Our oldest son is a cultural chameleon. His language and his behaviour change depending on the cultural environment. The timber in his voice will switch. He’ll count starting from a different finger. Sometimes, his personality even changes.
This is common Third Culture Kid behaviour. Well into adulthood, I changed to adapt to my different worlds too. It brings a smile to my face to now watch it play out in my own children. Somewhere along the line, we learn that certain customs, reactions, or jokes are accepted in one environment but not so much in the other. We become self-aware, and we adapt. We negate one side of ourselves to become one thing to one person, and another to another.
Ayo is a confident French kid at school. He is graded no differently to his French peers on his “dictée”, the infamous weekly French spelling exam. He raises a polite pointed finger like his classmates to ask for a question instead of the more brazen American hand raise. He’ll even say “yesss!” and “wouaaat?” in that horrible French accent when he wins a game with his buddies.
My eight year old came home from school one day with a bright laminated name card. On it, he had coloured in a boy and written in bold colors the name “Jack”.
“That’s my English name, mama!” he told me with great enthusiasm.
“Oh really? But umm, you already have an English name” I told him. “Why don’t you use your actual name for English class?” He shrugged, not fully able to explain his choice.
“Do other children use their given names in English class?” I enquired further wondering if he was worried about being different. “Yes, of course they do, mama” he assured me. “But they can also choose a more English one. So that’s just what I did!” he said, shrugging again.
As he continued to list the English names of all the kids in his class, I found out that his best friend in fact chose Ayo’s name as his English name. “This is getting confusing” I chuckled.
The irony is that the friend understood Ayo spoke English and wasn’t totally French. But my boy saw himself like his monocultural classmates. Maybe too, he would rather melt into the sea of French kids creating a English persona. In this situation, he would much rather be fully-fledged French, like everyone else.
Deep down, Ayo knows he is different. He will readily say he was born in America. But this statement is void of our cultural connotations associated with this label. It’s void of knowledge of place. After all, he left North America half his life ago. In the next sentence, he will tell a friend “nous les anglais on mange tôt” to indicate that we Brits eat on the earlier end, and that his sister has an accent because she is British.
On a good day at home, Ayo will attest he is American. If pressed further about how he felt being American when we were in the States over Christmas, he says he might actually be more French come to think of it.
I don’t see this as a big problem at this point in time. He is sorting his world out, using cultural clues with great finesse for a young boy. One day, though, I will challenge him on his chameleon state. I will ask him what it looks like to be confident in his full cross-cultural identity. I will share the inner-peace and freedom he will find one day when he is able to truly be authentic without negating one of his cultures. I will remind him he can still be a great cross-cultural broker, using native communication and love for his different worlds without losing a part of himself in the process.