Ego, identity and culture shock






In my third year after migrating to Australia, I went to art school at a university.  At that stage, I still hadn’t developed any individuality in the form of self awareness. We all gave each other criticism, of course, but I did not understand how the criticism might be relevant to anything I’d done or failed to do. I had no particular criteria to go by. At the same time, I didn’t take any criticism personally, because I didn’t conceptualize that there were alternatives to doing what I had done. I couldn’t say, “Such a person as myself ought to have done better!” because I had in no way — either emotionally or intellectually — theorized what “such a person as myself” was. This was my cultural upbringing, which was tribal, rather than individualist.  It meant I was effectively without ego. I wasn’t hurt by anything anyone said, but I didn’t benefit by it, either.




It took me a lot of experimenting and book learning to try to understand what Western egoism was about. I knew I was missing something, because people assumed I was saying things using a sub-text, when I really was, quite simply, blurting things out. Like if I said, “Is this the way we are supposed to do this task?” I really wasn’t criticizing anybody implicitly for the way they were doing something. I was asking a simple question.


I also absolutely didn’t get the idea of identity, at all — that one person could be implicitly criticizing another on the basis of something being wrong with their identity. In retrospect, I think this was happening to me a lot. I was being criticized implicitly because of my white, African (colonial) identity. But I didn’t make much sense of this so naturally I didn’t defend myself either.


I became more stressed because I was way out of my depth in Western culture. When I said, “I’m becoming more and more stressed” (a simple case of blurting something out) people began to say, “You’re making it all about you. You think you’re important. You imagine you’re really great!”


That was weird because I had no such imaginings, nor indeed any concept of my self in relation to the new society.


As I couldn’t understand why my attempts to communicate had to be stymied in every direction I found the situation extremely stressful and bbewildering.



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