When Home Is A Feeling: Culture Drifting

How do you define home?

Our associations with the word 'home' are interesting. It goes beyond a physical place that shelters us. 'Home' also means somewhere we belong and feel attached to, where we can be our genuine selves. The phrase "home is where the heart is" might be (very) overused, but it captures this feeling.

Often, it's the memories that make a place feel like home. After all, memories are the glue that holds our attachment to certain places and people in the world.

So, given the above definition of 'home', it makes sense that home is not always a place. Sometimes it's a feeling, or even a person. It's entirely possible to root your sense of home in people, in memories, rather than an actual physical place.

Third-culture kids and even children of immigrants know this well!

In this post, we will:

Discuss the concept of 'cultural homelessness' or as we will refer to it, feeling culturally adrift

Describe the experience of cultural 'code-switching' to fit in

Let's get into it.

Feeling Culturally Adrift

'Cultural homelessness' is a term that has been coined by researchers to describe the experiences of people who have grown up immersed in a culture different from their country of origin.

We're going to use the term 'culturally adrift' instead of cultural homelessness here.

One study conceptualizes cultural homelessness (or being culturally adrift) as a developmental challenge. Children learn to reconcile often contradictory and changing norms, in other words,  they learn to accommodate a constantly  moving target.

There are benefits to growing up like this! The same researchers found that people who undergo this developmental challenge may have a "stronger cognitive and social repertoire because of their multiple frames of reference".

The downside emerges when experiences of not belonging and social isolation emerge, along with constant code-switching.

Cultural Code-Switching And Other Mysteries

The origins of code-switching can actually be traced back to linguistics. Language-based code-switching occurs when we switch from one language or dialect to another, depending on the context or environment we are in.

Cultural code-switching is similar, yet reaches further. We culturally code-switch when we change our way of speaking, behaving, and otherwise expressing ourselves to cater to the norm of the environment we are in.  

Sometimes code-switching is an unspoken requirement to fit in, and our ability to do so may even determine whether we are treated well and fairly, or receive the same opportunities as other students or colleagues. A common example of this is Black men and women switching hairstyles to accommodate a deeply flawed (and even racist) standard of what is considered 'professional' at work.

For racial minorities, code-switching can downplay our membership in certain stigmatized or stereotyped groups, increasing the likelihood that we will be accepted by the mainstream.

Code-Switching As Children Of Immigrants

For those of us who grew up in an immigrant household, code-switching comes rather easy to us. At home, we may be immersed in our parent's (or even our own) country-of-origin culture. The language, the films, the food, and even the values.

Out there though, at school and work, we are different. We may adopt different behaviours, and act according to a formula that we have learned over time helps make us, and everyone around us, feel comfortable. This formula, however, may not be acceptable at home. So, we code-switch.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this! We can have multiple facets to our identity and personality. Code-switching, however, can deepen the feelings of being 'culturally adrift'. Years of making these little adjustments between people and contexts can make the process FEEL as automatic as breathing. We may not even think of it as code-switching; it's just something we do. In the background, though, it can add to the feeling that our identity is drifting between two worlds.

Over the years, many children of immigrants have adopted an entirely different value system than the one we were raised in. This is natural, especially because the country we identify the most strongly with is now different from our country of origin.

Why the code-switching then? Especially considering that many of us have learned to embrace the culture we were raised in. Well, children of immigrants experience certain pressures to maintain an allegiance of sorts to both codes- country of origin and country:

Immigrant Guilt

As children of immigrants, we grow up being very conscious of the sacrifices our parents made to provide us with the life we have today. There is constant pressure (unspoken or not) to make their sacrifices worthwhile. Code-switching to remain immersed in the culture of our parents and ancestors can be a way of honouring this sacrifice.

Wrapping Up: Life Is A Balancing Act

'Culturally adrift' sounds lonely...there's something in the word itself. However, let's challenge that for a moment. Feeling 'caught' between two or more cultures, racial identities, languages, and countries can be confusing.

However, it is also empowering!

As a cultural drifter of sorts, you have a perspective that is informed by multiple contexts and ways of living. You may find that you are:

  • Adaptable and open to change
  • Able to keep an open mind because you have first-hand access to multiple perspectives and you understand how this affects the way we view the world
  • Resilient in the face of pressure

As a final word, life is a balancing act. If you are someone who has grown up navigating and reconciling different sides of yourself, you are already a master at this.

I want to hear from you: Does the term 'culturally adrift' resonate at all with you?

Until next time!

Mental Health Content Specialist

WellNest Psychotherapy Services