Compromising Identities

Asians and Westerners see the word differently. This should shock no one, but it somehow surprised me. My first year in China, I realized how seriously I fell into the trap of projected cultural similaritythe belief that foreign cultures are basically similar to one’s home culture. In his book The Geography of Thought, Richard Nisbett (2003) makes a strong case that Asians and Westerners literally see the world differently. Series of visual psychology tests were given to people all over the world. Results showed that Asians and Westerners remembered different aspects of pictures, handled interactions between objects differently and had dramatically varying rules as to how formal logic was applied to situations. While we all know this in our heads, this cognitive knowledge does not excuse us from experiencing these principles played out in our host communities. For those of you who have felt cultural frustration in moving to China (I believe that is all of us), reading Nisbett’s book can provide satisfying academic explanations for our everyday hiccups.

Academic explanations do not settle emotional turmoil, though. I thought my bicultural edge would put me a cut above my foreign colleagues. Not so. My arrogance simply turned that edge back on myselflike a knife, making me vulnerable to rejection from both of the cultures I claimed. As the sole Chinese American member of a white team, I hear a lot of “China bashing” when cultures collide and tempers flare. “I hate learning Chinese. The only reason I’ll learn it is to spread the Good News.” “Chinese people just aren’t logical. There’s no logic in Chinese culture.” At times like these, I wonder, “Do they realize I’m Chinese as well?” As one of two Chinese American teachers in the school, I hear many remarks that are decidedly not politically correct. “Americans don’t value relationships as much as Chinese people.” “Westerners don’t care about their families.” “As we all know, Western countries struggle with racism, but China does not.” That “as we all know” phrase irks me like nothing else. “As who knows?” I want to ask. “Who’s ‘we’? Where are you getting your information?” Then again, I wonder, “Do they realize I’m American as well?”

Experience has shown me there is not enough room in people’s minds for the concept of biculturalism. To my community here, I am either American or Chinese. Trying to imagine me as both makes it difficult for people to relate to me. Delineations for “we” and “you/they” are not clear. No matter where lines are drawn, I either find myself forlornly outside them or unhappily included. When my American teammates are culturally inappropriate, it pains me to think my colleagues lump us together. At the same time, there are aspects of Chinese culture I am loathe to own as well. Call me bipolar, but I cannot always figure out which group I want to claim. There I go again, unable to work at the hyphen, giving in to the polar tug of paradox. I know it does not have to be like this.

Lingenfelter and Lingenfelter (2003) wrote about “becoming 150% people” in their book Teaching Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Learning and Teaching. Their idea, when applied to my situation, was that I should endeavor to become less American (75%) and more Chinese (75%). Add these two pieces together and you get a 150% person who has successfully entered her host culture.

However, the way the math works out makes it seem like being American and being Chinese are mutually exclusive, like the two identities do not mix. Lingenfelter’s description of the identity mix makes it sound like this:

The way I see it, it may be more like this:

My main point of contention with this 150% idea is that whatever Chinese-ness I learn to adopt must first be understood through my American-ness. With an American filter, my process of forming a Chinese identity will never simply be additive; it will be integrative. After my China identity has taken shape, then maybe a part of it will separate completely from my American identity. What links the two is a mixed identity, the integrated identity from which the Chinese identity emergeda uniquely Chinese-American identity.

The Chinese-American identity forces the two separate identities to interact and allows me to see each in light of the other. In the beginning, while I was still forming a Chinese identity, I was interpreting Chinese culture and adopting Chinese views through the lens of my American identity. As the Chinese identity becomes more solid, I am slowly learning to look at my American-ness the way a Chinese person would. Then I can decide to keep or scrap aspects of my American culture based on evaluations of their propriety in a Chinese context.

That was dense, but my point goes back to the title of this article. To some degree, in this cultural journey, we are asked to compromise our identities. We are called to leave behind culturally inappropriate aspects of our home cultures and adopt aspects of our host cultures; this is an act of love that will help us become more effective and productive in the work Christ has given us (a concept proposed in 2 Peter 1:8).

This cultural metamorphosis I am describing does not happen without the fuel of overwhelming love. Love drives all good things. It was out of love that the world was created. It is in love that we enjoy the greatest relationship in the universe. It will be through love that we honor the call to bring reconciliation. However, love does not pop out of thin air. First, to love there must be understanding. Second, to understand we have to be aware of misunderstanding. Third, in experiencing misunderstanding, we have to expect pain and fear. We cannot do what we aim to do in our ministries without love. Repeat steps one through three.

A lot of us expats miss out on deep love in our host communities because we do not want pain and fear. We are not open to being misunderstood and are not aware of when we misunderstand. Without the courage to increase cultural understanding, lovetrue, deep lovecannot happen. Walter Wangerin once said, “I am convinced that we are not called upon to be successful at anything in this ministry. We are called upon to love. Which is to say, we are called upon to failboth vigorously and joyfully.” Any new endeavor comes with the possibility of failure, and with failure, pain and fear. It is part and parcel of stepping out in faith.