When Your Cultural Identity is Adrift

Who Am I? That’s a difficult question for anyone to answer, let alone expats nevermind the children of those expats.

I remember my first time living abroad. As an American, we delight in our ethnic heritage, saying something like “I’m 50% Irish, 30% Polish, 10% German and 10% Cherokee”. I had said something to that effect to an Irish guy at a pub one night. He lashed out at me, ” You are NOT Irish. You are American. Nothing about you is Irish and you know nothing about Ireland, I bet.” It stung, and he shattered my cultural paradigm. I was deeply humbled. Although I might be a 3rd generation Irish, he was right, there was nothing about me that declared I was Irish other than this family history. Culturally I walked, talked and dressed like an American. I thought like an American. I liked American music and movies. I cared about American politics and issues. It was really the country and culture that I identified with. From that point on, I embraced being American, rather than caring about my genetic lineage.

But technically I haunaltered home.jpgve lived over 12 years overseas, a significant portion of my adult life. When I come back to America, I often go through reverse culture shock. I have a hard time relating to other’s view of the world, and what they feel is culturally significant like the Bachelorette or Unicorn drinks. This past summer was so challenging for me, with all the politics, I really struggled with all the intensity and polarization. Moreover, I really couldn’t understand how we had come to such a juncture in our history that hatred and misogyny were becoming a “thing” again. It really devastated so much of the tenderness and appreciation I have for my country and the people who I love there. So now I find myself in a strange sort of void, in which I do not really resonate with the culture I live in geographically but don’t really feel American all that much either. Although my accent remains, so much of national pride has withered away with my lack of attention and focus on America. It’s a strange and terrible feeling. It now seems like my cultural identity has become untethered, and will remain adrift.

For my daughter, she too is somewhere in between 2 worlds–the worlds of her parent’s heritage and the country in which she lives. They have a name for her kind: Third Culture Kids. She has lived most of her life outside of her parent’s culture and is used to traveling and living in different places in which things are foreign. She connects with others not through language as much as feelings. However, I didn’t expect last year’s summer trip to impact my daughter so greatly. As much as she loved being with my family and friends, enjoying new foods and experiences, it really stressed her out. She stared at these “real American” children with confusion and amusement, literally, and at one time, when we were camping, some boys called her a freak and pretended to shoot her. It genuinely stunned her. Luckily since she is so well traveled and resilient, she managed it well, but as one month turned into two months, her nerves did fray. My husband told me about one day when she fled downstairs to the basement in tears, wondering if the “black men” were coming and how he could protect her. It was all the conversation and media messages that she was exposed to with the “Black Lives” vs. “Blue Lives” Matter debate that got her feeling paranoid, which was sad since ironically she is a child of color, as my husband is dark skinned.

In 2 months from now, we will touch down in Chicago, spending 3 weeks in America– a much shorter visit this time. As much as I look forward to seeing my family and friends, I absolutely dread this feeling of disconnection, especially with Trump’s presidency bringing tension and conflict to an all-time high. After this brief visit, I will step out of my homeland and my foot will land upon a new country, Laos, with its own complexities and challenges which my family will have to navigate. I remain hopeful that we will set down roots there, an antirumi field.jpgdote to this unease, making friends and building a life of joy and peace there. However, Who Am I? clearly is not a question that can be answered with nationhood or birth origins. Its answer, I imagine, that is somewhere in a vast space, the field that Rumi writes about in his poem.

Perhaps I will see you there.

Instructions Not Included

I am a parent. Like most parents, my child did not come with any instructions, and, although I am an educator, that doesn’t mean that I know everything about kids. In fact, I feel even more self-conscious since my parenting is probably more judged since I’m supposed to be an expert. Alas, I do my best.

And, I definitely have given it some thought. I know as a parent, I have a ridiculous amount of responsibility for sculpting my child’s disposition and interest.  I am Hannah’s first and her last teacher, like most parents, because my influence is the most enduring. So if I hope to impart some lessons in life that I hope Hannah gets from me, it would be….

  1. That she matters and the world is a bit brighter because of her. Her ideas are important and worthy to be shared.
  2. That there are no problems which are too difficult to solve. We may not have the answers today, but we should never give up on looking.
  3. To say “Yes” to life–take risks and be willing to look foolish. Don’t let the “good opinion” of others stop you from trying something.
  4. No matter what life throws at you, there’s some good in it.  Look for the blessing.
  5. That she is connected to all people–so be friendly. They are all family, God’s children, and we should find what is loveable about them and ways to show that we care.
  6. That she is connected to all life, for that matter–so be a steward to animals and our planet whenever you have the chance.
  7. That she is loved, no matter what and we want to see her to become her best self.

we-talk-to-our-children-parenting-quoteAlvin Price said, ” Parents need to fill a child’s bucket of self-esteem so high that the rest of the world can’t poke enough holes to drain it dry”.  I feel that is some good advice and I often try to focus on what I love about her.  Hannah is funny and imaginative.  She’s one of coolest people I know and I really enjoy spending time with her.

The other day she invited me into her “world” in Minecraft. Let me tell you, I did NOT want to play Minecraft with her. Really, I didn’t. As a busy adult, I have plenty of stuff to do. But she was really proud of what she created and she wanted me to see it virtually. So I downloaded the app on my iPhone, created a character and added her as a friend. Suddenly I was in her “Love World”. She had made me my own house and she taught me how to fly, tame a horse, feed the pigs and drink invisibility potion. I would never have thought I’d enjoy hanging out with her “virtually”, but it was important to her so I made it important to me.

I heard in an interview with John Crowley, the man portrayed in the movie Extraordinary Measures, the details of his search for a cure for his kids’ Pompe disease. It is an amazing story. He founded a biotech company in order to “buy some time” with his daughter and one of his sons. In fact, he and his wife have 3 children, 2 of which has this debilitating Pompe disease which makes them wheelchair bound and the other child has Asperberger’s disease. Can you imagine that?–all 3 children are special needs! And the man had such great humility, I was astonished. In it, he spoke about his daughter, Meaghan, and how she has “raised him”, not necessarily the other way around. But it’s true–children do help raise us into the adults we wish to be. Because our example is so significant to them and our love for our children are so great, we strive to be more and do more good.

For kids, instructions weren’t included either, and yet they figure us parents out too. I suppose that is the power of unconditional love: it gives us strength, patience, and joy as we endure our failings and uplift one another.  Now, who can really write a manual on that?

What lasting lessons do you want your children to have?

What do you think your children are teaching you?