Culture is something we are all born into; it gives us a sense of who we are, and is woven into the very fabric of our lives. Our culture has he ability to influence us, our behaviours, belief systems and values, but culture can also change; the way we think and behave, but there is a chance, we may also lose sight of what our own culture is.
When people ask why I like to travel so much, I often say, it is to experience different cultures. To witness new things, and see how other people live their lives differently.
However, an incident in Vietnam has led me to reflect on whether we are aware of our own culture, particularly those who have travelled and lived away from their own home for significant periods of time.
For the purposes of this piece, I am talking about and reflecting on the Culture of Northern Ireland, where I am from, but the principle of this can apply to anyone.
Firstly, I feel that I am a bit of a cultural hybrid. I was born in Northern Ireland, but moved to England for further education at the age of 19, where I lived for 5 years. I then moved to New Zealand and travelled for the past three years.
Not such a big deal you’d think, as many young people leave Northern Ireland to study or travel, each year.
However I tend to pick up accents and quoloclisms very quickly. I adopt cultures, and behaviours to those that I surround myself with very easily.
So much so that when I travel, people can’t work out where I am from.
However, when I am back in Northern Ireland, I speak like I’ve never left the place.
The incident in Vietnam
When I was in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in September last year, I had stopped at the park to have some rest time after a busy day exploring the city. I was approached by two young Vietnamese students, who asked if I’d come sit with their group to talk with them. They were practicing their English with each other, as it is a requirement of all schools in Vietnam is to pass a basic level of English.
I was happy to help, so I joined their circle of about 15 of them. We talked for a good length of time. Initially the questions were fairly basic; I was asked my name, age, where I was from, and what I liked about Vietnam. Then a girl who had been sitting there quietly, turned to me, and said:
Can you tell us about the culture of Northern Ireland?
15 young faces sat there and stared at me, eagerly awaiting my answer.
Um. I said. I .. I don’t know … it is different, very different to Vietnam.
I was stumped.
Thoughts about football and other sports, excessive drinking, Ulster Fry’s, or having a wee cup of tea and a bun, a welcoming hospitality came to mind. But there was no clear way of answering this, I thought.
The heavens then opened, as it usually does in the Monsoon season. I was saved from answering that question.
As I walked back to my Guesthouse, drenched. I felt a little ashamed. I thought:
Why was I unable to answer the simplest of questions?’ I was born in Northern Ireland, I lived there for the first 19 years of my life. This should be an easy question.
But I didn’t know it. I knew about the history, and I could easily recommend places to go and what to see, but the culture. I had no idea, what it was or meant, to be from there. I knew it was vastly different to the culture of Vietnam. You won’t see people sat on plastic stools cooking noodles at the side of the road, for example, or carting half of their life on the back of a scooter in Northern Ireland; for one, health and safety laws would prevent it. But in reality, Vietnam and Northern Ireland are extremely different.
When people think of Ireland, images of Guinness drinking, potato eating, fiddle playing leprechauns often come to mind. Of course Ireland is not really like that at all.
When people think of Northern Ireland, most will think of ‘the troubles’ or ask if you are from Belfast, as that is all they’ve heard of; that and the Giants Causeway, which just so happens is pretty close to where I grew up, and is beautiful.
So is it really possible to lose sight of your own culture, or have I just lost touch with my roots, and need to get back to them?
I have recently embarked upon a journey of discovering what Northern Irish Culture is and what it means to be from Northern Ireland. For this I enlisted the help of some local friends and family from Northern Ireland. Some of which have travelled extensively, and others not so much. Their responses are filtered within the rest of this article. 10 people were asked, all of whom have travelled extensively, with the majority of the respondents current living or travelling outside of Northern Ireland.
As well as this, I spent a lot of time reflecting, in what it means to be from Northern Ireland, to have been brought up there, rather than another country. Although sometimes I wonder how much different my life would be, if I was born in another country, and raised into a different culture.
What is your understanding of the word culture?
First off, a definition. Culture is defined as:
The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society – Oxford English Dictionary –
To me, culture is the fundamental backbone of a society, it is what makes us into the people we are. It influences how we behave and respond to a variety of challenges and events.
Most people surveyed recognised that it was the norms of a given society, or a collection of aspects which were unique to a country.
What does it mean to you being from Northern Ireland?
I am very proud to be from Northern Ireland and to be part of the Island of Ireland. Northern Ireland is and always will be home. No matter where I am from.
When I travel, and I meet other Northern Irish people, I get excited! They understand me (and thats not just the accent), but we seem to have this connection. I imagine this is the same when people from the same area or country meet each other on their travels.
When I asked a small selection of people their responses were fairly positive, with those who had moved away still feeling that they have a connection with the country, as a place that they were born, grew up, and where their family still remain,
I have so much love for my home country and just love being back there. It fills me with such warmness. People are so friendly!! It took me leaving to realise that – Sharron, London, UK
Home, land and family – Angela, Coleraine, Northern Ireland
I grew up there. My family live there – Allan – Bangkok, Thailand (from Live Less Ordinary)
For better or for worse, it’s where I was born – Justin from ikimasho.net
Some were proud of the size of our country, and highlighted that it is undervalued, but gave room for growth.
Pride and a country which is unknown, under estimated and under mined, but never outdone – Jonny Blair, from Don’t Stop Living
I feel small in comparison to the rest of the world, but I wouldn’t change that. I love being from that small part of the world, it makes you more encouraged to grow – Jess from Found Astray
Insular, but proud of our roots – at times this means we live in the past too much. We are a funny breed, while there is shared heritage and culture and families live in the same area for generations, this means there is a sense of timelessness, but at the same time traditionally people have left northern ireland to seek out other worlds. maybe that means those that are left become more insular? It takes a long time for things to change in Northern Ireland. We are also afraid of admitting failure. We take a lot of persuasion to try new things. Again is this because the free thinkers leave the country? – Caroline, Coleraine, Northern Ireland
Do we have an identity crisis in Northern Ireland. Do you consider yourself to be Irish, Northern Irish or British?
Editors note: So this may be a bit of a politically sensitive question, but I don’t want to discuss whose side you’re on. I just want to know what you’d consider your nationality to be.
My passport classifies me as British; a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but I would consider myself to be Northern Irish (not a nationality on its own I know), although I can interchangeably use the terms Irish and Northern Irish at times. When I travel, depending on who I am talking to, I tell people I am from Ireland or Northern Ireland. I can also have an Irish passport if I want to (but currently don’t).
Don’t get me wrong, I also love being from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I think it is such a diverse nation, and despite what most people say, I think we have a pretty good healthcare system (try a hospital in Vietnam and you’ll see what I mean!)
I do think we have an identity crisis however; most people read an address in Northern Ireland, and believe that you are from Ireland, and not part of the UK at all. My mum has had arguments with postal services wanting to charge her higher rates, stating Northern Ireland is not part of the UK. I have had people asking me if I need to have a visa to work in England, and asked if we use Euros in Northern Ireland.
I think we have a bigger identity crisis than those from Scotland or Wales (who will proudly tell you they are Scottish or Welsh, despite being classified as British in their passports).
Out of the 10 people surveyed, one person considered themselves to be Irish, four – Northern Irish, three – British and two people said they used the a mixture of answers when telling people their nationality.
When answering whether it was felt that Northern Ireland had an identity crisis, only a three people directly responded to this, but of those that did respond 2 said yes, and one saying no, but identified that some people did have an identify crisis.
Completely yes! People not from this country will always identify you as Irish. To me, I am Northern Irish. Its, its own country. I don’t oppose being called Irish or British though. I just feel like a fraud. – Jess from Found Astray
But what makes Northern Irish Culture unique?
Most people say that people from Northern Ireland are welcoming and friendly, but this is something I experienced a lot of in New Zealand, and indeed many other countries. Having been invited to a persons home for dinner, when I had only just met them for example, or being picked up at the side of the road by local Vietnamese youngsters, after a motorbike accident.
Some people say we have a great sense of community – but again I’ve experienced this living in New Zealand, especially in the post Canterbury Earthquakes.
When I asked others about this, some people alluded to the size of the country and how everyone knows each other and can have a good laugh with them (good banter), and at ourselves, as well as having a good sense of humour and generally being friendly.
The uniqueness of our political situation was alluded to:
Some people referred to its background, and heritage:
I do feel incredibly proud to be from Northern Ireland however; I will forever be connected to that small part of the World, and will consider it to be home. Generally I think Northern Irish (see, my reference to being ‘Northern Irish’ here) people are quite friendly, open and relaxed people. I love the fact that we often have a ‘don’t give a crap attitude’, (as in not overly bothered by things), our independent nature, and in general being proud of our local food, and local people.
Travelling really does give you an insight into other people’s lives and to a different culture. I feel however that I know more about different cultures in the World than my own. However, now that I am living nearer to my home country, I am keen to explore the culture a lot more.
So this may be the most uninspiring thing I have written, and I know it is heavily focused on Northern Ireland, but I am really keen to know – do you know your own culture? If you are living outside of your own home country – do you feel that you are still connected to that part of the World.
Is it possible to lose sight of what your own culture is, and adopt others?
Do those of you living in your own country (and perhaps have done for many years), know your own culture?
Comment, share or berate me below
Thank you to those who answered my short survey, including the following travel writers –
Damien from Chasing Penelope
Jonny from Don’t Stop Living
Jess from Found Astray
Justin from Ikimasho
Allan from Live Less Ordinary
And for those who responded that aren’t travel writers, or chose not to leave your name – thank you too.