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For Community-Driven Global Development

Self-Reflection and Identity for Bicultural and Multicultural Americans Interning Abroad   

For many interns that identify as bicultural, bilingual, and/or multi-ethnic, the experience of going abroad and interacting in an environment that is intricately linked to their ancestral roots can be multifaceted. The experience can be both hopeful and utterly confusing because for many it can represent an opportunity to establish, re-establish, or strengthen a connection to cultural identity as well as an opportunity to no longer feel like a minority. Past interns, who have ancestral roots from Latin America, Africa, or Asia have expressed feeling a spectrum of emotions as a bicultural individual volunteering abroad.    

Every FSD intern brings a unique perspective to their program. The concept of identity plays an incredibly crucial role in how you experience not only the society and culture of the host country but also your personal adaptation. By exploring your sense of self, how that relates to the identities you hold at home, and how this stems from your identities in your immediate communities, you can build a platform for expanding your perspectives and exploring how you fit into contexts beyond those which you have experienced before. Again, this experience is truly unique to every intern, but this resource will help get you started on your own journey of understanding yourself and understanding the world around you. Most importantly, while this resource will speak to identity as it relates to bicultural and multicultural interns going abroad to their ancestral countries and regions, this guide can be utilized by all volunteers to prepare for their experiences prior to departure on an FSD program.  

Self-reflection, critical thinking, and a flexible perspective help to make your time spent abroad with FSD a more socially conscious and personally engaging experience. Actively participating in your internship will encourage personal growth, help you to dive deeper into the culture you are living in, and will urge you to draw greater connections between your life abroad and your life back home. Remember though, it will be up to you to determine how to approach your internship abroad, what you take away from it, and how it will shift your identity.

What Will I Expect & What Will I Feel?

Acceptance

Let’s face it: having expectations when traveling abroad is part of the package. As much as we desire to freely anticipate what comes, we are naturally drawn to expect certain things and create certain scenarios. It is important to understand that as a bicultural and/or multicultural intern volunteering abroad, you may have expectations of feeling completely accepted in your host community and integrating seamlessly. African American world traveler and travel consultant Elaine Lee, who runs the blog ugogurl.com, offers the following, “Travel to Africa is among the most healing of all. You go there and get part of your soul back.” Undoubtedly, bicultural and multicultural interns who strongly identify with their cultural, ethnic, and racial roots will resonate deeply with this sentiment.

Indeed, bicultural and/or multicultural interns may no longer feel like a minority when they arrive in their local communities and for maybe the first time, feel like part of the majority population. Perhaps your skin color will more closely resemble that of your host community and that will make you feel proud. This pride can resonate throughout an intern’s persona and be a critical part of feeling like they are truly one with the community. The notion of community is also strengthened for volunteers who potentially do not feel connected to their US communities or universities. For many FSD volunteers, this practice of active community involvement has been critical to the process of forming a new identity upon the return home and reintegration process. Through a process of self-discovery and self-reflection, interns of all backgrounds come to appreciate and actively incorporate community, as it signifies a transcendent kind of togetherness they witnessed and were a testament to first hand in their communities abroad.

Degrees of Separation

As much as there are feelings of acceptance, there are also feelings of reluctance. When some African American interns envision going to Africa, they expect to have an exuberant and overwhelming feeling of belonging and acceptance. This expectation can also be felt widely among Latinx interns who travel to Latin America. The desire to reconnect with one’s ancestral past is natural. However, the expectation of an ‘arms wide open, and welcome home’ approach and effortless integration into the country is a stretch. Truthfully, this idealism is often shaken once the intern comes to the realization that belonging is not as instantaneous or as natural as they had hoped. Sometimes, it never materializes and interns can feel disconnected. Physically, you may carry many of the same traits but you could still be considered as an outsider. This reality can be confusing and hurtful, but it is important to recognize this feeling, try hard to understand it, and not see it as an attack.  

The language disconnect can also feel like a divide. As much as you may relate to feeling like a local, you may not speak the language fluently, miss the local colloquialisms, and you are marked with an American accent that can make you feel inadequate. Adding to the estrangement you may feel are identifiers of the American media that influence the local community’s misconceptions of Americans on a global scale. Your local counterparts may have only ever experienced exported images through mainstream media channels that portrayed the best and worst of the American culture and dynamic.

There will clearly be differences in your cultural values and expectations and those of your host country. Expectations of heritage-seeking interns may face criticism from locals. More often than not, one will soon realize that the culture where they are working may not recognize their multicultural background and connection with the host community.

Not to fear. These situations are where the opportunities for cultural exchange, expanding perspectives on all sides, and deep learning lie. Interns can have meaningful dialogue with host country locals as it relates to areas of free speech and political correctness and step into a role of teaching. Phrases and words that one often finds as offensive may not be viewed that way in the host cultures and it is important to be prepared to share the history and reasoning as to how and why they are not appropriate and no longer used in the intern’s home country.

Caught Between Two Cultures

Bicultural and multicultural students have an acute sense of knowing what it is like feel caught between identifiers like language, race, ethnicity, and geography. Oftentimes the hyphenation they experience in the United States has shaped a large part of their identities. Bicultural students that immigrated to the United States with their parents when they were young have roots that tie them deeply to the societies they did not grow up in. This fact of life may be uniquely yours, but sometimes, it might be difficult to appreciate.

Biculturalism can signify that you can inhabit both, but there is a chance of not quite feeling self-acceptance and/or external acceptance. You may have experienced excluded from the social norms in of one of your cultures due to growing up physically removed. You may have been accustomed to speaking the local language with your parents and family and have celebrated national holidays, but you also carry the identity of being an American experiencing these rituals and traditions in the American setting versus in the environment of the local country.

https://msw.usc.edu/mswusc-blog/diversity-workshop-guide-to-discussing-identity-power-and-privilege/

Image source: Diversity Toolkit: A Guide to Discussing Identity, Power and Privilege by Jeremy Goldbach from USC Suzanne Dworak- Peck - School of Social Work.

How does this shape my identity?

For clarity, all of what has been described above is not to scare you or make you feel disheartened by the challenges you may face as a bicultural or multicultural intern abroad. Your bicultural identity is highly valued and you should feel proud of the characteristics: racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic, or other that make you, YOU. At its core, this piece introduces you to just a few of the experiences and emotions felt by past FSD interns who identify as bicultural and that may resonate with you as well during your internship abroad.

Even if you do not identify as being bicultural or even with some of the aspects described here, you still have your own identity and it is important to recognize that your identity will change. Being cognizant of this reality and engaging in self-reflection on the unique ways in which your identity will shift is a critical factor to your time abroad. It is likely to shift upon your return home also, which is something to be aware of and prepared for. Remember, FSD staff, both local and international, is always available to support you as you navigate these areas. Keep in mind though, that you must be prepared to inform them of the support that you may need to have a successful internship and time on site.

Before departing to your international internship, consider how you currently identify yourself. Do you identify yourself by your race, ethnicity, culture, gender or something entirely different? Which of these identities is primary for you now--at this point in your life and in your current context? Why? How might these identities shift as you go abroad? Be prepared for the unexpected and know that your experience will be unique and will be an opportunity for growth and learning - both for you and for the community where you work.

Online Resources

The following reputable online resources are a great way to begin thinking about your identity and being bicultural and/or multicultural. Some may apply to you more than others but feel free to explore the links below to learn a bit more about what this transition may be like for you in the coming months.

This article was written with contributions from Karla Piacentini