Finding My Cultural Identity

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Malia Cazalot
A computer-generated graphic with a map of the world in white against a blue background with small people figures spaced throughout.

I grew up in a very culturally rich home. My mom is a Chinese and Puerto Rican immigrant from Jamaica, whilst my dad is a second generation French Italian. I feel extremely blessed being able to grow up surrounded by such rich culture, and good food (dim sum being my personal favorite, but I digress). However, it has also caused me to struggle with my own cultural identity.

‘What are you?’

By the time I was 12 I had moved five times, from Florida to Seattle to Texas back to Florida then finally Louisiana. Every time we moved somewhere new, I was asked “what are you?”, and as I delved into the explanation of what my parents were, I would watch as kids’ faces began to morph into a look of confusion. “Well, my mom was born in Jamaica, but I’m not Jamaican. I’m Chinese, Puerto Rican, Italian, and French. No, I don’t speak Spanish or Chinese or any other language except English actually...”. The more and more I struggled to explain it, the more I felt like a poser or a fraud.

Although my last name is French, and my family practices Chinese traditions like celebrating Lunar Year, and my mom often cooks traditional Italian and Puerto Rican meals, I felt like I couldn’t truly identify with any ethnicity. I didn’t speak any of the languages and I don’t look like any of the races.

Eager to belong

Coming to Louisiana was especially hard as it is a state so deeply rooted in culture and tradition, from Mardi Gras to Cajun food; where LSU football is considered religion and jazz music engulfs you on every street corner. I felt so out of place in my new home as I didn’t fit in, but also, I felt I had no real culture of my own to claim and identify.

Going off to college I was eager to find a place to belong, however, I soon encountered the same problems I had moving around in my childhood. I was excited to find more diversity in college, but I didn’t speak Spanish, I didn’t “look” Chinese, and I wasn’t necessarily “white” enough. I’d get teased for certain things I said or ate.

A combination of amazing cultures

For a long time, I struggled with my cultural identity and wished that I was just one thing instead of a little bit of four things. That way I could truly identify with one culture, and it would finally be enough. I now realize how lucky I was to grow up surrounded by four amazing cultures. Although I don’t speak any other language other than English, I was fortunate to have my grandfather sing to me in Italian before bed and hear my aunties arguing fervently in Chinese over nonsense.

I am blessed to be made up of so many things and that is what makes me unique. I don’t have to identify with just one specific culture, but can embrace everything that makes me who I am. Although I still struggle with my cultural identity, I am now proud of my family and what makes us, instead of being ashamed and wishing we were something different.

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