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Identity Crisis: How we are shaped by our culture.

I’ve had my share of cross-cultural experiences.  As someone raised by American parents for fifteen years in Guatemala who then married a Winnipeger and now lives in Victoria, I frequently reflect on the ways one’s sense of identity is formed by the process of adaptation to new cultures.  In Canada, we find a myriad of these adaptation issues, both for immigrants who come to a new culture by choice and by our indigenous population who have had a new culture forced upon them against their will.

Acculturation is the process of adaptation that occurs when two distinct groups are in continuous contact with each other (Berry, 1980).  When somebody encounters a new culture, he or she must begin this process. Berry suggests that acculturation has four possible outcomes:

Assimilation: adopting the host culture and rejecting or “parting ways” with the culture-of-origin.

Rejection: rejecting the host culture and keeping the culture-of-origin.

Biculturalism: taking “the best” or identifying with aspects of both cultures.

Marginalization: losing the culture-of-origin, but not quite joining with the host culture either.

It is evident that acculturation to a new environment for families and individuals carries with it several different identity outcomes.  Who am I, and who will I become?  Do I even have a choice in the matter?

As an immigrant to Canada five years ago from the United States, I’ve been impacted by the keen sense of welcome and interest that many Canadians extend to foreigners and their cultures-of-origin.

Toronto Canada's Largest City

Several years ago I saw a bumper sticker that read:  Celebrate Diversity…Together!  In Canada, I find a mindset of genuine interest in the diversity brought to us through our immigrants, and we are stronger for it.  We are eager to make this diversity belong to a part of our national culture.  In other words, we foster biculturalism

Yet Canada also carries a checkered history.

Many years ago, I listened to part of the live CBC broadcast of Stephen Harper’s formal apology on behalf of the federal government for (among other atrocities) the way First Nations were forcibly made to acculturate to an Anglo-Saxon way of life.  Here, power was used oppressively and abusively to thrust a foreign culture onto those who did not want it.  Here, the “host” culture was overpowered by a dominating visitor who decided to take over and move in once the welcome was worn.  Some assimilated, some rejected, some became marginalized, and yet some became bicultural.

Those who are neither recent immigrants to Canada nor Aboriginal may wonder how the process of acculturation directly applies to them.  The answer is that we are always either hosts or guests.  Canada as a whole may pride itself in that it has taken steps to make amends by being a much more welcoming host today.  This may be part of our collective apology for being lousy guests early in our history.  We must remember, however, that this process is ongoing and that it happens in our backyards or on our neighbourhood street, or in the grocery store, or in our churches or classrooms every day.

Furthermore, we can all identify with the process of acculturation, as each of us experiences this whenever we face change -- change from singleness to married life, from the educational setting to the working world, from a rural community to an urban or suburban location, etc.  In each change we are forced to acculturate, forced to decide what we will bring with us into the present and what we will leave behind.  And even when we don’t consciously decide, a choice is still made, either by us or for us.

By recognizing that even our small adjustments to change are indeed a process of acculturation, perhaps we will better recognize just how difficult and even traumatic change can be for those who are trying to bridge between two worlds which are leagues apart.


Berry, John (1980).  Acculturation as varieties of adaptation.  In A.M. Padilla (Ed.), Acculturation:  theory, models and some new findings  (pp. 9-25).  Boulder, CO:  Westview Press.


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