This seems to be all I think about lately. For my program in Kenya, I have to complete an internship with a not-for-profit organization. My International Development professor recommended I do something with cultural identity. A dear friend of mine (who completed the program during his time in school) stated agreement with that assertion. I'll admit, I was surprised. I always saw myself doing something with maternal health care or microfinance. Yet, upon pondering, it doesn't seem that surprising. It doesn't surprise me because I spend half my time analyzing my own.
Everyone who knows me knows I identify with my Italian ancestry. My paternal grandfather was from Florence and my father was born there. In addition to having that influence, I grew up in two very Italian American neighborhoods and had gone to Catholic school at an Italian/Irish parish. I grew up with the food (my mother being the cook that she is) and was always fascinated with the culture. Later, when I became a Catholic (due to other factors), I found the need to learn about the country that not only housed my biological ancestry, but my spiritual home as well.
Yet, I'm not 100% Italian. I'm not even 50%. I'm a whopping 25% Italian, which causes some to raise their eyebrows. If I were to give an honest description of my ethnic identity, I'd have to say I'm half English, a quarter Italian, an eighth Austrian (and Jewish, if you count Jewish as an ethnicity as well as a religion), and some German, Scottish, and Spanish mixed in, with percentages unknown. At the same time, I've learned that ethnic composition doesn't always jive with cultural identity. Nor does it always mix with national identity (you can identify as American and be of any ethnic or cultural background). It's a complex phenomenon unto itself, one influenced by many factors: ethnicity, regionalism, nationalism, home environment, sometimes religion (and culture influences that as well), sometimes class (especially with privileged cultures), politics, resources, customs....pretty much everything that impacts a human being.
At the same time, our society feels the need to label and describe everything, according to perception. However, even these labels come into question. I have a professor of Caribbean descent, with family from Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. She's always told she could be Latina (due to her DR family) but she doesn't have enough blood or influence for that (WTF?). People describe her as "black", which she doesn't like, simply because she feels that there is an established "black culture" in the U.S., one based on the influences of slavery and not one necessarily inclusive of recent African, Caribbean, or Afro-Latino groups. I have friends of Native American descent, on both sides, but are blond and blue-eyed (and, while a good portion of their ancestry is, they don't have the "blood quanta" to register with any of the tribes). Or how there's a whole different category for Latin Americans, regardless of actual cultural or ethnic influence. Let me tell you, there is a WEALTH of difference between the German/Italian descended Argentine and the Mayan from Guatemala.
Cultural identity is complex, regardless of where you come from or what you choose as your identity. I've come to find that it goes beyond Census statistics and societal labels. It transcends even blood quanta and genetics. It's one of the markers of who we are, where we come from, and who we hope to be, what we hope to give to our children. At least, that's what it's taught me thus far.