perspectives, and religions. I've been trying to adapt to this culture and hoping that I will not be isolated or considered clueless when my American friends talk about anything from politics to their hobbies. When my American acquaintances tell me that "you have become Americanized," what do they mean? Are they complementing or insulting me? A mixture of feelings courses through my mind every time I hear that comment. On the positive side, I appreciate the comment and believe that my efforts have paid off. On the other hand, I think to myself, "am I losing my cultural identity, do others see me as trying too hard or changing too much, too fast?"

Listener-Commentator Vida Vanchan is a PhD candidate in the geography department at UB.

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