Anybody else culturally fragmented?
March 27, 2010 10:02 AM   Subscribe

Anybody else culturally fragmented?

I use the phrase "culturally fragmented" to describe the feeling I have about how I feel being originally from a certain culture but growing up most of my life in North America, spending some time in a a foreign country, and having a long term relationship with someone outside my culture.

I try to take the best of all cultures but I feel like I no longer belong to any one.

I feel like people don't really understand me and who I am as a person because they haven't had the same experiences. I feel like people who have never left their culture get along more easily but are blinded about other things in life. For example, I notice that there is a strong emphasis on financial success here in North America and working hard but in other parts of the world there is a different view. And family structure here is in my opinion weak overall in North America.

I feel alone and fragmented.

Maybe I belong with a group of people who are nomads, not really belonging anywhere.

At the same time I don't want to wander aimlessly around the world. I've been doing that for 3 years but just settled in NYC.

I guess I should interact with more people - been working too hard and not socializing much.
posted by simpleton to Human Relations (25 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
It's a flawed wikipedia entry, but the short version is that you are not alone.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:05 AM on March 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

I came here to respond with Tomorrowful's answer about Third Culture Kids. I am a Third Culture Kid (well, woman) and most of my friends are as well. It's something to be celebrated, and I am very sorry that you feel alone and fragmented. I don't know how to go about it, because it has all happened quite naturally for me, but I would really try to seek out your own kind. There are lots of us here, try and find us!

If it makes you feel any better, I think that those of us who have had the distinct benefit of living across cultures have an immensely improved worldview over those who have not.
posted by msali at 10:09 AM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know how you feel. I personally believe there are limitations in the existing words we have to describe people of certain ethnic groups. I'm technically a "Korean-American", but I don't completely identify with the Korean-American experience. Whereas from the age of 8 (until graduating from high school) I lived in Korea attending a private international school, most of my Korean-American friends spent their entire lives in the United States.

The closest term I've found to describing my experience is "third culture kid" and I think it explains up well my memories of being a cultural nomad.
posted by hellomina at 10:19 AM on March 27, 2010

(and hence the importance of preview...)
posted by hellomina at 10:20 AM on March 27, 2010

I highly recommend that you read the short essay "Imaginary Homelands" by Salman Rushdie, which can be found in the collection of the same title. Rushdie writes about "stereoscopic vision" as expatriate writers "are capable of writing from a kind of double perspective: because they, we, are at one and the same time insiders and outsiders in this society". It's a fascinating read and may shed some light on your own perspective of being "culturally fragmented".
posted by meerkatty at 10:26 AM on March 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

I don't feel this way myself (probably because I didn't leave my home country/native language behind until I was an adult, and it was my own choice. But I know many people who feel this way, and have struggled as adults to understand what it really means to be someone of their birth nationality, when they have little or no personal experience of living in that country.

I think you hit the nail on the head when you say, "I feel like people who have never left their culture get along more easily but are blinded about other things in life." For me, experiencing other cultures has been an enormous positive and the only downside I find is that people from my native country often indicate that they think I'm less of a member of that culture than somebody who has never left it. For me, leaving my native culture has given me quite an insight into it, and I'm very proud to come from that country.

I agree with msali that 'seeking out your own kind' could be the way to go. I have an enormous group of friends and acquaintances from various countries (including the one I live in now), and the one thing that we all have in common - apart from being able to speak English - is that we know what it's like to move around, to live somewhere else, to experience a different culture. I often feel that I have more in common with this group than with some of the people that I grew up with in my native country, though it's always good to talk to them too.
posted by different at 10:33 AM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

You sound like you're suffering from reverse culture shock.

are you an RPCV?
posted by k8t at 10:39 AM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

More people feel disjointed from "the surrounding culture" than you may realize, whether those people are literally Third Culture Kids or whether other life experiences or worldviews have shaped these people to not entirely fit in. They don't all wear signs indicating this, either - you have no idea whether the random dude in a suit you bumped into yesterday felt the exact same way about cultural fragmentation as you do. Cute little comic sorta on point.

You may need to socialize more to appreciate this. Get involved in an organization focussed on doing something, be that something charity or art or whatever, and see how much you really do connect with other people, whether they share your nomadic feelings or some other feelings you have. I don't know your cultural background, but it sounds as if few people are going to literally share your exact permutation of where you've come from and where you've been. Why not appreciate that as a positive - you're a visitor to this Earth coming from a totally unique place!

That said, more people may be so unique than you may realize. I'm a white guy who's only ever been to the US and Canada, but there's quite a bit more to my life experience than sitting on a couch and hanging out with other white people. There's no need to throw my life story into here, although I can say that I'm very much outside of my "born" culture and in a LTR with someone also outside of my culture, so there's that going for me. Don't be so quick to write off those who have not had the same opportunities you have had or to assume that they're not going to relate to feeling so fragmented.

What if it turned out that you would have felt like the same sort of misfit even if you had stayed in your place of birth? How would you deal then?
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:42 AM on March 27, 2010

I'm a third-culture kid (TCK) too, and it's something I've struggled with for most of my life. It's a weird in-between space, and I know first-hand that it can be pretty lonely. I've had to come to terms with the realization that I will never feel absolutely comfortable anywhere, because I think through issues differently from most people.

Please realize that you are not alone, and in fact you are uniquely suited to thrive in this world. Most TCKs have an extraordinary ability to place themselves in other people's shoes, and to give credence to various perspectives. I'm convinced that TCKs have the knowledge and the understanding to change the world. Being constantly uncomfortable and never at home might not be such a bad thing, in the end.

Please MeMail or email me if you want. I love talking to people who don't feel comfortable with their place in the world because complacent people are boring.
posted by pecknpah at 10:43 AM on March 27, 2010

I've had to come to terms with the realization that I will never feel absolutely comfortable anywhere, because I think through issues differently from most people.

That makes me so sad to read, and I am really sorry that you feel that way, because I have a complete opposite take. For me, my family, and I would even go so far as to speak for some of my friends, our nomadic existence has actually made it easier to grow comfortable wherever we are. My nomadic life as a young person seemed perfectly normal, because it was my life. As an adult who chose to continue the experience, I realize what a gift I was given. I am grateful and proud to have lived in different countries and experienced different cultures. I am empowered by it, I know that I can be comfortable wherever I go (barring physical discomforts), because it isn't strange, nothing is really ever foreign.
posted by msali at 11:12 AM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Datapoints: I think it kind of depends on how you're wired. I'm probably diagnosed as a HSP; I've barely left my hometown multicultural city, but have never felt a sense of belonging anywhere with anybody. All my friends are scattered individuals who'd probably hate each other, not part of any one group. As a child when my Jewish relatives came over, I would have to shout to make myself heard and interrupt. Then I would play with the working class Catholic kids in the neighborhood, and they saw me as the obnoxious kid who interrupted too much. I went to a sort-of posh private school until 4th grade, where the biggest problems were forgetting a pencil, and they saw me as a hard-luck case since we weren't all that rich. Then all of a sudden I was in a public school with the poorest kids in the city, some of whom could barely read, and saw me as an elite snob. I remember once trying to fit in and using some urban vocabulary at home (said "that's a 'bad' TV show" or something like that), and my parents nearly had my head.

Or, at least, I perceived all these things that way. My older sister, who went through a similar experience, does not seem to be too bothered by all this, in fact she is able to blend in quite well with different numbers of groups, whereas I, whenever I go into an unfamiliar social situation, am always like "ok , what are the rules here that need to be followed?" I will never be comfortable in most social situations, but it's probably because of the HSP, and a natural lack of social skills, and not necessarily because of the fact that there are different cultures on every street corner.
posted by Melismata at 11:23 AM on March 27, 2010

I consider it all part of life's rich tapestry. I was born and brought up a "Proper Englishman". In my early twenties I started to travel. I went to Sea for 15 years. I have lived in UK, Spain, W. Indies and USA. I now live in a province of Spain where Spanish is not the first language, ( Mallorquin, a Catalan dialect is); with a South American wife and feel like UK is just another foreign country. I have spent all my adult life working with a mixed bunch of "foreigners" many of whom had English as a second language. Having said all that I don't really feel displaced, I'm not a displaced person. I'm my own best friend so I think that helps a lot. I am lucky in having friends and acquaintances of many cultures and races; some I see frequently, some infrequently or hardly ever and some I just chat with a couple of times a year. We all have some point of common reference even if we have moved in different directions; and all of these people have helped make my life richer in one way or another.
posted by adamvasco at 11:33 AM on March 27, 2010

I'm another Korean-American who has sometimes felt that Weirdo-American would be a more apt title (though we're in good company! see: Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs). I refuse to feel guilty for learning French and living in France for a year but only knowing a handful of Korean words.
I was a military brat, and when my family moved from Japan back to the U.S., I remember feeling out of place for the first time amongst a mostly homogenous population. I didn't encounter prejudice until at around that time, the 5th grade (and it seems like my only long-term break from ignorant assumptions since then has been that year in France).
I feel more comfortable among those with similarly fragmented backgrounds. It just requires so much less explaining about how I experience things, about what is and isn't a stupid thing to say or assumption to make. I pretty much see myself as a future mutant with super powers of cultural multivision. It's rad.
posted by inkytea at 12:02 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's OK, these are pretty common experiences. I'm in the sciences and my life trajectory so far's taken me from Scotland, England, Malaysia, Australia, back to the UK for a PhD, then the USA. I've never lived in any region for more than 5 years, and I don't expect to stay in the US for the long term. It's a big planet and there are lots of interesting places to live. There are millions of people like this in the world, particularly in the global cities, forming a kind of caste for mobile educated labor. That's a major economic reason we exist.

I don't agree with the Third Culture Kid thesis, since culturally you can't predict how anyone exposed to this kind of lifestyle will turn out. We're a heterogeneous bunch. I've made friends who're on similar trajectories, and their cultures are anything from hardcore Orthodox Judaism to Spanish Buddhist. I'd say we tend to be a smart, driven bunch though.

There are advantages and disadvantages to living like this. Life can sometimes feel like a gigantic airport terminal in which all interactions are transient, all friends are just passing through. Societies, generally, reward long term commitments; settling down and buying a house is practically synonymous with growing up. We aren't recognized as full participants in society; I haven't been able to vote for many years.

On the other hand, just being able to live anywhere on the planet more than makes up for that. What I'm talking about is the experience of feeling like a global citizen. I have friends in just about every big city on the planet I have invitations to stay with if I feel like dropping through. If I want to get a job in any industrialized country all I need to do is start looking through my contacts list.

Being gay, believe it or not, has made life easier in some ways. I think it's easier for gay adults to make friends in new cities. It's kind of like the Rotary Club. (Did I really just compare being gay to the rotary club?) Gay people often move around more, either to go to less prejudiced places or because they just prefer big cities, and gay culture is often, but not always, more open minded about other cultures.

The way this kind of lifestyle shapes your attitude can be complex. I think having to live in a culture where the prevailing assumptions about, say, economics, politics, correct attitudes towards sex or gender are quite different from your background, can be shocking and frustrating. The US is a good example of this in a lot of ways. You have to listen to opinions that you fundamentally disagree with, and still recognize that to these people, their points of view seem reasonable and self evident to them.

And this is another fundamental problem that nomads have that settled people don't, because your core values are constantly being confronted and questioned. What do you believe, what are the core values you're going to hold on to throughout your life? For me it's about truth and integrity. I feel nothing but contempt for patriotism or nationalism, it all seems ridiculous to me.
posted by 7-7 at 12:15 PM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

I know what you're describing. I've never felt a sense of "belonging" to North American culture; some of this is probably due to my introverted personality but I think my background has contributed to it. I was born and raised in a dumpy town in the southwestern US. My parents immigrated from Thailand and were themselves the children of immigrants from China.

We had no relatives in the States. I was raised speaking English so on my few vists to Thailand as a child, I couldn't speak to any of my relatives or feel any connection to them other than in the theoretical sense.

I never knew anything about China as a kid. In my college years I spent a good deal of time studying the language and traveling around the country. I felt a strange sense of belonging and yet not belonging; on the one hand I didn't stick out anymore due to my appearance; on the other hand I felt even more like a foreigner than I did in the US.

As a result I've never known what ethnicity I'm supposed to call myself when people ask me about my background, especially since I don't feel a sense of belonging to any particular ethnicity anyway.

I was pretty much the only Asian kid in my hometown so I never really developed the same sense of cultural identity like my Chinese or Indian or (insert ethnicity) friends who grew up in big multicultural cities like Toronto. Whenever I look at their Facebook pictures (and this is no judgment on anybody) you only see people of the same ethnicity in the photos, and I often wonder what it would have been like to grow up around lots of people who looked like myself.
posted by pravit at 12:36 PM on March 27, 2010

msali: Sorry, maybe uncomfortable isn't the right word. I don't consider living up in another culture a negative; in fact, it allows me to see the world a lot more clearly, and enables me to put myself in the shoes of people from almost every culture. I have no doubt that having lived a nomadic life has led to the successes I experience today, and honestly I wouldn't trade my experiences for anything.

I've eaten a sheep eyeball, I've climbed trees with kids who thought I was a ghost and stole my toys, and I've developed the ability to sit through any meeting or event for hours and hours without having to pee. I've flown around the world more times than I can count, and I can sit and talk to anybody, anywhere, no matter who they are or what culture they're from. Every part of my childhood made me into the adult I am today.

My point is that I'm not at home while I'm doing all those things. Yes, I am convinced I can go into any culture and be happy there. I can talk to anybody and find commonalities. I can go weeks without modern amenities, and I have a stomach made of steel. But that doesn't mean that I have to be comfortable when I'm doing those things, and having that somehow make you sad, as though I don't recognize the value of my upbringing, makes me kind of upset. I recognize the value. I hope the OP comes to recognize that too. But just because I can do something, doesn't mean I want to. And that doesn't mean I'm any less of a TCK, or that I'm somehow missing out.

I hope that in having asked this question, the OP will be able to know that there are people like him/herself, and that feeling fragmented isn't necessarily a bad thing. Being from and living in different cultures makes a person better.
posted by pecknpah at 1:12 PM on March 27, 2010

I hope that in having asked this question, the OP will be able to know that there are people like him/herself, and that feeling fragmented isn't necessarily a bad thing.

But again, we could be wired for it to be a bad thing. In evolutionary terms, we're tribal. In primitive times, we needed to be part of a tribe, have cooperation with others in things like killing animals so that we could eat and be warm. Without the tribe, we'd die, and therefore we made every effort, conscious or unconscious, to fit in so that we would not be kicked out and die. When I didn't fit in with the various diverse groups growing up as mentioned in my previous comment, I felt this weird sort of panic and discomfort, which I could attribute to being wired as a tribal person. In today's day and age, where we don't need to depend on others for survival, of course it's not a problem to be fragmented, in fact it can be enriching as others have said; but on some level, for me anyway, the need will always be there, and I'll never get it due to my personality. YMMV.
posted by Melismata at 1:32 PM on March 27, 2010

That's the reason I love living in America. I feel as though all of us here (well, where I tend to hang out, major metro areas) are from somewhere else, if not first generation than at a one or two removes. I feel strangely 100% American - when I look around and see people of every race and nationality around me. In fact, I feel odd when I meet a Swede. But I've lived all over the world - including a few years in India. And I feel America is the most multicultural country on earth - you can actually be yourself here as an individual, you don't have to be a Swede, or a Brit, or an Indian, or whatever. Whereas in Europe, I feel it's a bit more constricted... I love France, but have a strong awareness of not being "French" when I'm there. But here, in America - damn, I'm an American, 100%! It's not that there is no "American culture", but more about individuality being accepted as the "norm" here. Of course, it helps that in general I don't feel "disconnected" from whatever place I'm in... it's a Zelig-like ability to feel comfortable in wildly different situations - when I compare myself to people I know, I feel like I have a wider variety of friends from radically different backgrounds - socially, ethnically, politically. I believe, OP, that it comes down to empathy and and "outward" orientation - at any given moment, I don't tend to think about how *I* feel, but rather I'm interested in the other person... and when you focus on others, you never really feel lonely, because people are endlessly interesting - and the more different from your background the better.
posted by VikingSword at 2:23 PM on March 27, 2010

Clearly, based on the responses in this thread, you (and I) are not alone in feeling this way.

I was born and raised in the States, and identified 100% as American growing up, even though my physical attributes place me as Arab, and part of my extended family is Muslim. For reasons you may be aware of, this is an interesting time to be Arab in the United States. And yet, I don't feel Arab. In fact, I don't speak Arabic and have felt strongly about my agnostic belief for a long time. I don't get along well with other Arab Muslims, even though they seem to gravitate towards me here in the US, because we are supposed to stick together when in a foreign land or something like that. There's some element of automatic kinship when they see me, but as soon as I open my mouth, sounding and acting like a typical American, that kinship kinda evaporates.

On the flip side, though, in many Americans' eyes, my skin color and ethnicity seem to preclude me from being fully accepted. Before I open my mouth, white Americans tend to act towards me as if I was an "other." Sometimes, depending on the person, even well after I begin to speak. Recently I met a man on a train in the middle of the US, a place I usually am not in, and we began talking about politics. He kept steering the conversation towards asking me what Egyptians do, and how they think, despite me continuing to tell him that I've only visited there a couple times and am not really Egyptian. I told him finally that I consider myself fully American, but it seemed that when he looked at me, he saw not "American" but "brown."

So that's my dilemma. Too western to get along with Arabs and sometimes (only once in a while, I'm not trying to paint all Americans as racist) too brown and Arab to be fully accepted by Americans. To be sure, I get along better in US society, but I definitely feel like I have a different perspective just based on life experiences than many Americans do. I didn't always feel this way; when I was growing up I rejected Arab culture and strongly identified as an American, in very explicit terms. But as I've gotten older I've realized that I don't fit the mold as well as many in this country.

The saving grace, however, is this:

More people feel disjointed from "the surrounding culture" than you may realize

It's so true. The media describes a very homogeneous set of experiences that are "normal," but in a country this large, there are plenty of people who have never left the country and haven't been raised in anything other than American culture who simply do not identify with "normal."

Whether or not having a different perspective than the mainstream is a positive or negative, I'm not sure. Some people above say that this is a good thing. Sometimes you can feel it negatively, as if you are excluded from something. I think, in the end, having a different perspective does give me the ability to more easily see things from both sides than many people I know, and I feel I've had a wider range of experiences than some people, but to what end? I'm not sure it's much of a positive or negative, it's just different. You might try leveraging your different experiences by crafting them into interesting stories to tell in conversation. Many people would love to hear about what living in a foreign country is like.
posted by malapropist at 3:11 PM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Well. I couldn't be considered a "Third Culture Kid," but I identify strongly with the feeling of not really belonging anywhere. I grew up outside of D.C. until I was an adolescent, at which point my parents packed up and moved us to a small rural town in upstate New York (between Buffalo and Rochester). I spent my adolescence miserable, not belonging, having prior to that hung out with people (my parents' friends) of all different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, etc., and going into D.C. somewhat regularly with my dad to hang out in the museums while he was at work. Frankly, it still perplexes me a bit what my parents were thinking...but I guess because they grew up in that area (upstate New York I mean), it made sense to them.

It's never made sense to me though, and the closest I've ever felt to belonging anywhere was New York--because everyone there was different, could be different, with different ideas of what life is and should be, and still belong.

Right now, I'm living in Boston, and kind of hate it (no offense Boston-area Me-Fites, I love you guys regardless). To me, a lot of the vibe around here feels like: if you haven't grown up here, if you aren't part of the group, you're not really welcome. And the universities that dominate the area are completely normative as well. I'm longing to leave, to move somewhere else, some big urban environment. Maybe back to New York, or somewhere new...but in the end there's nowhere to go home to, where I feel like I belong. I think I was forever estranged from American culture (at least, what I understand it to be) when I was a teenager, although I agree with another poster's comment about feeling 100% American surrounded by all different sorts of people--but I think this is a very urban, upper-middle class and small (ironically) idea of American identity.

All of this is to say that I think I understand--at least somewhat--how you feel. And, on the flip side, I get a sense of excitement from considering where I could go next; I'm not intimidated by considering anywhere (um...urban, to be honest) in the world. Foreignness or language barriers won't deter me. I don't need a sense of security because I've never really felt so secure here.
posted by dubitable at 8:11 PM on March 27, 2010

but I think this is a very urban, upper-middle class and small (ironically) idea of American identity.

This was badly put. Better: I think that, within the whole American population, there is a small percentage of people who feel this way, and they are characterized by being both urban and (fairly) upper-middle class.
posted by dubitable at 8:15 PM on March 27, 2010

Anybody else culturally fragmented?


I guess I should interact with more people - been working too hard and not socializing much.

I think this is a good idea. There is nothing lonelier than being in a large city without a social life.

You will never ever in your life meet someone who has led the same life you have, but if you're just looking for people who have culture bounced their way through life then NYC is a good place to start.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:22 PM on March 27, 2010

I'm white, but for whatever reason I know far more "culturally fragmented" people than not. You're in good company. You might enjoy Obama's book Dreams from my Father; a lot of that is about feeling like you don't fit in great with any one culture.

My best advice is not to look to society for a framework of how to live your life; North America values certain things, and other cultures value other things, but you can pick what you personally value, and by following and pursuing those values, you will find like-minded people. Really, everyone, whether they feel torn between cultures or not, would probably be happier if they did that.
posted by Nattie at 9:54 PM on March 27, 2010

People who have traveled a lot and lived in different countries have generally seemed a certain way to me: slow to react or get angry, more prone to be thoughtful. Good listening skills, mellowness, and flexibility also come to mind.

If this is being "culturally fragmented", I wish there were more of you.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 1:23 AM on March 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Hi there. My mother came from country A, my father from country B. They moved to country C and had me, then moved to country D, where I grew up. I then went to university in country C, thus losing my right of residence in country D, and now live and work in country A, which still feels weird and foreign even after several years. I no longer fit in anywhere. I feel your pain.

Seeing things from the outside is a superpower. Like all superpowers, it can sometimes weigh heavily on you, and you may wish you could just be normal like other people, but you can't renounce your superpower, so you might as well use it for good. It is very lonely not fitting in, but my friends say they value having a different perspective on the culture they take for granted.

Take heart! I think there will be more and more people like us if the world keeps changing the way it's changed in the past couple of decades.
posted by stuck on an island at 3:57 PM on March 28, 2010

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