This is not an objective study on culture. This is not a researched and carefully scrutinized description of what culture should look like or does look like. This is me, and this is an expression of my journey with culture. This is honest and it is not neatly wrapped with a bow. Rather than looking at culture through an academic lens, it is my desire to explore culture in a personal and vulnerable way because, from my perspective, culture is personal and vulnerable. In this blog, I want to present a study of culture that is about the unique process of an individual. I want to share my process with the hope that it can provide perspective and be a voice for the group of us who struggle with our cultural identity. My personal journey has been guided and influenced by underlying core values and has been characterized by responding to those values, consciously and unconsciously rejecting pieces of myself and my culture, squeezing in and out of cultural boxes, living with deep tensions, and processing the multicultural and multifaceted reality of myself and my life.
My family has never been “normal”. As my parents prepared for their wedding, my grandmother expressed to my mom that the life she was about to begin would not be one with “white-picket fences”. In the first year of their marriage, my parents moved to the Dominican Republic where the fences were iron with locks. My grandmother was right. Their life was not quiet, surrounded by a pretty, white fence. My dad, who had grown up as a missionary kid in the Dominican Republic, was, himself, third culture. He had White-American and Dominican perspectives ingrained in him. He is one person with multiple cultures. Their experiences and God’s call led my parents to start a nonprofit ministry in 2001, the year before I was born. My parents began to travel around the country leading worship and creating music, with the mission of promoting multicultural worship. They had a Revelation 7:9 vision to see people from “every nation, tribe, people and language” worshipping together, on earth as in heaven (New International Version). And this is the family that I was born into.
From a very young age, I have been encouraged to appreciate diversity. It has surrounded me. My dad was often off on ministry trips across the country or across the world, and he would return with cultural insights and gifts for us. I learned that Koreans value socks and that some kids in Cuba had only one toy to play with. I am grateful that I learned to value diversity and a variety of perspectives at a young age. Our family’s arms have consistently been wide open to the beauty of different skin colors, musical styles, languages, and foods. Learning a song in Lingala, Arabic Juba, Spanish, or Russian has never been abnormal, but rather a regular occurrence in my house as I grew up. With eyes and ears open, I listened to stories and songs of the vast variety of cultures in the world. Looking back on these years of early formation, I can see the values that were instilled within me which I still hold to this day. Diversity, acceptance, adaptability, art, music, awareness, and seeing the beauty in the various cultures and people that I encounter are core positive values that I grasp tightly to, and which in many circumstances have guided the way that I think and the things that I do.
As I learned to appreciate diversity and beauty in art, music, and culture, I also began to hear and see an opposite perspective. Ethnocentrism, monoculturalism, racism, and superiority became things that I despised. How could people be so closed-minded? Why would anyone write off or devalue a race, status, country, or skin-color? Issues of racism, dehumanization, and oppressed people groups raise my passion and light a fire under me. I passionately take up the cause of those without a voice, and I fight vehemently against entitlement, dehumanizing actions, and the “holier than thou” attitude. I am still unpacking the “whys” of my anger against dehumanization and my disgust with monoculturalism. However, the underlying belief that these concepts are negative has had a deep effect on my experience with culture.
Leaning into the positive values, I keep myself surrounded by a diverse friend group and a multicultural community. Because I see diversity as such a high priority, I take immense pride in my culturally diverse community. By claiming close relationship with people from a variety of countries and continents, I find a sense of validation in my person and the value of my experience and story. The integration of cultural diversity into my life is something that I strive after, and I find that this value affects not only my actions, but also my thought patterns. For example, I remember as a child wanting to have black hair. I was a blond-haired, blue-eyed little girl, but why could I not look more unique? Pale skin, light hair, and blue eyes is too standard, it is not exotic enough to stand out. “Beautiful” is freckles on an African American’s face. The cutest babies are bicultural. If only I had been born a dark-skinned baby to light-skinned parents. To reach this ideal of beauty and uniqueness, I became dissatisfied with my own self and my own culture.
So, I pushed it away. I pushed away White American culture. I wrote it off. Labeled it with words like racist, entitled, color blind, insensitive, sterile, boring. As I grew up in a family and community that were moving toward multiculturalism and integrating diversity into our daily lives, I realize that I was living in a pendulum context. My parents, having lived a significant part of their lives grounded in a White-American and monocultural background, were learning how to live in multicultural community as adults. Because of this, they had to counter-balance many of the messages that they received as they grew up. They had to redefine terms and intentionally notice the negative aspects of White-American culture in order to allow the process of change and healing to begin. This same pattern repeats itself for many of the adults in my community. Experiencing diverse community as adults, they had to swing the pendulum. They had to question the values of their original culture, wrestle with negative perspectives; They were walking in the journey just as I was. However, sometimes I feel like I got lost in the transition. My parents had to point out the negative things in White-American culture for their journey. They had to be intentional to see beauty in the diversity of cultures and perspectives, but they were also grounded in their own original culture. I was not. I did not know the beautiful things that my culture held, but I heard the negatives that people were pointing out, and this became a part of my mindset. Instead of merely repeating the negative things that my community saw in White-American culture, I began to see them for myself.
Blame is not my intention here. Rather, these things that I am pointing out are the messy parts, the blurry “in betweens”, of living in a multicultural community. This is not something that is done often. It is rare for an Argentinian/Mexican-American couple with two kids adopted from China to be a part of a community with a Korean family, Sudanese family, White-American family, Syrian/Saudi Arabian family, and so many others. It is just not normal and learning to live in diversity and to be a community in an intercultural context is, simply put, messy. The textbooks do not cover me. I am a cultural mutt and a painting with more colors than can be named. By just being me, I am a culture maker. And culture making is messy. You adapt and you learn, you choose this or choose that, and try to understand what it is that you really value and need. Yes, culture making is messy.
In this process of learning to live in an intercultural community and searching for who I am in the midst of it all, I have tried to explain myself. There is this hope within me that, if I could define myself, there might be stability and belonging. However, I have found that for me it is not that simple. I am heavily influenced by American individualism, but a part of me leans towards the communal aspects of collectivity. On a given day, I cannot tell you if I will be spontaneous or grounded in details and schedule. My mom is very time oriented, and my dad is often the opposite. My mom always had a white board schedule, and my dad felt confined by having to plan the day in advance. I have both inside me. Mind and heart are at odds within me as well. I greatly value thought, and I often spend too much time analyzing in my head, turning a concept around over and over again, but I love my emotions. I love to feel. It is what inspires me creatively. Trying to force myself into boxes, typing myself out, has not ended in success for me. I cannot quite get myself to fit in any one box, it is as if my fingers or my toes are always reaching out towards the box opposite of the one that I’m in.
Therefore, I live in tension. Part of my culture is tension — unresolved, heart-aching tension. In trying to live in multiple worlds at once and trying to define myself by one thing or another, it is unavoidable. Tension is unavoidable. My mentor has repeated to me, over and over again, that the tension will not go away, but I don’t like that. Why can I not explain myself and nail down my culture and my person? I am a Jane Austen-reading, homestead-idolizing, hard work-valuing, tree-hugging, story-writing, romantic person; And I am complex. passionate, a musician, an artist, a teacher, a modernly creative, third culture, people-loving me. I could go on to list so many other character traits and values that are in me, and in which I feel a boiling tension and I see overwhelming incompatibility. While these traits sometimes seem to group within me as separate people, they are also so wholly integrated and solidly connected that I cannot simply separate them out into their own neat boxes. This is because they are all a part of me, and I am an entire human. My pieces are connected. What my eyes see affects my feet and what my heart feels affects my mind. We were not made to be a fragmented pile of bones and ligaments but an interconnected, interdependent body. Nor was my soul or my more abstract self made to be a pile of unconnected pieces, but instead an integrated self. I have contributed to the process of fragmentation by trying to label myself and fit into boxes.
I am multi. Multicultural and multifaceted is part of who I am. This is not to say that I do not have a culture or a worldview. I believe that I do. However, I am still learning what I value and who I am, sifting through the expanse of perspectives and expressions. The reality is that whether we live in an intercultural context or not, our worldview is continuing to change and adapt throughout our lives. While there are so many things that can be learned by studying culture, perspective, and value-systems through anthropology and historical studies, each individual has a story and a perspective that goes deeper than that. As I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, this is a part of my contribution to give a voice to those of us who are not in the textbooks. Us, whose journey with culture is complicated and confusing. I want to emphasize the fact that to know an individual you must listen to them and hear their story. Just looking at me, you can see pale skin, blond hair, and blue eyes, but that is not my whole story. There is more to me. I am a third culture person, and I am a multifaceted person. And that is what I have to say about culture.
[written by Lydia Davis]