Multi-Culti Me

A new project “Mother Tongue & Cultural Identity” uses music, art and literature to help young people understand where they came from

The Who I Am logo, an NGO allowing students to explore cultural identity | Photo courtesy of Who I Am

We, expatriates and cross-culture kids, have the fortune of knowing a lot about the world and its people – but sometimes we have a little trouble knowing ourselves.

We were born in Romania, but lived in America… or we have a Russian mother and German father, but study currently in Austria. For the youth in Vienna who experience this type of confusion – children of immigrants, expatriates and bi-cultural marriages, the students at multi-cultural or international schools – a new program in Vienna hopes that music, art and literature can help.

“Mother Tongue & Cultural Identity” is a pilot project giving children between ages ten and eighteen a chance to discover what it means to be from where ever it is they are from.  The project – the first of its kind in Vienna – launched by the NGO “Who I Am” is sponsored by the Vienna International School and its Parent-Teacher Association, the American Embassy, United Nations Information Service (UNIS) of Vienna, The City of Vienna, OPEC and UNESCO.

“The goal is to bring international and local communities together and give students a chance to reaffirm their cultural identity,” says Chadwick Williams, a teacher of English as a Second Language (ESL) at the Vienna International School and a founder of the initiative.  In a nutshell, he says, the idea is to give the students a list of key questions about cultural identity and mother tongue and the effects of living in an environment where they must constantly communicate in a language not their own. What role does their mother tongue play? How do they see their cultural identity? And how do others see it?

“A lot of deep questions,” Williams agrees, “to get beyond the typical, superficial food, flags and festivals. And then through that, use a medium of art to express it.”

Williams believes that questions such as these allow young people to step outside themselves and really analyze how having a certain cultural identity defines them, and differentiates them from the rest.  In this way, they are able to strengthen their understanding of one another through creativity and presenting who they are. Each cultural hallmark is celebrated; the invisible borders between individuals disappear, and the respect and understanding these children have for one another continues to grow and thrive. Over 120 student projects have been submitted from seventeen schools in Vienna and on Feb. 25, international and local communities will be brought together to celebrate these fresh and eye-opening findings.

It’s not just a fun art project without a purpose, Williams suggests. This reflection becomes an outlet for the children; a thought process that is reaffirming. Conversations ensue that in some cases may not have happened previously. New discussions with parents, teachers and peers are brought to the surface.

“For youth it’s all about identity…they’re creating their identity,” Williams said. And they are now getting the chance to delve into the types of questions that will help them discover and define who they are.

The project has set a target demographic in some of the less affluent districts of Vienna that often have high immigrant populations.

“Our goals are schools that have students coming from struggling families, students who are less fortunate,” Williams says. Ideally, they also hope to support positive shifts in behavior.

The works of art will be on display in the Rotunda of the UN from Feb. 22 through Mar. 2. The artists, authors, performers and composers of the artwork – including representatives of group efforts – will be present the night of the gala to clarify and expound on the meaning of their work. Williams explained how much anticipation he has for the evening. He said that, “to sit back, to watch and observe how people react and how they feel” will help him to improve upon the ideas and methods of the project for the future.

At the closing Gala in the Rotunda and Cafeteria at the UN Feb. 25, at 18:00, priority will go to students, parents, and teachers from the participating schools, followed by sponsors, guests and the general public, as available.  Four student projects selected by a jury will be performed at the Gala event. The musical ensemble Talespin will also be performing an Austrian fairytale.

A concept like this one is applicable to people everywhere, and if all goes well, Williams hopes the project will be reproduced in other cities.

“It’s easily replicable,” says Williams, “so it can be taken to other countries” — to make these questions a topic for open discussion; to broaden our understanding of cultural identity so young people on the move around the world can be confident in knowing exactly who they are.

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