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On Being a Cultural Chameleon

By Catalina Irigoyen

As someone who’s spent the majority of their life outside their country of citizenship, I’ve had to learn how to adapt and assimilate to different cultures than my own. I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and have lived in Uruguay, Ecuador, Spain, Mexico, and both Connecticut and Iowa in the United States. While I could get away with speaking my native language, Spanish, in most of these locations, the cultural expectations and traditions varied. Even within South America, there are vast cultural differences between nations, variations in how the Spanish language is spoken, accents of any and every kind, and even different holidays. Growing up moving every two years was hard at first because, as a young girl, it never allowed me to be rooted in a location and culture and form long-lasting friendships. However, as the years went on, I was able to slip in and out of cultural contexts with ease. It wasn’t until recently, when I was thinking about what that meant for me, that I thought of the concept of being a ‘cultural chameleon,’ only to discover it already existed. I began to read articles about being a cultural chameleon and what this entails, and found myself feeling identified. 

In short, here is what being a cultural chameleon is: someone who can blend in with cultures far different than their own. In other words, someone who is both accustomed to, and good at, assimilation. There are some limitations to this, seeing as cultural assimilation means to abandon one’s own culture for another set of traditions and ideals - usually the dominant culture in the area that person inhabits. Personally, I have reached a point where, twenty years into cultural chameleonism, I do not feel the push to let go of my original culture and everything it encompasses. However, this was not always the case. When I was younger, it was harder to feel secure in my own culture and accent, because any time I’d move, people would do things or speak differently. I remember moving from Spain to Mexico (which have two distinct ways of speaking, as well as abysmal cultural differences) and the kids in my grade found it hard to relate to me until I was able to adopt their slang, incorporate that accent in my own way, and understand their history. It was almost like I had to become so many different versions of myself, from the way I talked to the way I navigated social expectations. I used to say I was a ‘citizen of the world,’ because it felt like nobody claimed me. 

In recent years, I’ve become more grounded in who I am, culturally, and realized I can be a cultural chameleon without casting aside my roots. Having an origin shouldn’t hinder my ability to navigate spaces the way I have been able to. Cultural chameleonism is a strange, modern-day form of survival of the fittest, and I saw it as nothing more than this for most of my life. In reality, it should be seen as more of an ability than a label - just because someone is adaptable doesn’t mean they have to be a blank slate. This misconception led to a lot of confusion in my own life about my cultural identity and about where I feel grounded geographically. It’s taken many years to grow out of that, but it’s possible to change without losing your core. Chameleons take on the color of whatever surface they find themselves on but, at the end of the day, they remain a chameleon, and I believe there’s something to be learned from that.

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