Growing up, I felt like an ugly duckling, an experience with which I am sure many mixed kids can relate. For me, half Russian, half Kazakh, born in Soviet Siberia, raised in Kyrgyzstan, and now an American living in London, identity has always been a complex issue. Even today, when people ask where I am from, it takes me a moment to answer what seems a simple question. While sometimes I long for a strong cultural identity, and one place to call home, I’ve also come to appreciate my unique background, and feeling a true ‘citizen of the world’.
Usually you hear that mixed, or ‘hybrid’, kids, born into intercultural unions, are more attractive and smarter than others, given the richness and diversity of their genetic pool. Yet you rarely hear about the identity crises they face whilst growing up. As a follow-up to a previous AGI article on intercultural marriages between Asian and Caucasian partners, I spoke recently to several young men and women from different countries born into such unions. Reflecting on my own experience, I continue an exploration of cultural bridging, and what it’s like to grow up a mixed kid with all the advantages and disadvantages this brings.
In Search of Identity
For mixed kids, identity is far beyond their exotic looks and physical features; it also depends on factors such as family attachments and the cultural environments in which they grow up. A particular cultural affiliation may prevail if the child feels closer to one parent than the other, particularly in the case of parents’ divorce. Constant questioning – ‘Who am I?’ – haunts mixed kids, presenting a dilemma that can sometimes be too hard and confusing for a young mind to solve. This often forces them to choose and assert some type of identity – often the mainstream culture – in order to fit in and feel socially accepted.
A 21 year-old Londoner, of Bruneian Chinese and South African background (with a mix of Dutch Afrikaans, Yemeni, English, Scottish, and Indonesian!), Umar doesn’t feel great affinity with any of his parents’ cultures, but considers himself British. For Ian, a 23 year-old of Scottish/Cherokee and Korean descent, his identity is clear – American. “I have a closer relationship to the American culture because I’ve gone to English-speaking schools my entire life, and most of my friends were born in the U.S.,” he says.
Paul, 26, calls Kenya home, but was raised in a multicultural and multilingual family – his mother is German Catholic, and his father an Indian Sikh. While feeling neither, Paul developed his own appreciation and understanding of the different cultures to which he has been exposed.For instance, two young women, Seeta (30), and Tanya (26), both of British/Indian background and born and raised in England, identify themselves as British, and regard English as their native tongue. While Seeta was raised in a multicultural household, where both Christmas and Diwali have been celebrated for years, Tanya grew up with her Irish mother raised her as a Catholic, in a predominantly white, middle class neighborhood.
Fitting In vs. Feeling Unique?
One of the biggest challenges mixed kids face is trying to fit in and feel part of each parent’s ethnic group. “It can be confusing not knowing which culture to belong to and feeling that you belong to neither. Not looking like my Mom or Dad, sometimes I feel like the odd one out,” shares Tanya. Growing up with a sense of being only ‘half’ and not ‘fully’ belonging to their communities – which can lead to internal insecurities and self-deprecation – mixed kids may also face disapproval and prejudice from strangers and extended family. Seeta and her siblings, for example, experienced verbal racism both at school and outside, which was hard at times to tolerate. Tanya too faced racism growing up, often from her own – Asians.
But discrimination, like everything else, has a flipside. Mixed kids also benefit from standing out and feeling unique. Umar believes such positive discrimination can be advantageous, as people tend to be fascinated with his multifaceted ethnic background. “I know that everyone is unique, but as someone with a mixed background, especially one such as mine, I feel even more special!” he says with pride. Recent research shows that multi-ethnic kids, introduced to different cultures and identifying themselves proudly as mixed, are better prepared for personal development and growth than their culturally homogeneous peers. Taking pride in their uniqueness gives them increased confidence, and their insider knowledge of more than one culture helps mixed kids to cross geographic, social, and cultural borders with ease, and to navigate and connect with a wide range of environments and people.
As I grew up, I also realised that being different had certain advantages. My exotic looks are memorable, I have an interesting story to tell, and I feel incredibly empowered by the cultural diversity to which I’ve been exposed. It allows me to relate, and feel at home, in various countries (be it Central Asia, Russia or the West). Characteristics that used to single me out are now my ticket to blending in. Paul echoes my thoughts: “Now, I joke that when I am in Kenya I am African, in Germany I am European, and in the U.S. I am American. I try to counterbalance this by accepting the social responsibilities that come with each country.”
Best of Both Worlds
As mixed kids get older, they tend to become more reflective about identity and culture”, giving their heritage a new appreciation and perhaps rediscovering and reconnecting with the ‘cultural half’ they were embarrassed of before. As Seeta explains, “As a child I was slightly embarrassed of my Indian roots, and refused to wear Indian clothes to school. As an adult, I love dressing in a sari and celebrating my roots. It’s great to have a rich heritage, family in different countries to visit, an unusual name, and large gene pool. It’s the best of both worlds!”
Equipped with a unique worldview and greater emotional flexibility, mixed kids have become an integral part of today’s globalising process. They are themselves cultural bridges. They love their samosas with tomato ketchup, celebrate both Asian and Western holidays, speak several languages, visit families on different continents, and wouldn’t want it any other way. After all, celebrating diversity is the way forward as the world becomes more interconnected, multicultural, and exciting!In fact, by adopting and enjoying the best of their cultures – norms and values, traditions, cuisine, and fashion – mixed kids create individual identities that suit them best at different times and in different settings. “I love being mixed! I feel like I’m unique in my own group, while I can be universally liked by any culture because I don’t fit any specific group. I feel my background has allowed me many opportunities that other people will miss out on in life,” shares Ian.