Identity Crisis, Pronto
By: Shirani Alfreds
“Am I Chinese now, Mama?” my brown-eyed, bronze skinned, curly-haired 6-year-old daughter asked looking up at me a few weeks after we moved to Shanghai. I wondered briefly if I had forgotten to put a mirror in her room (I had), as it was pretty clear to me that she was not. A trip to IKEA solved the mirror problem but then came the next plaintive query, “Will I become Chinese when I speak Chinese?” Hm. Perhaps I needed a more expensive mirror.
Hence began my concern about what we were doing to our children in dragging them around the world with their already mixed (up) cultural identities. I am Singaporean of Sri Lankan origin and my husband is half Dutch and half New Zealander. In our family unit of four, we are of three different nationalities, born in four different countries. In China, our kids are TCK’s – Third Culture Kids (yes, it’s a ‘thing’!). TCK’s are children of parents belonging to two different cultures who live in a third culture. Cultural confusion is part of growing up in this scenario (whether or not you have a mirror) and an identity crisis appears to be inevitable at some point. I just didn’t expect it to happen at age 6.
On the upside, I observe that if you were to have some sort of crisis (I am planning my mid-life one to happen early next year), there is no better place to indulge it than Shanghai. The jumble of nationalities, the variety and sheer diversity of individuals the city attracts from greater China and the rest of the world is a heady mishmash of craziness anyway. This makes it easier to blend in no matter where you are from or what you are going through, and you can pretend that your inner child is ok despite a screaming internal meltdown. The best part of it all is that nobody judges you for it!
Ok, perhaps the ‘no judgement’ part is delusional, but I am talking about a very basic level whereupon people the world around judge – the way you look. The question “where are you from?” if asked of another Chinese person or a foreigner here is genuinely open-ended. This is unlike other societies where the laden implication is that you look or sound different and perhaps don’t belong. In Shanghai, it could mean where you were born, what province you moved from, what passport(s) you have, where you have lived the longest or where your parents or ancestors hail from (and I don’t mean in the ‘Adam and Eve’ kind of way). Even if all of the answers to these questions were different, it is accepted.
So why worry about my 6-year-old’s confusion in this cultural utopia? She is in good company especially at an international school where more than a few little people seem befuddled about what they are or where they are from. I worry because I want her to know her cultural heritage (at the very least that she is not Chinese simply because she lives in China), and that this doesn’t change - ever. I worry less now however, as I look at the little ‘United Nations’ group of friends she has made and is privileged enough to have here in Shanghai, and I know that they will all eventually learn this. Most importantly, they will find out that in any case, their identities are far more complex and interesting than answering to the world where they come from or where they live.