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Adolescents & International Transition

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« TCA's and Dual Expat Careers | Main | Response to Iyabo on Barack Obama »

April 19, 2007


Renee ODonnell

I find this all very enlightening!
I was once asked why I often find myself in situations where I am the minority, when I am not part of a minority. I had not thought too much about this until it was presented to me. But once I was aware of it I began to question myself and wonder if I could answer the question if I really needed to.
Then I reconnected with Paulette and she sent me the article on Cross Cultural Kids that she had written with Ruth Van Renken, it was amazing! It really helped me wrap my head around the paths that I have taken in life and why I always end up deep within other cultures other then my own.
I spent the formative years of my youth basically living at the Bethel's. From the ages of 12-17 we were inseparable. It wasn't until reading the article I realized just how much they had influenced my life. I was introduced to culture that my biological family could have never given me and became a member of a family that I hold close and dear to my heart to this very day!

Ruth E. Van Reken

As I read Iyabo’s response, my heart was deeply moved. We have many parallels in our experiences – only these experiences happened to us in different skin color.

I, too, am a “Nigerian,” if birthplace counts, for I was born in Kano, Nigeria to an American father who had been born and raised as a TCK in Iran. My mom was born and raised her entire life in Chicago, Illinois. I lived in Nigeria until I moved to the United States at age 13. But in those days, people with white skin were not allowed to become citizens lest (as I understand it) some of the apartheid issues present in other parts of Africa should rear their ugly head in Nigeria. And so, although I played soccer with my Nigerian friends every day and we sat in the same classroom during the school years (albeit doing different curriculum –theirs British, mine American), I always knew that I could never claim full identity as an “us” with them. My skin color as well as my American passport precluded that.

But at least in Nigeria, I had the clear identity of being a “foreigner.” And so, when I knew I wasn’t exactly “the same as,” I also knew that it was “OK” because I came from “The States” and when I returned there, I knew I would finally “fit.”

TCKs/adult TCKs who have lived for a very long period outside their passport culture know that this is a myth. When I returned to school for my 8th grade year I fit in less than I ever had in my life. In those pre-civil rights days I shared the same skin color as all others in class, but little else. Here, where I expected to fit completely, I felt more like a total stranger than I had ever felt while living as a “foreigner” in Nigeria. Norma McCaig, founder of Global Nomads, International, and Dave Pollock, my co-author of "Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds," called this the “hidden immigrant” experience…a time you return to land supposedly your own but one in which you don’t know the rules of this culture any more than a true immigrant because you have not been born and bred here. If you were an obvious immigrant or foreigner, others would understand why you didn’t know a slang word or how to use the pay phone or which coin was needed to make the correct change. But when you look and speak like the majority culture around you, or the culture you are assumed to be – e.g. for Iyabo, that she was/is African American - little but ridicule is offered for those same cultural miscues.

My response was similar to Iyabo’s. While some choose a “screamer’s reaction” at this point…making sure others know they are not the same by adopting some behavior, dress, or whatever to prove that…Iyabo and I chose another common reaction. We sought to become chameleons. She chose to try to assimilate into the African American culture, I did the same for the white cultural world then around me in the northwest area of Chicago. I no longer mentioned any of my African roots but became the best chameleon I could so that I could finally become a “them.” I was so successful that, as a senior in high school, I finally mentioned something about living in Africa to the student who had sat opposite me in home room for 4 years and he was shocked. “I had no idea you had ever lived in Africa,” he said. But I remember when going forward for an award in my senior year, inside I thought “If they knew who I really was, they wouldn’t have given this to me.”

Fast forward (as I get older the story gets too long!)…when my husband was a senior in medical school, we tried to return to Nigeria to do one of his electives. My mother and father still lived there, I was pregnant and wanted to have my child in the land of my birth, and we had a scholarship to go. Imagine my unbelievable surprise when Nigeria would not give us a visa to enter that country in those post Biafran war days when Americans were in disfavor with their government because of the many images being shown on our TVs of starving children in Biafra. I couldn’t believe it. My very passport listed Kano, Nigeria as my birthplace. In fact, representatives from the polling place in Chicago had come to my door at one point to check if I was a “real citizen” of the US after they noticed where I’d been born. But for me, the pain was more than just not getting the visa. It was an absolute message that the land I loved so much, that I had always defended and felt so connected to saw me as “one of them”…an American! And that’s all they saw…they couldn’t see my heart.

I was 39 before I knew there was language for my experience. By then we were living in Liberia. But even returning to Africa as an adult represented an unexpected challenge because now I was part of the official expat scene…not a child playing soccer with my peers. Now my peers were often others who had grown up in the States or other Western cultures and MY expectation of them was that they would see Africa through my eyes and I felt angry when they seemed critical. I never considered the different experiences in which we had grown up and how they had shaped us so differently. Perhaps we were hidden immigrants to each other!

Ultimately, of course, I did some journaling to explore my story, it became my first book, Letters Never Sent, and I began hearing from adult TCKs around the world. I began to realize how different the details of our stories were, but how much the heart experience felt the same. And so that’s why I like to work with others to spread the word of this topic today…to help us find some new “normals” for our culturally changing world.

Which brings me to my final point…In reading Iyabo’s story, I also noticed (and understood) the “pathological implications” in the term she has been using to identify herself - "mixed kid schizophrenia".

For me, as for her and many TCKs, before we have language for our experience, before we can use that language to explain ourselves to others, we simply wonder “what’s wrong with me” and our friends secretly wonder the same about us. Notice many of the current articles about Barack Obama wondering why he has such “angst” about his identity or the lead article in Newsweek magazine some years ago about Kobe Bryant, another TCK. The headlines on that cover said “The troubled road of Kobe Bryant to rape charges.” While I am not condoning any particular actions, the descriptions about Kobe’s lack of social skills as a teenager in the States after his return at the age of 14 from growing up in Italy and countless other “proofs” of how he never quite fit were classic characteristics of the TCK Profile. I don’t know if Kobe knows yet that he is far more “normal” than many have made him out to be.

And that is the point. There is a vast host of people who share similar experiences but in the usual way of defining culture and “diversity”, they share nothing else. Their actions and reactions are evaluated through the lenses of the past.

As the reality of how cultural mixing is changing our world and the individuals in it, perhaps we can begin to find new language and new “normals” so we can help ourselves and others realize 1) we’re not as mixed up as it may appear! (there are good reasons for our responses and behaviors), 2) that for our experiences, there are some new normals, and 3) that as we accept these realities, the great gifts we have also been given by this rich upbringing can be expressed not only on an individual basis but also become part of an example in today’s dividing world of how those who may appear vastly different outwardly can share deeply at some of the most foundational layers of their human experience.

Iyabo Onipede

I was introduced to this website by Jeanette Maw. I am very excited to see academic language being used to describe what I have called "mixed kid schizophrenia" for many years. It puts a legitimate framework around my personal experiences that I just thought was my own unique, quirky experience. I am personally excited as to what Barack Obama and also Tiger Woods bring to the fore-front of the media. They just do not fit the mould!

I am a bi-racial 42 year old attorney living here in the United States. My mother was half Irish American (third generation) and her father was Jewish of Polish descent. My father was from Lagos Nigeria and they met and got married in New York City in 1952. They then moved to Nigeria where my mother lived for 33 years. I was born and raised in Nigeria and I came to the U.S. when I was 16 to attend college. I attended a small all-women’s college in Maryland which only had about 1,100 students. The international body of students were predominantly from South America and due to the language barrier, I found it very difficult to fit in with that group.

The African-American women in college really supported me and reached out to me. Thus, I began to assimilate into the African-American lifestyle. Most of my friends were African-American. I could relate more to African-Americans because they were so open to me. I also had an insatiable thirst for African-American classical literature. When I went to law school, I had the same experience with African-American. I have two older siblings and their experiences were very different from mine as they were in much larger institutions of learning and the international body was very diverse. They never had the African American experience that I had.

After law school, I moved to Atlanta, Georgia where my law practice has been heavily supported by African Americans. However, in my mid thirties, as I began to focus less on my professional desires and more on my personal desires. Increasingly, I became aware that I had turned my back, so to say, on my African background. I spoke Yoruba, my Nigerian language, but I found it difficult to assimilate fully with Nigerians. I certainly felt that I did not have a chance to assimilate with White Americans either. Most people, immediately assume that I am African-American and put me in “that” box. As grateful as I continue to feel to the African-American community as a group for accepting me and bringing me into the sheepfold, I admit it is not a complete fit. I do not have a complete sense of belonging with African-Americans as a whole.

Growing up in Nigeria, I was considered “white.” An overwhelming majority of the population were pure black Africans. Therefore, as my skin was very fair compared to everyone else, I was considered “white.” This did not mean that I was superior, just different. It was merely a description of my skin tone, not a cultural or racial identification. However, my parents were very protective of us physically and we did not grow up totally assimilated into Nigerian culture.

I believe they were protective of us because they raised us in a non-typical Nigerian manner and they knew we would have a difficult time assimilating into the local culture. We were told from early childhood that we were from two cultures and we should pick the best values out of both and create a personal value system that reflected the best of both worlds. When my parents talked about their differences, it was never really about race, it was about different cultures and different countries. My parents were non-religious people but they held a very strong positive value system.

I have lived in the U.S. now for 26 years. I still feel like an outsider. I find that race defines so much in this country. This is such a foreign concept to me. If I see you and the first thing I notice is your race and I make assumptions about you, then I may never really get to know you. However, if I begin to talk to you and ask you about your background so that I can put you into a cultural group, I may do a little better in getting to know you before I make a judgment about you. But ideally for me, if I just take the time to know you, then I discover your personhood which transcends your culture and your race and I get to see you for yourself, not your culture and not your race.

However, the truth is that with our increasing east to access information, travel and knowledge, most people are having third culture experiences on some scale. If you move from Atlanta to New York, you will doubtlessly encounter some “culture shock.”

My experience of "mixed kid schizophrenia" is curling up to enjoying Dante’s “Inferno” one evening and the next morning, I want to master the intricacies of the proper pronunciation of a very complex Yoruba proverb that Àgbẹ̀ ò dáṣọ lóṣù, àfọdún which means A farmer does not make new clothes monthly, only annually, which contextually translates into “The reward for one's labor is often a long time coming.” (I promise you, my Yoruba is not that good, I merely have an insatiable thirst for it.)

It feels schizophrenic because one part of my brain, personality, tastes, thinking, and perception belongs to this very American life that I live and the other part craves for a basic life of idyllic peace and security that I grew up with. I do feel lonely in this country as I feel very disconnected “from whence I came” and also because it has taken very hard work on my part to consciously create multi-dimensional relationships with Nigerians, Nigerian-Americans, white Americans, African-Americans, Europeans and other Africans as well.

I hope this contributes constructively to this discussion.

Iyabo Onipede

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