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Identity Formation of Third Culture Kids, Part 2

(This is a continuation of my previous blog post, Third Culture Kids, Part 1, summarizing what I learned through Becca McMartin's TCK seminar at Christian Academy in Japan (CAJ), so please read that post before you read Part 2.)

Becca and NozomiWhen the speaker Becca McMartin (pictured with me) left her "home" in Haiti and returned to her "passport country" of the United States to go to college, she shared that there were many people there to welcome her with open arms. They were SO happy to see her, and kept implying things like, "Aren't you glad to be HOME? Welcome BACK to where you belong!" type of statements. People were overjoyed to have her back, but she was dying on the inside. America was where her physical appearance (very fair skinned and very blond!) fits in, but not her heart. Her identity had become so Haitian, that it made it very painful to return "home" to America. And not too many people could identify with that.

However, Becca said that the funny thing about TCK's on any college campus is that within the first week, all of the TCK's will have found each other. And they will have shown each other photo album after photo album of their various cultural adventures. And of course, the inevitable party with all the ethnic foods represented in the group. "Ahhhh," they breathe a sigh of relief. "They understand me. I belong."

Her story helped me to understand more regarding the identity formation of TCK's. There are some "classic" options that the kids end up choosing as their form of identity:

  • One is the culture that they currently live in.
  • The second is the "passport culture", which is the parents' country.
  • The third option is that they will choose NOT to identify themselves with any culture, but would choose a common activity/hobby/talent, and that would be the child's identity.
  • Another option is for the child to always say, "I'm OTHER." This child knows enough about each culture that he would choose, on purpose, to dress or behave differently enough to not fit in. Because he feels different on the inside no matter what location, he chooses to let everyone know it by appearance and behavior.

When "normal" people are asked, "Where are you from?," there is usually a very simple answer. "I'm from Texas"--and that is what the person identifies himself as--a Texan. Simple and straightforward. This is where I'm from, no question about it. When TCK's are asked the same question, there is usually a very detailed explanation first of where they were born, where their parents are originally from, and how long they've lived in the current culture and why, and a further explanation of which culture they most identify themselves with and why, and how many languages they speak. It's a running joke among TCK'ers to say that it takes them 15 minutes to answer that seemlingly simple question.

The challenge is the fact that "no group represents all of who they are." You can pretty much fit in anywhere, which means you don't fit in 100 % anywhere, either. There is never a place where you feel like you completely assimilate and totally belong... which leads to loneliness. Further complicating their identity is the issue of the parents' opinions and loyalties. When the mom and dad are really wanting the children to NOT forget the ways of their passport country, they may go overboard in forcing them to wear the "traditional dress" of the country for photo shoots, or attend cultural celebrations that the kids really don't care to go to, or Saturday school to keep the mother tongue, etc....

We had some really great interaction with the various parents of children who attend Christian Academy in Japan, and we discussed the following ways in which we can encourage our children's global identity:

  • Understand they will be different; they will never be a "normal" mono-cultural person, and that's okay.
  • Each child in your family will be different.
  • They are not you. Don't expect them to be.
  • Give them space to try things out. DON'T FREAK OUT when they do!
  • Honor the different parts of them; encourage them all.
  • Help them develop a broad, global self concept.
  • Empower them to live fully in all of who they are, their full self with all their gifts.
  • TCK's find home in relationships. Be a stable, relational family.

All this information, of course, got me really thinking about how I responded as a TCK, and how my identity was formed. A typical thing that happens is that identiy formation for TCK's are often delayed. It takes a long time for that person to figure out, "Who am I, and where do I belong?" I think this was true in my case. It took me a very long time to come to terms with my banana-ness (i.e., yellow on the outside, white on the inside).

I moved to the United States when I was 8. My parents placed me and my 2 older sisters in a regular public school as soon as we arrived. We spoke NO English whatsoever. My first cultural experience was meeting Mrs. Copeland, my 2nd grade teacher. She hugged me at the door of the classroom. That was my very first hug, ever! After a while, I remember being able to say clearly, "I can't speak English well because I've only been here for 3 months." That's pretty good for 3 months! I went from the lowest reading level to the highest in a couple of years. Even with the language acquisition, though, I was teased constantly, every single day of every single year of elementary school. They'd make fun of my name, my eyes, and my nose. Seriously, not one day went by without someone reminding me that I was Japanese (in a negative way). Naturally, this led me to not like being Japanese very much, and I began to reject, in my heart, my passport country.

I went through middle school and high school speaking English outside of the home, and reverting to Japanese as soon as I walked through my door. I felt American, thought like one, and behaved like one. By the time I was attending Columbia Bible College, my identity as an American was so strong that even though God gave me a heart for missions, I'd think to myself, "Anywhere BUT Japan." I never attended prayer meetings for Japan, and especially did not like missionaries who had gone to Japan... they drove me nuts.

85% American 15% JapaneseEven my attempt on summer missons to teach English in Japan left me confirming the fact that my identity was very strongly American. That summer, I took a photo of myself standing between the 2 flags to represent the confusion that I was feeling on the inside. It was around this time that I met Jeff in college, who had just returned from teaching in Japan for a year and was all excited about meeting me, a Japanese person. Instinctively, I gave him the cold shoulder and ran the other way for 2 years!

Well, to make the very long story short, God obviously changed my heart in major ways, since I ended up marrying that boy. Jesus helped me to find my identity as a CHILD OF GOD! I belong to Jesus! I have a place of citizenship in Heaven. I became certain of who I am in Jesus Christ. I learned to CELEBRATE my banana-ness!! And of course, there is the whole other story about God's call on my life to go to Japan as a missionary, but that's for another time. The focus right now is the fact that my identity crisis had been resolved as a young adult, even though it took a very long time.

I love both parts of me... the American and the Japanese. I wouldn't change this experience for the world.

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