Living in Between Cultures – Identity Crisis or Cultural Enrichment?

By Aleksandra Jovanovic

When people ask me where I am from, I usually answer that I was born and raised in Rotterdam (the Netherlands), while spending my undergraduate years in the coastal city of the Hague. A 20 - minutes train ride from Rotterdam, I consider the Hague to be Rotterdam’s little sister, hence part of my cultural identity as well. Having Serbian roots, I could classify myself as a Serbian-Dutchy. When I clarify that both of my parents are indeed Serbian, I often hear the oh-so-original line ‘how exotic!’ Even though at first glance I do fit within the blond hair-blue eyes stereotypical image of a ‘typical’ Dutch girl, my Slavic facial characteristics give away my true identity… Nope, can’t hide that Slavic nose and those prominent cheekbones.

Then there is this interesting part of me that feels connected to the region of Latin America, - the Spanish language, its diversity in culture and food and its flirty dances. When I hear salsa, a radar goes off in my head and my heart starts pumping faster, while my hips start taking over. Si, eso; my inner Latina is alive! To be honest, I kind of feel like an exotic piece of fruit wherever I am. In fact, I actually do not know where my ‘home’ is. Sounds dramatic, - I know, but please do let me explain my somewhat vague line of thoughts that makes it sound like I am experiencing a profound cultural identity crisis.

Home is where the heart is

Instead of pinning down my home on a world map, I am proud to say that I consider many places home. I felt (and still feel) at home in Baja California Sur, the most Southern peninsula of Mexico; where desert meets the ocean. It has already been two years since I lived in this town called San Jose del Cabo, the place I was doing an internship. I worked for a permaculture sustainability consultant and spent my Saturdays helping out with co-ordinating the local organic market. In my free time, I would grab my surfboard for a sunset session and ate fish taco’s… A lot of fish tacos. Oh, I cannot forget the well-deserved mezcals I happily enjoyed sipping on after work. Home is where the heart is, and my heart fell in love with the world of sustainability, the warmth of the Mexicans, the natural landscapes, history, food and people of this amazing country in Latin America.

Working at the Organic Market in San José del Cabo, Mexico

Rotterdam: the city of super-diversity

But, let’s go back to the urban jungle of social entrepreneurship, creativity hubs and eye-catching (read: odd-but-cool looking) architecture: Rotterdam. I have spent the first 18 years of my life here. Did you know this city is rich in 206 different nationalities? Well now you know!

Here is another fun fact: 70 percent of the youngsters in Rotterdam have a migrant background, which makes it a city of superdiversity. Quite impressive, right?

This super-diversity is reflected in its cultural events and festivities: celebrating Brazil’s summer carnival, tasting yummy treats at African food festivals, shaking that booty at Pal Mundo (the biggest indoor Latin & Caribbean festival of Europe), watching red dragons fly by on Chinese New Year, binge-watching arty-farty films at Rotterdam’s International Film Festival. I can continue with the list, but the point is: we celebrate our love for cultural diversity and try to make the best out of it. I mean, these cultural festivals sometimes make me feel like I am traveling through countries in my own city and I am proud to say that I have spent the majority of my life in this amazing city.

Let me give you some reasons why I am proud. My parents came to the Netherlands in the late 80s. Their decision to move to Rotterdam was a tough one. Building up their new life and adapting to a country that is culturally different from their home country has formed them into the strong people they are today. Likewise, I am not afraid to say that growing up in Rotterdam has positively shaped me into the person that I am today: a striver with a niet lullen, maar poetsen (‘less talking, more action’) mentality, open-minded, structured, with a free spirit. The ‘raw’ look of the city and creativity of its inhabitants inspire me to do things passionately.

Rotterdam is a daredevil; it embraces the unknown and is not afraid of change. Rotterdam is a hard worker; it has transformed from a city heavily bombarded during World War II into a modern architect’s playground. The city’s fast and creative reconstruction was a collective action of its inhabitants. And, even though I have not experienced the phase of reconstruction, I must say I am pretty proud I can call myself a Rotterdammert (‘a local’).

Let’s go back to my roots

Visiting the capital city of Belgrade on a yearly basis is what keeps me connected with my Serbian roots and my family members. I consider myself very lucky that I have spent my free Saturdays at a Serbian school in Rotterdam, where I learned to read and-write Serbian and discuss about the rich history and cultural stories of my parental country. Now, I can actually communicate with my family members. Big shout out to my parents who forced me to go to school on weekends!

‘Spot for making out’ – Belgrade

Winter wonderland at Belgrade, Serbia

I believe that living in between two cultures has gifted me the ability to recognize the beauty in each and every culture. My cultural fluidity allows me to pick the nice cultural traits from both cultures. Answering the question if I relate more to the Serbian or Dutch culture: I love the temperament of the Serbian people (e.g. dad’s phone conversations) and the family-comes-first tradition. Yet, I also admire the toughness of the Dutch. Rain? Wind? Storm? Snow? Dutchies are still hopping on their bikes. I love the mañana, mañana (‘tomorrow, tomorrow’) mentality in Serbia that reminds me of the Latino culture I feel so attracted to. And, I like the pro-active attitude towards sustainability-change of the new generation of Rotterdam.

So, in the midst of this sea of multiculturalism and my experience of cultural diaspora; who am I? Dutch? Serbian? Mixed? Nope, I am a ‘Rotterdammert’: a citizen of cultural fluidity, progress, out-of-the-box mentality and creativity.