Whenever I share my story with someone, I am amazed at how God has orchestrated my life. Who would have thought a little girl, born in Chennai, India, and who spent twelve years of her life in the Sultanate of Oman, would find her way to Troy, Michigan, and then to Dallas, TX?
I did not know I was a third culture kid until someone explained that term to be at the age of 40! Then, at last, I had the right words to explain who I was: someone who lived in transition, whose identity was often rooted in people and not in places, and who, without an awareness of it, had the intuitive ability to adapt, be flexible, and cope with change.
But it was not always easy, and often I have struggled to live in the liminal space between cultures. I have the innate ability to switch between cultures. It can be exhausting at times, but there can be significant rewards in living this life.
We can walk in the tension between different cultures.
It is not an easy balance to learn, walking in the tension between two cultures. From food choices to individualism versus collectivism, immigrants must walk a fine line often. Code-switching (the ability to switch between distinct cultures) comes naturally to us in time. Still, it often leaves us emotionally exhausted, and if you are an introvert, you need time to regain that balance.
For example, I have recently realized that when I spend most of my time in white American homogenous culture, I need time to code-switch back to being around Indians. I had not been aware of that for many years and often wondered why my stress level was at an all-time high when I moved into mostly Indian spaces. It takes effort and sacrifice, but it is worth it.
We can become bridge builders.
Over the last 18 years, I have learned to find the balance and walk in the tension between different cultures and different expectations of myself and others. I have spent most of my life learning how to fit into different spaces and communities.
My biggest takeaway from it all is that people are people, no matter your country of origin or ethnicity. People want to be seen, known, accepted, and loved. But how do we learn how to be bridge builders? How do we learn to connect despite our differences?
We can start by asking people their stories.
Everyone has a different story. So, we need to be curious about people’s stories and their history. Just like I would not assume every American has the same background, we must not assume that about people from other cultures.
Be genuinely curious, be open to a friendship. A relationship and a person’s story often teach us more than just engaging for the sake of diversity. We have all been formed by our environments and our experiences, and we need to be open to learning more about the “others” in our communities.
We can educate ourselves.
It is okay to ask your Indian or Chinese friend to teach you about food or culture, but watching a documentary and learning yourself is better. Watch a food show about ethnic cooking. Take your kids to an ethnic restaurant. So often, I have seen people wanting to eat at an Indian restaurant, but they never want to bring their kids along. A common excuse is, “oh, they are picky eaters.”
Today we are moving towards a diverse and global nation, and if we are to be bridge builders, we need to start educating the next generation. Nothing builds community more than a shared meal. Most eastern cultures will include their children in family meals, so bring them to an ethnic restaurant or cook at home. It is the easiest way to learn and understand.
We can invite people into our homes.
This has been the most significant difference I have seen in my 18 years in the United States. It is super complicated to invite people home. It needs to be planned ahead of time. I have had a few instances where I have called a friend, said, “Hey, we are driving past your home. I just wanted to stop and say hi!” They have told me not to come over! After the third time, I stopped being offended and did not call if we were in that area! I decided to go ahead and get it on my calendar.
We as a family have found the easiest way to get to know our friends is to have them over for a meal. Sure, it does take time to prep a meal, but the result is always so fruitful and rich! I have never regretted having people over. When you invite people over, be a family unit, have your kids in the house at least. I have found myself repeating this to many friends and asking them to come over for chai anytime. My friend Katie took this to heart one afternoon and just dropped in with her little boy! It was one of the best afternoons ever. Sure, the house was messy, and I was unprepared, but the organic connection and an afternoon cup of tea made our friendship stronger.
Our lives will be made richer by relationships.
Personally, I want people to understand the culture of India better. I want people to see that being Indian is more than butter chicken and naan! I love when people ask me my story or tell me theirs.
Over the years, God has woven many precious friends into the tapestry of our lives. They have welcomed us into family gatherings, birthdays, celebrations and made us feel part of their family. Their curiosity and willingness to learn opened their hearts to us. My life has become richer for it, and it has indeed been God’s grace. I could not imagine my life without them in it. They made their circles bigger when they welcomed us in, and, from what a close friend often tells me‑it made their lives richer, too.