“I don’t know who I am anymore.” While this may sound like an odd statement to those who have never moved cross-culturally, it is one we’ve heard many times. It usually hits right in the peak of culture shock, right around six months after arriving in the new context.
Some may describe it as a loss of identity, but I don’t think that accurately portrays the reality of the situation. I believe it is associated not with a loss of identity, but the process of gaining a new one.
My daughter recently received a letter from someone wanting to know what the most difficult thing of being a third-culture kid is. My daughter’s answer? She said the hardest part is moving from one place to another and never really fitting in anywhere anymore. In her honest teenage way, she accurately described the feeling that many of us experience. We feel like we are no longer just American (or wherever you’re from), and we are not Bolivian or South African (or wherever your host culture is).
There are some aspects of our identity that we are locked into, such as what nationality we were born with, what our mother tongue is and what our general appearance is like. There are other aspects that can change. Some we change ourselves, such as what languages we speak, our level of education and even the job title we take on. We find significance and meaning in our identity and when a certain aspect of us changes, it’s easy to become frustrated or even fearful.
I love to cook, and I’ve been able to pick up cooking techniques and recipes from all over the world. We can compare our struggle to understand our emerging identity with cooking a pot of soup. Let’s say I put in some beef ribs and let them simmer a few hours. Now I have broth that smells delicious but doesn’t have much flavor in and of itself. I add in a few potatoes and the soup starts to take shape.
It’s hard to tell which direction it’s heading, and I throw in a bit of onion. Now it’s looking like it could be a beef stew for a nice winter’s dinner. But no, I want to mix things up a bit and throw in some cilantro, season it with salt and pepper and gently break an egg to simmer on the top of the soup. Though it has some of the same ingredients, I no longer have a thick beef stew for a cold winter’s night, instead, I have Caldo de Costilla, a filling Colombian breakfast soup that is served with a side of arepas.
The base of the soup is our home culture. Each ingredient added represents different experiences we’ve had and the level that we’ve come to understand our host culture. As we work at deepening our relationships with those around us, we begin to see things from their perspective. Our new world begins to change us. We understand better why they chose cilantro instead of carrot. Adding the egg on top begins to make sense as we think about the soup needing to be filling for the day ahead. We can even come to appreciate eating the soup in the morning instead of at night, thus changing what we would normally do in our home cultures.
Our lives begin to take on a richness as our world view expands. We begin to see that we are no longer locked into seeing things from only one perspective. God is very creative. We can see that in the act of his creating the world and everything in it. He created it for his own glory as well as for our enjoyment. He has made each of us with different physical characteristics, personalities and gifts. We’ve all had different experiences and come from a variety of backgrounds.
God uses that huge mishmash of what makes us and those around us unique to help grow us and change us into what he wants us to be and who he can use. We begin to see that our host brothers and sisters have qualities and ways of doing things that can enrich our lives, challenge us in our thinking and influence the way we do things and can be used by God.
Our identity is not something we have to struggle with, rather we need to embrace it as it continues to change, and we grow into a different and better version of ourselves. We do not lose our identity; we add to it.