If there is one thing I have learnt from churning out philosophy and politics essays for almost a year, it is that there are two sides to everything, even when we only want to acknowledge one of them. The cross-cultural lives led by second generation immigrants and other multi-cultural kids are no exception. On the one side, we’re told that we have the best of both worlds: People envy us for being bilingual, for getting to eat exotic food at home, for being able to celebrate foreign holidays. What is not nearly as often addressed however, is the other side of the coin. The somewhat less enviable truth that in a sense, we’re neither fish nor fowl: That many of us spend years trying to puzzle the bits and pieces of our mixed cultural heritage into one coherent identity.
In the world today, there are at least as many bilingual children as there are monolingual ones. One in every four children born in England or Wales in 2014 had mothers that were themselves born outside of the UK. Wherever we look, the rise of globalisation has brought with it an ever-growing number of cross-culture kids of all kinds and yet, it is rarely acknowledged that many of these children grow up with the feeling of not belonging in the very country they were born and raised in. If this does not call for change I don’t know what does, and I want to share my own experience of a dichotomous life because fostering understanding is the first step towards encouraging change. While I don’t have the answers for how to bring it about, I hope to do my share by shedding some light over what it might be like to live a dichotomous life today’s society.
Born and raised in Norway, the biggest difference between me and my Chinese born parents has always been our sense of belonging – or rather, their sense of belonging and my ack thereof. We travel to China every year and once the plane lands in Beijing Capital Airport, my parents are home. They might have lived in Norway for 40 years, but their home will always be on Chinese soil. The experience is different for someone like me. I might look and sound just as Chinese as any other person seen on the busy streets of Beijing, but in the eyes of natives I am nothing but a “banana person”. Someone with yellow skin but white insides. They are always pleasantly surprised when I turn out to be a fluent Chinese speaker or admit liking Chinese food because it’s unexpected. They assume that I primarily belong in the country and culture I grew up in and that anything Chinese that remains is just extra bonus – me getting the best of both worlds if you like. I’ve long lost count of how many times I wished it was that simple.
Parts of a different culture are not something you can simply fuse with another coherent identity like some add-on upgrade. If you win some you lose some, and while I wouldn’t trade my Chinese heritage for the world, feeling like I fully belong in Norway at the same time has been impossible. Because it’s not easy to identify entirely as Norwegian when you grow up with other children squinting their eyes at you because they are curious as to “how you see the world”. It’s not easy to develop a genuine feeling of belonging if the lady in the grocery store instinctively talks to you in heavily accented English instead of in your common mother tongue. And it sure isn’t easy to feel completely at home when you’re in a park two quarters from your house and a jogger slows down to tell you how happy he is to see that his local park has become more popular with tourists.
I came to realise that belonging is a two-way street – you cannot identify with someone who doesn’t accept you as one of their own, and it seems like neither the Chinese nor the Norwegians were entirely willing to do that when faced with a hybrid like me who appears to be neither fish nor fowl.
It used to make me angry and bitter and I thought the people around me prejudiced and insensitive for ignoring and mocking the efforts I had made to fit in. It was only recently that I realised my feelings were unwarranted and misdirected, and that no individual was at fault for me being unable to reconcile the different aspects of my cultural identity. I was hit by the realisation that the lady at the grocery store and the talkative jogger and the vast majority of the people I was blaming were not being consciously racist or microaggressive, but simply reflected beliefs and habits that had been entrenched in society for centuries.
For as long as history has been dominated by nation states, our sense of belonging has been closely connected to our cultural and national identity. It is therefore no wonder that as globalisation brings with it increasingly complex identities, the question of belonging becomes more problematic. While I can only speak from my own experience and observations, it seems like society has not yet learnt how to properly accommodate for the existence of cross-culture children. The sense that you need to feel British in order to belong in Britain is still ever so strongly imbedded in social norms and conventions, and once we realise that, it becomes clear that this situation cannot be improved through anger, frustration and the blind assignment of blame. What we need is to draw attention to this relatively rarely addressed global phenomenon and to aim for a wider and better understanding of how it affects people.
And thus, we have come full circle. The reason I emphasised the importance of fostering understanding at the beginning of this article is because I believe that is the only way to change society from within. I no longer, like I once did, look for a way in which I can become Norwegian enough to be accepted. Rather, I now wish for a world in which I can feel at home in Norway without feeling 100% Norwegian. I wish we could make the first steps towards a society in which people can belong without being 100% anything. Where no cross-culture kid feels the need to forcefully reconcile the different parts of what will likely always be a dichotomous identity and a dichotomous life, because they know that they have a place where they belong regardless.