The Complexity and Joy of a Cross-Cultural Identity
Silicon Valley International School's Head of School Angie Bergeson draws on her experience as an international educator to reflect on both the challenges and immense rewards of growing up in a multicultural community or family.
“You will never be completely at home again, because your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.” – Miriam Adeney
Humans are complex and dynamic beings. We have the ability, as no other creatures, to create and form a unique personal identity made up of our beliefs, personality, expressions, and idiosyncratic behaviors. In addition, humans also have a social identity that is formed and defined by an individual’s assortment of group memberships. A person’s nationality, race, gender, sexuality, culture, religion, ability, and language are just a few of the large factions that we align within to create a unique social identity. Each one of these memberships carries nuances and differences that interact with societal structures worldwide. One very interesting and often under-examined social identity for children revolves around what it means to be a member of a cross-cultural community or family. This is particularly interesting in regards to students who are educated in an international and multilingual school or home environment. To be cross-cultural means that a person may have membership in two nationalities, two languages, two cultures, or even more than two overlapping identities.
There are many well-researched benefits for students who grow up exposed to more than one culture and language. They develop a broader perspective on the world and a greater capacity for communication in multiple languages. Additionally, they are usually more open-minded and compassionate toward others due to their increased travel opportunities and exposure to differences. While cross-cultural competency should be a goal for future-minded parents and educators, it is important to also note how students who straddle two different worlds may find that they do not fit completely in either, potentially leaving a feeling of strangeness or confusion regarding their own home or country.
As educators, it is important to recognize that students bring their own personal and social identity to our classrooms. Students around the world are asked to adapt to the norms of their school’s culture, which may or may not match their home or national or linguistic culture. Sometimes, this can cause conflict within the student’s formation of identity as they develop a new way of being and seeing the world. For instance, friction may arise between parents with one cultural lens and their children who now see the world with multiple perspectives that do not always align with the home views. This creates tension within the child who needs to switch between the cultural codes of what is expected at school which may differ widely from the values of their parents or grandparents. Sometimes this can be due to the so-called generation gap and be exacerbated by shifting cultural values in the child. Therefore, parents and schools should validate and recognize the impact this complex cross-cultural identity has on student’s social-emotional lives.
As noted, the benefits of an international and multilingual education far outweigh the challenges. In fact, the challenges are exactly what make students with cross-cultural competencies more prepared for a global world and workforce. Research done by experts in the field of sociology assists us in honing our understanding of identity development in international students. In their book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, David Pollack and Ruth Van Reken describe in detail the impact of being educated as a Cross-Cultural Kid (CCK). They define a CCK as ‘a person who is living or has lived in – or meaningfully interacted with – two or more cultural environments for a significant time during childhood.’ With this definition in mind, we can assume that many students may go unidentified as Cross-Cultural Kids beyond the obvious expatriates in many school settings.
Thus, to help students navigate the intricacies associated with being a Cross-Cultural Kid, schools should empower and support all students' social-emotional health as they develop their personal and social identity in an ever-changing and global world. This change may not always be in the world though. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed is you.”