Blending cultural identities: raising multicultural kids when you are culturally homeless

“Who are you and where are you from?” – these two questions are supposed to define ourselves but for a lot of people they are very difficult to answer. If somebody asks me now: “Where are you from?” what should I reply? I am from Belgium, however I am not Belgian. I am originally from Latvia, I hold Latvian nationality, I did my University studies in Latvian and worked in that language. I have a mother tongue fluency in Latvian and a solid knowledge of history and culture of Latvia, yet… I am not Latvian. I am ethnically Russian, but I have only been to Russia twice and not to, so-to-say, “deep-Russia” but to Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, and for a total of less than 3 weeks. What I remember vividly from those trips is that I was culturally shocked in what I believed to be my culture. I consider English to be my home language now because this is the language I talk percentage-wise the most: and with my husband and with a lot of my friends. Those who hear me talk English without knowing that this ain’t my mother tongue based on the accent assume I am American. Yet I am obviously neither American (haven’t even been to the States yet), nor even technically English-speaking as such. I was born in the Soviet Union, however the Soviet Union broke down before I even started elementary school, so for those who understand – I haven’t even had a chance to be oktyabryonok. Wait, it gets worse! Even my name – in my Belgian ID my family name is “Wynants”, yet in my Latvian passport – I am “Vinantsa” transliterated according to Latvian language rules. So who am I and where am I from actually? To think about it – I am culturally homeless.

If things are so complex with myself how am I supposed to raise my kids? And who are my kids going to be? Belgian? Wait, there is no “Belgian” as in this country things are also kinda mixed up. Flemish? But they are exposed to Russian culture and language a lot, and their first words were in Russian. Plus, they hear hell of a lot of English and to my horror (giggle) start to understand it as well, despite the fact that we never directly address them in English. So this is a difficult question that I am still in the process of exploring it for myself, thus I am always eager to hear other people’s experiences and thoughts.

While researching the subject myself I have stumbled upon a term “Third Culture Kids” (there are quite a few TED-videos on the subject if someone is interested). The term “third culture kid” or TCK itself was first coined in the mid-20 century to describe the children of American citizens working and living abroad. The “third culture” comes from the fact that parents have one culture, the place where a family lives has another culture, but the kids raised in such circumstances create a sort of an amalgamation of two cultures mentioned to create something of their own – hence the third culture. However, I do consider that with globalization and with an enhanced mobility this term should be expanded to include all those people who grew up under a significant impact of diverse cultures. It is no longer a 20 km life! More and more people are born in one place, go study to another, then go working to yet another and settle somewhere completely else with somebody from a different culture, and maybe after a while are again on the move. This is a reality already now and it will be even more so when today’s kids grow up. So the question “Where are you from?” is no longer simple.

On the one hand this sort of cultural homelessness creates a lot of difficulties in self-identification, but on the bright side this also brings enormous opportunities, such as an expanded worldview, an enhanced cultural intelligence, a 3D view of the world if you will. But then again, consider a situation: a family is sitting in front of TV watching, let’s say, football. Which national team is everyone supporting? Think about it for a moment. This silly example portrays a situation which might be psychologically difficult for parents to accept. We are talking about confused loyalties, about different values, about accepting that your kid doesn’t share your identity. But then again, the beauty is that you have a choice. Nowadays you can choose to define yourself not just based on the ethnicity, not based on the location where you were born or where you currently live. You can choose to define yourself by different categories: by your own personal values, by your own beliefs and not just by a tag somebody placed on you. Thus, there are for sure lots and lots of positive consequences of blending cultures if you approach the subject with an open mind.

Also as a parent there are myriads of benefits that you are able to give your kids (language, traditions, literature, perception, even food habits,…) provided that you yourself are open and willing to expand your personal worldview; if you are willing to explore your own culture and the other cultures you encounter on your way. Without prejudice, without judging, with a sincere wish to understand and enrich yourself. I guess that would help us all a lot and would allow to raise a truly multicultural people of the future.

 

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6 thoughts on “Blending cultural identities: raising multicultural kids when you are culturally homeless”

  1. I really like the way you look at it. I think more and more people with international careers or interests or who migrated at some point in their life, struggle with the same questions. I live in Belgium, I was born Italian, but as my father changed his nationality, so did I become Belgian. My mother is Dutch-Belgian-German, a typical inhabitant of a border region. I married a Belgian who was brought up in Holland and our daughter is brought up in Dutch, French and English. Even I, as a ‘real’ Belgian, struggle with the notion of having a clear cultural identity. I sometimes wonder if we are not too influenced by this idea that you can only belong to one culture. I don’t believe that. I think humans have been ‘blending’ cultures for ages and this idea that national identity and culture are the only identity we have is just false. As individuals our identities are made up of so many aspects, and we choose ourselves what we find the most important aspects of that identity.

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  2. Thank you for addressing this topic, so relevant for many of us. I happen to also deal with it professionally (European Federation for Intercultural Learning) – I could recommend lots of literature on the subject. The concept of “culture” itself is increasingly blurry, certainly going beyond geography, ethnicity or language. As you said, humans have complex identities and there is a large degree of choice we have here. But at the same time there are still some aspects of identity which we can’t choose, there is still a big influence that external “labels” have on us, and our identities even subconsciously change in every encounter and life circumstance – it is very relational.
    The things I am asking myself (esp. in the context of my own family) is not if the question “where are you from” is simple, but rather: will it continue being relevant, as the time passes? Will my children want to bother asking and answering this question? Why are humans so attached to placing others, or themselves? Will most people eventually be uncomfortable with feeling somewhat culturally de-rooted (there are these stories of people looking for their “lost cultural identities”) or will it be more and more OK, as the phenomenon grows?
    Aah, it is a huge topic… 🙂

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  3. Thank you for addressing this topic, so relevant for many of us. I happen to also deal with it professionally (European Federation for Intercultural Learning) – I could recommend lots of literature on the subject. The concept of “culture” itself is increasingly blurry, certainly going beyond geography, ethnicity or language. As you said, humans have complex identities and there is a large degree of choice we have here. But at the same time there are still some aspects of identity which we can’t choose, there is still a big influence that external “labels” have on us, and our identities even subconsciously change in every encounter and life circumstance – it is very relational.
    The things I am asking myself (esp. in the context of my own family) is not if the question “where are you from” is simple, but rather: will it continue being relevant, as the time passes? Will my children want to bother asking and answering this question? Why are humans so attached to placing others, or themselves? Will most people eventually feel uncomfortable with feeling somewhat culturally de-rooted (there are these stories of people looking for their “lost cultural identities”) or will it be more and more OK, as the phenomenon grows?
    Aah, it is a huge topic. 🙂

    Like

  4. This is a very interesting topic. Similar to you, I was born in a country (Indonesia), brought up there, know the language very well, still call it home, and yet I am not ethnically from there. I have been to my ethnical country (China), for holidays, and I just couldn’t identify myself with them at all. What makes things even more difficult is I moved around a lot. In each country that I have lived in, I got to know the culture, the people, etc; that I also call those places home. If I am confused, I can only imagine what my son is feeling. He is brought up by a culturally confused mother who talks to him in multiple languages in a sentence. As part of globalization, my hope is that he won’t be the only one in such situation.

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