This post is part of the Dear LME series – my advice column specifically for expats, TCKs, and internationals. Learn more about it here.
Hello and thank you for writing in! I think this is such a great question to get the series started with – I’ve certainly struggled with my cultural identity before and that feeling as though I don’t fit entirely into one culture or the other. I am both an expat and third culture kid, and for both of these groups it’s so easy to feel like you don’t really “belong” to one single culture. It’s difficult to answer the “where are you from” question – you don’t want to rattle on about your whole life story and cultural background to someone you just met! But it’s hard to just narrow it down to one word, and in fact I usually change my response depending on who I’m talking to – oops!
Moving around or growing up in a different country to your culture can be a blessing, but it also contributes to this sense of not fitting in. You move abroad and adjust to life in that new country; you pick up some new customs, learn the language, and make new friends, which is all great! But then when you come back home you slowly start to realize that you don’t exactly fit in as you used to. It seems like there’s no way to win! You can’t not adjust to the place where you’re living, but if you adjust to the place you’re living, you don’t fully fit in when you go back “home” it’s a cycle you just can’t win!
Well… that’s why I’m here to give some advice! I’ll be honest, I’m still figuring this out myself, but I’ll share some of the advice and opinions I’ve formed over the years. If you have any input or advice to share, let’s get a conversation started in the comments section!
The first thing I would say is, don’t let anyone tell you that you’re “not enough” of a culture to belong there! You don’t have to give yourself exclusively to one culture and not be influenced by any others – that’s not how this works!
A little back story, I was born and grew up in London before moving to Dubai, but my parents are originally from Tanzania – I’m a mix of all these different places. I don’t speak Swahili, the language of Tanzania, and I’ve never lived there myself. However, I was brought up hearing my family speak Swahili all around me, we would visit Tanzania every summer, and a lot of the customs and traditions my sisters and I grew up with are Tanzanian. I know that I am not fully Tanzanian, I’ve never lived there and I don’t speak the language. I recognize that I am a mix of cultures, but in my eyes the Tanzanian culture is still a part of my identity that is still important to who I am. Just because I am not fully Tanzanian, it doesn’t mean that I can’t say it is part of my culture. I’ve realized that belonging to a culture doesn’t mean that you have to belong to that culture exclusively. Multiple cultures make up your identity, and you are “enough” of each and every one of those cultures. People can say what they want, but at the end of the day if you feel like you belong to a culture and like it makes up even a small part of who you are, then you are enough – it’s as simple as that!
Secondly, I would say to recognize that there is no perfect representation of a culture. When someone is saying that you’re “not enough” of a culture, who are they comparing you to? There is no measurement for being “enough” of a culture. You might have a person in mind or a stereotype in mind when you think about being “enough” of a culture, but it’s important to recognize that those are just one representation of a culture. Culture is a diverse and fluid thing; within a culture, there are people with different accents, diverse traditions, and different mindsets. You don’t have to be the same as the person in your stereotype to think that you fit into a culture! When I come back to London in the holidays, I sometimes compare myself to people I’m around and think that I definitely don’t fit into this culture anymore, but at other moments, surrounded by different people, I suddenly feel like this is exactly where I belong. And maybe this is just because I’m an emotional teen with mood swings, but I think it’s more to do with the fact that the feeling of cultural belonging is fluid and that there are many different nuances within a culture.
Lastly, I would say to surround yourself with people who appreciate all the different parts of your cultural identity. Some people will make you feel bad for being a mix of cultures, they’ll want you to conform to only one, and that’s just not possible for an expat or TCK. When I started university, I was worried that people would find it weird that I wasn’t just from one culture or that I had a long back story to share every time someone asks me where I’m from. But I’ve found that the people that I’ve become the closest to, are the ones who are genuinely interested in hearing about all the different parts of my cultural identity and who don’t find it weird that I don’t just fit into one. This doesn’t mean that you can only be friends with other internationals or vice versa, but that the people who will truly make you feel at home are the ones who don’t make you feel guilty for not just being fully one culture, but who are interested in learning about all the parts of your many cultures.
So to answer your question, I would say to embrace your own unique mixture of cultures and not to worry about being exclusively only one culture. Being a mix and match of different influences is nothing to feel ashamed about, and no one should be making you feel ashamed for it! It’s about finding that mix, surrounding yourself with the right people and adjusting the stereotypes in your mindset, that will help you find the place where you truly belong.
I hope this helped and wasn’t just a useless ramble of words! As I said, if you have something to say on the subject, drop it in the comments section and we can start a conversation there. If you or someone you know has a query about being an expat, TCK, or international write into Dear LME to get some advice! Just DM @little.miss.expat on Instagram and start your message with “Dear LME…”
See you soon,