Cultural Identity

I recently heard an interview with an author who was writing about cross-cultural identity. She had moved to the States from Africa in 2000. “You don’t have to cross an ocean to get a cross-cultural experience,” I thought.

Having just moved two states west (from Pennsylvania to Michigan), I am learning about cultural differences every day. Some of the differences between the two states are minor: there, soft drinks are called “soda” and here, “pop.” But other differences touch deeper issues of cultural identity.

One of the biggest differences is the basic Midwestern approach to life. Life seems to move at a slower pace here, and people tend to make more time for one another—whether it is family, a neighbor, a bank teller, sales clerk or even a bureaucrat.

In visits to the bank, I have heard about tellers’ children and vacations. Sales clerks go out of their way to be helpful. When people learn I recently moved here, I get a genuine “welcome to Michigan” and then often some questions about Pennsylvania. I have had to adjust to the fact that business transactions here are also social transactions.

Even when I went to get my driver’s license, the clerk welcomed me and asked how I was settling in. She made the connection that she had once worked with one of my sisters. As I stood at that counter, I realized I had been braced to be treated rudely, and I was greeted with kindness.

Here, people “chat,” and that is even how they say it: “I just stopped by for a chat.” On the first day in my new house, a neighbor came by to welcome me; and within my first two weeks here, I have already met six of my neighbors. People are downright friendly.

Food is an important piece of cultural identity, and in my first three months here, I have eaten more Middle Eastern food than I had in 28 years in PA. Polish restaurants are also popular, which suits me just fine. I work near Mexicantown, and there is also a Greektown section in downtown Detroit. Coney Island restaurants are to Detroit what cheesesteaks are to Philadelphia and people have preferences (National versus American).

Other aspects of cultural identity—clothing, music, religion, etc.—are all just a bit different here from eastern Pennsylvania. I find myself noting the differences and thinking of how my identity will change as I adapt to living in the Midwest.

6 thoughts on “Cultural Identity

  1. Anne Marie Lom

    How very true. We are shaped and formed by our circumstances. Allowing God to transform us and allowing ourselves the abundance that flows from transition is a daily spiritual practice. I’m in the midst of transition as well. Grace abounds.

  2. Elizabeth Mosier

    Fascinating! We were just in Ohio visiting colleges, and found the same thing. Your observation that “business transactions are social transactions” points to the difference between cultures, but also to a universal truth. Maybe in Philly, we just try to pretend that they aren’t! Thanks for this wise post, Madeline!

    1. Madeline Bialecki

      i think in Philly talking about the weather counts as “social transaction”–it is safer than talking about our families or anything more personal. Here, the weather is just the weather, and no one seems to find it interesting enough to discuss (even when the dark clouds hover overhead or torrential rains fall). Yet one more cultural difference.

  3. Marie Morrissey


    I’m really happy for you that the cultural identity in Michigan has been so welcoming to you.  Hopefully, that is making your transition a little easier.

    Even though your identity may change, I can’t imagine it changing the real person you are.  May each day bring you God’s gifts and the gift of giving His love to others.



  4. Madeline Bialecki

    I had someone stop in the other day, and after about an hour’s visit, I realized I had not offered her anything to drink or eat–not very midwestern of me, I am afraid. It is a slow process.


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