Hi. My name is Pam Sider and I'm a cultural schizophrenic.
There are probably Twelve Steps somewhere to remedy this. Or a Self Help Support Group. All I know is, ever since I went cross-cultural, I have been OCD'ing about my identity.
Do I want to talk about it, you ask?
Well, ok. Let's bring it into the room.
Ever since I tried blending another culture into my own culture, I have been asking myself, "Will the real Pam Sider please stand up?" Should I be respectfully early or socially late? Should I be spontaneous or organized? Should I eat late or early? Should I force feed guests or wait and let them ask for more? Should I be friendly and make eye contact or look the other way? Dress up or down? Should I be my more naturally introverted self or my loud, boisterous, new-culture self?
Sometimes the answer is easy in your new culture: you do what your new local friends do. After all, this is what you were trained to do - enculturate. However, this takes a mental toll on you. Trying to simultaneously maintain your "home culture" within your family can create an internal strain that leads to a split personality – or at least a splitting headache. To top off your first term, just about the time you've got the hang of it, you need to go back "home" and be somebody else!
In short, you end up with attachment issues in your new culture and repression of your old culture. This is not good.
Let's take language learning. We have to become like a child again to be able to do this. If you take a baby's communicative ability and put it in an adult body, you had better be ready for some issues! Wikipedia (such a valuable & reliable source of information) describes some common symptoms of schizophrenia as including "auditory hallucinations, paranoid or bizarre delusions, disorganized speech and thinking...accompanied by significant social or occupational dysfunction." If that doesn't beat all. That's what they told us would happen in "Cross Cultural Communicative Competency 101"! It's really weird all the cross-over between schools of thought, isn't it? It could mean a real breakthrough for Psychologists to know that language & cultural learning - not therapy - is one of the best ways to "get in touch with your inner child"!
Did I mention that my husband is my blissfully ignorant enabler? (Or was it my ignorance-is-bliss co-dependent?) Anyhow, his matter-of-fact approach to life, along with his stable emotional state, provide a placebo effect for me to continue on in my cultural identity neurosis. As long as he lives in denial about his own mental disorder it provides the perfect environment for my own fixation on the subject. When I project my stuff onto him, his defense mechanisms remain strong. If I get to psychoanalyzing him, he does have a tendency to go a bit borderline on me and since I really need one of us to remain sane, I feign closure and move on. (Is this a form of self-medicating?)
We are thinking about putting together a support group because, sadly, we know lots of other people like us. AA took the words right out of our mouths for what I would like to create: "a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others recover." The problem is, I think it's kind of important to believe that there is the possibility of recovery and I'm not sure there is a cure for cultural schizophrenia! (Those of you positive thinkers out there are probably dying to tell me that my "inner critic is sabotaging again" but I really am just telling you how it is.)
Currently I am mixing languages, idiomatic expressions, verb tenses, traditions and cultural mores. The more the years pass, the only thing I’m improving on are my faux pas! I can’t remember which saying is from which country & if I leave the fork & knife at 5 o’clock or 7 o’clock or scrap 'em and use my hands. The only thing I can remember about the stages of culture shock is the honeymoon stage and I know I ain’t there!
If you can relate at all to this, you are probably at least bicultural. If like me, you have lived in and absorbed 3 or more new cultures, you more than likely have no idea who you really are on any given day. You are a chameleon who changes with its environment, most of the time subconsciously and smoothly but other days you struggle to make sense of all the inner "you's". You are east and you are west. You are north and you are south. In short, you are a global mess!! And this, my friends, is why Member Care was invented.
Member Care is a new branch of Psychology for cross cultural workers with a Christian world view. In addition to such Therapist Greatest Hits as "How does that make you feel?", they inquire about how it affects your relationship with God and family. They are like doctors of old who make house visits from far away places. They are wonderful multi-taskers, bringing you candy from your home country, playing multiple hands of Uno with your children while simultaneously debriefing your cultural and personal traumas. Some are specialists in subjects as varied as PTSD, menopause, conflict resolution or how to plan for retirement. Some have no special training at all but they volunteered, someone foot the bill and here they are. They are your new best friend. Even if you've never met them before, you find yourself spilling your guts because as we all know, you need to plan to have your crises when they are travelling to your region once a year.
If all this psychobabble is making you crazier than before you started reading this post, please, in the name of mental health, STOP READING! If you think you can overcome your own personal battle with cultural schizophrenia, I would dare to ask, "And how's that working for you?" And if, like me, you need a place to confess your issue, I want you to know that this blog is a safe place. I hold earnestly to Augusten Burroughs' advice when he said, "Think of your head as an unsafe neighborhood; don't go there alone."
No, you are not alone in your cultural madness. Trust me, you are in good company!
Cartoon by: Antonia Sundrani