“You turned Asian before my very eyes,” a colleague told me after a potentially explosive parent-teacher conference with a Middle Eastern, immigrant family.
My colleagues had been worried the parent was stressing her child with unreasonable demands; the parent was worried the school was denying her child a competitive education. Deep down, I sided with the parent. How many times had I, a second-generation American parent of Indian descent, demanded more rigorous work for my child? How many times had teachers thought I pushed my child too hard? To push my daughter to her greatest potential while also holding her hand is my idea of good parenting. It’s how I was raised. But as a Third Culture Kid (TCK), defined by the late sociologist Ruth Hill Useem as someone raised in a culture other than that of their caregivers, I had grown up in the American education system. Therefore, I could translate between the cultures and keep the conflict at bay.
Many, like my colleagues, would call my unique vantage point “biculturalism,” suggesting the existence of two separate cultures within me, between which I can switch at will. University of Texas Education Professor Seth J. Schwartz and Professor of Preventative Medicine at University of Southern California Jennifer Unger define biculturalism as “proficiency” and “comfort” with “both one’s heritage culture and the culture of the country or region in which one has settled.” Hence, bicultural acculturation, a goal that many teachers have to help students become bicultural, is noble and additive in nature, similar to how Dual Language Education programs seek to help students become fully bilingual. Yet culture and language are not the same. If they were, it would mean I could be “American” around “Americans” and “Indian” around “Indians.” I can’t. Culture cannot be separated out this way in individuals.
The fact is, TCKs like me do grow up in two cultures. However, we gain total proficiency in neither. In my own case, my proficiency lies in the Indian culture when it comes to food. I am well versed in idlis and chapatis but have no idea how to eat spaghetti. On the other hand, I have made more clothing faux pas at Indian events than at American ones. I don’t know how to wear a sari, and while I keep current on Western fashion trends, my Desi clothes are time stamped.
Comfort within cultures, the second requirement for biculturalism, is also an elusive goal for TCKs. For instance, when I meet an Indian gentleman, my right hand literally aches to shake his. Yet, I am proficient enough in the Indian culture not to touch men outside my immediate family. Among Westerners, if my foot accidentally touches someone, that same right hand aches to touch them and then touch my eyes, a symbolic gesture to honor God, who resides in each person. But I am proficient enough in the Western culture to know how that would be perceived. Instead, I apologize while touching the other person’s arm in a show of contrition, and as soon as I get a chance to do so inconspicuously, I touch my eyes. In both cases, my physical body, in which cultural codes are embedded, resists code-switching, causing me both physical and mental discomfort.
A blend exists within each of us TCKs that allows us to navigate the world before us, but that mixture will always differ depending on whether or how often we visit the lands of our heritage cultures, how traditional our parents were before immigrating and even our own personalities.
That’s why, instead of encouraging biculturalism, educators need to encourage what I term “transcultural acculturation.” I define transcultural acculturation as the process through which TCKs accept and honor that the intersection of cultural identities within them creates complex and unique individuals. We must give students opportunities to recognize that they belong to multiple identity groups, to appreciate the intersection of those identities and to explore their cultural fusions.
Encouraging Transcultural Acculturation
First, students must be given opportunities to recognize and explore their multiple identity groups. One activity I have found useful is making class quilts in which each square represents a student in the classroom. Students, on their squares, name and illustrate the source(s) of their cultural identities. For this project to work, the locus of control as to what goes on the square must reside with the student. Students should not be forced to include parts of their heritage if they do not, at that moment, feel the connection. Once students complete their squares, provide a safe space where students may talk about the quilt. This allows students to verbalize the complexity of who they are and hear that other students are similarly complex.
Additionally, have honest conversations with your students about transcultural acculturation. As a springboard for conversation, I often share a clip from the movie Selena, in which the titular character’s father laments that he, a Mexican American, has to be “more Mexican than the Mexicans” and “more American than the Americans” to be accepted. Ask your students if they feel the same way. Let students know that it is OK to not be proficient in either culture and that their value lies in their unique combinations of cultural traits.
Another source I share with students is a scene in Chapter 8 from Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America by Firoozeh Dumas, in which the main character, Firoozeh, an 11-year-old Persian American girl, wants the American experience of going to camp. But due to the emphasis on modesty in her home culture, she becomes uncomfortable upon discovering that the shower stalls at camp do not have doors. After sharing this piece, have students identify times when their cultural values have similarly conflicted. Talk to them about accepting the inevitable discomfort that comes with such conflicts and provide them space to define their own value system to navigate these issues.
Finally, look for opportunities to discuss and validate how students’ identities shape their perceptions. My daughter read “The Fisherman and His Wife” at school, and her class discussed the story’s moral. The teacher taught that the moral was, “Don’t be greedy,” whereas my daughter, who interpreted the wise fish to represent an elder, saw it as, “Listen to your elders.” My daughter determined that her answer was influenced by her Asian culture, which emphasizes respect for elders. Similar cultural conflicts will inevitably arise in your classroom, and it’s important to use them not only to discuss cultural differences but to talk about students’ complex identities and how they influence students’ understanding of the world. For instance, just because my daughter had an Asian lens when determining the moral of the story does not mean that she will use the same lens to characterize the main characters.
Discussing this complexity allows us to let our students know that when they “become” Asian, Mexican, Middle Eastern or any other culture in front of our very eyes and then “switch” to being American, without warning, it’s not only OK—it’s appreciated.