What I learned from my "third culture kid" experience, part 2
In the second part of this two-part series, OMer Meredith shares her experience as a "third culture kid," growing up on the mission field and what she learned about embracing your cultural identity, as well as becoming part of the change you want to see in both your and your parents' cultures. Read part one here.
1. This too shall pass
I know that I said that you should take risks, but there are also times when you make all the effort you can, and the situation is still awkward. Remember geeky Tula in the cafeteria with her big glasses and moussaka, eating lunch alone? You don’t want that to be you, but maybe it was you, or it still is.
There were moments when I was the MK on a summer furlough who didn’t know my peers at church or summer camp, and I didn’t always enjoy it. Sometimes this is unavoidable. There are some things you can’t change about the situation around you.
Maybe the kids in your class have all pegged you as the outsider, and there’s nothing you can do but wait for them to grow up, or you need to move schools. That doesn’t mean give up on having friends or enjoying life, but it does mean that life phases are just that: phases.
Perhaps at this moment, you still feel new and strange in whatever culture you’re currently residing. It won’t last forever. It may have taken Tula 30 years, but she managed to get past the awkward phase. Sometimes, the people around you need to grow up, and sometimes you need to grow up. Have the maturity to look past how things are now and see that you won’t be in a social rut forever.
2. Figure out who you are, not what culture you’re from
Though you may never be able to answer the question, “Where are you from?” you can start figuring out how to answer the question, “Who are you?”
One of the most enjoyable parts of watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding is seeing Tula come into herself. Interestingly, the more that she takes the risks to move forward in life, the more successful she becomes in her American identity, as well as her Greek identity.
As she starts working in a job she likes, she becomes happier, and her whole family notices it. She begins taking more care of her appearance and starts looking more “Greek,” in a way. She becomes louder and more full of life, and this also attracts Ian, who is non-Greek. By focusing on developing herself and living a life she enjoys, she faces some opposition from her family but eventually wins the respect of her family, as well as others.
Wherever you are in life, it is not too early or too late to start figuring out who you are as a person. I was given the advice in college, to make a “Wow!” and “Yuck!” list. On one piece of paper, I wrote all the things that made me go “Wow!” and on the other paper, all the things that made me go “Yuck!” This was very revealing for me, to see where my interests and also talents lie.
Try making a “wow” and “yuck” list. Find ways to pursue the things you are passionate about. Look for qualities in yourself that remain constant whatever culture you are in. A person comfortable in their own skin is attractive to the people around, no matter what their culture.
3. Culture identity isn’t everything
There is a point where the TCK experience goes beyond Tula’s classic immigrant experience, and then you see that you can’t just work on pinpointing your own cultural identity, because it’s too darn complicated. You need to focus on something deeper.
Take this scenario for example: Imagine that before Tula graduated from high school, her parents took a job in Spain and moved in the middle of her 10th grade year. Imagine then that she returned to Greece for university. Afterwards, she moved to Nicaragua to work in an international company.
Now, Tula’s life sounds more like many TCKs that I have met, and more like my own. If all these things were true, then you would see Tula’s cultural identity falling on even rockier ground. After a life of growing up as a Greek in America, she finds herself trying to adapt to Spain and a new language. Once she has somewhat adjusted to that, she ends up back in Greece, her “home-culture.”
However, now she realizes that after years of feeling she was the odd-one-out on the block and in the cafeteria in the States, now she is not truly Greek either. She does not understand the cultural experience of her peers who grew up solely in Greece. They see her as not-quite Greek, and she admits to herself that it is hard to call herself Greek, even if she walks and talks like it. When she moves to Nicaragua, she is entering the familiar environment of the unknown. People ask her where she is from. She replies Greece, but in many things she does, she acts like an American. She returns to visit the States, but that is not her home anymore either.
Yes, the TCK life is confusing. However, would all of Tula’s attempts to adapt to her cultures, become a complete loss when she moves again? Must she always start from ground zero in a new place? I don’t think so.
For sure Tula’s idea of herself as Greek would be tested if she returned to Greece and found how Greek and how un-Greek her family in America had been. For myself, I’ve found that my goal should not be to constantly try to figure out how much I fit into each of my cultures (although that is often on my mind). That is part of life, but it is also exhausting when the situation is constantly changing.
I think that the lessons that Tula learned about herself, of figuring out who she was, what she liked to do, and how to love those around her, are lessons that she can carry with her wherever she goes. I believe that even if she were to return to Greece, she would have found it easier to adapt to Greek culture, because she was already sure of herself and her ability to take risks, change, and find her way. The earlier we learn to put our energy into that, rather than into culturally "naming" ourselves, the better.
Pay attention to your cultural influences but don’t let them define you. If you are a Christian, then you can take comfort that all followers of Christ, even non-TCKs and immigrants, are “aliens and strangers on earth” (Hebrews 11:13). You will probably still yearn for a home and cultural identity, but God’s love and continual work of molding you will remain constant wherever you are. He is the only one who isn’t confused about your cultural identity, and while He’s enjoying the hodge-podge of cultures in your life, you can too.