Perhaps the first image that comes to your mind when you think about culture is your ethnicity, race, country of origin, socio-economic status, or even food. It really is the lens through which you perceive reality.
When I used to think about it, I just came up with a blur! An identity crisis of some sort gripped me.
I was born and raised outside my parent’s “home” culture (first culture). As a teenager, I thought I completely identified with my “foreign” culture (second culture) till I realized that the second culture clearly identified the subtle foreignness in me. This created a crisis for me because I was not part of one or the other. I was an “in-between”, or a Third Culture Individual! I wanted to belong somewhere. So, I mostly hung out with my other “in-between” friends who shared my socio-cultural rootlessness. This didn’t solve my identity crisis.
Socio-culturally, Third Culture is an environment where psychological traits like identity and belonging are blurred. This concept was first studied by John and Ruth Useem in the 1950’s while researching the children of military personnel and missionaries serving overseas. In particular, the effects of living in a foreign culture on their interpersonal behavior, norms, perspectives, and communication.
In an increasingly globalized world today, the concept could be expanded – and has become very relevant – to almost any form of migration between countries, cultures, and societies.
How do people deal with it?
Whatever – Thinking about it makes me dizzy. I am not going to solve this crisis anyways, so why bother.
Silo – I will become part of like-minded people group so I don’t have to change anything about me.
Become like the “other” – Grass is greener on the other side. Focus is on constant socio-cultural adjustment rather than belonging, which could be a distraction to leading a productive life.
Create a split culture personality – Just learn to navigate between the two identities. When I am in church, I will subscribe to my parents culture and when in school, I will switch to my adopted culture.
I certainly belonged to the “split personality” category. The problem is that although one may become really good at switching between the two cultures, they may realize over time that this lifestyle is not sustainable, especially when the societal inter-personal relationships become complex, such as marriage and kids. This leads to identity crisis, which could become a hindrance to leading a productive life.
After struggling with socio-cultural identity crisis for almost two decades, I discovered that far from being an impediment, my identity crisis was the best thing that happened to me! I realized that I could not only relate to my kind but also to the first and second cultures. It took a change of lenses or perspective.
What changed my perspective?
Focusing on a supra-culture, a culture that transcended my first or second culture.
I discovered that there is a striking parallel to the concept of Third Culture in the New Testament middle eastern world. The Jewish and Gentile Christians in the churches of Galatia had a hard time reconciling their differences because their worldview was limited to their socio-cultural lenses. Apostle Paul addresses the situation by offering them a new pair of lenses. He says something like this in Galatians chapter 5 –
Listen guys, once you decide to follow Jesus, you are free from any prior religious obligations shaped by your socio-cultural upbringing, and free to pursue Christ in all His likeness. Neither the Jewish religio-cultural practices (first culture) nor the Gentile cultural norms (second culture) has any salvific value . Once you become a Christ follower, all that matters is progressively living up to Christ’s standards (third culture).
This third culture community will create a conducive environment – with the help of Christ – to love each other regardless of your differences (race, color, ethnicity, economics, nationality, social status, education, profession, politics, IQ, etc.)
This is Third Culture – a Christ community – and this is what led us to the decision to spend the rest of our lives creating a Third Culture Community.
Where are you from, Lasha? Hmm….good question – not sure how I should answer that. I was born and raised in New Delhi but my parents are from Kerala. Growing up in Delhi my friends called me “South Indian” because that’s where my parents are from and my Hindi (language spoken in New Delhi) didn’t sound like a true Delhite. When I went to visit family and friends in Kerala every summer I was called a “North Indian” because I don’t look South Indian and my Malayalam (language spoken in Kerala) sounds like I’m from the North.
Then I moved to America and became the brown girl from India. For 10 years I moved around the country from Florida – Louisiana – Missouri and now Texas. I had lived away from the Indian community for many years until I came to Texas. Being away from the Indian community allowed me to assimilate to the American culture and now my American friends are convinced I’m more American than Indian.
So, where am I from? Does it really matter where I am from? Should I forget my Indian culture and be all American since I live in America? Should I stay true to my Indian culture and not associate with the American culture? Does being part of a particular culture make me who I am?
When my marriage hit rock bottom I sought advice from many friends and family. My Indian friends and family said – I should suck it up and find a way to live in this marriage because that’s what we do and we do it for the sake of the kids. My American friends and family said – I should quit trying to make this marriage work because it’s an empty relationship; besides I deserve happiness and I could find it elsewhere. My identity crisis rocked my world. I didn’t want to just live in this marriage because that’s what we do or for the sake of my children. I didn’t want to give up on my empty marriage just so I could find happiness elsewhere.
I ran to God. I wanted to know what the Biblical culture had to say about my marriage. Through this valley of life, I realized that I needed to find my identity in Christ before I could work on my marriage.
Culture is where I am from; Christ is where I belong!
I found unexplainable hope in Christ. I found love in Christ. I found happiness in Christ. I was whole in Christ. During this season, my husband who also struggled with similar identity crisis found his identity in Christ. Today our marriage is a reflection of living in a Christ culture. Our marriage is not perfect, but it is continually being transformed in the image of Christ.
Rufus and I now belong to the Third Culture – a Christ community – where we learn to love beyond boundaries like Christ loved us, despite the color of your skin, the dollar amount in your bank, the society you belong to, your education status or the culture you belong to.
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