Children of the world sewn on to some fabric


What is cultural identity?

29 November 2016

children of the worldNeither Hubby nor I identify strongly with a particular cultural group, but we know our backgrounds and where we come from. However, both my parents were born in other countries and although they embrace life in England, they both have a strong cultural pull to their birth country, especially my mother as she was forced to flee her homeland through religious persecution. She feels this defines her; my mother’s history, religion and background makes her who she is.

I haven’t really had to think much about cultural identity with the Looked After Children in my care, as they have usually come from a similar background to me; meaning they don’t identify strongly with any particular religion or race. I did have a child who stayed with me for a short time who was born in the UK but her parents were both from the Czech Republic and she hated any mention of her background, even asking us to anglicise her name. She would withdraw if her official name was used and pointedly refused to speak Czech to her mother. Although she refused to talk about it, it seemed she felt diminished and judged by her background, but she wasn’t with me long enough for us to really find out why she felt so strongly.

Cultural Identity has become something we have been asked to think more about since Baby S has come to stay with us. Baby S was born in the UK but her mother was not and she has a very strong link to her birth country’s culture and religion. When we take Baby S to contact, although we don’t see her mother, we are informed that she speaks to her exclusively in Mum’s first language and in a recent update meeting, we were asked to incorporate her mother’s culture into our daily routine.

This is not unusual at all and with an older child, you would introduce familiar foods, visit a religious centre or start to engage the child into cultural events and festive celebrations, but how do you introduce a cultural heritage to a baby? We thought about what we could do and have ordered a child’s music CD, popular in her mother’s home country and have found a TV news station which speaks the language. We will play the CD or have the TV station on in the background occasionally during the day, but we wondered if this was enough? The plan is for Baby S to go back to her Mum and as Mum’s mother tongue is very different from English, the way the language is structured will sound alien to her. We don’t have reason to analyse our language often, but babies pick up on the tone and lilt very quickly and it’s important she hears the pattern and structure of her mother’s language, as if she goes back to Mum, it appears this will be her first language.

A music CD and TV channel are not enough to build a cultural identity, which needs to be cultivated, developed and built on over time. I’m not even sure what contributes to a cultural identity; is it more about language and religion, or about social customs and environment? I think it’s about both but I’m not an expert. I have asked a friend who came from the same country as Baby S to record a few baby sayings that I can try to repeat or can play to her, and if she is still with me when she is weaned, then incorporating foods from her culture will be the next stage.

The whole subject of identity in our house has meant that both Hubby and I have re-examined our backgrounds more and so have M and J. We talked to them about what we are doing and both of them asked at different times more about their own background. We’ve decided to do a family tree with J and add it to his life story, and although this could bring painful memories back for him, he’s finding the process therapeutic and thought provoking, and I’m not sure the subject would have come up any other way.

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