March 6, 2013


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!

P.S. Leave me a comment about your struggle with cultural schizophrenia….it’s therapeutic to share your issues in community!  (If those Member Care people want to use you as a case study, they promise to change names & places to protect the mentally innocent!)

Cartoon by:  Antonia Sundrani


  1. I totally relate! Now you have put a name to what I feel. I try to fit into the culture I am in. But I admit I feel more at home in South Africa, Russia, Germany - even probably Greece (even though I haven't been there since 1981, but part of me has that Greece culture thing - if it is not done by siesta time - it ain't going to get done). So how does that make me feel in the U.S. - l love my country, yet I don't totally fit in - even though we have been back here for 20+ years. I also totally relate to the language issue. The first time I went out to a store in Greece, our local bakery, he spoke Greek to me and out came a Spanish reply. From what part of my brain - I do know for I had not spoken Spanish in 5 years. But I guess my brain knew it wasn't English, so it came up with the only other language I knew. Now I have studied and spoken a little Greek, more than a little Germany, some Russian - thrown in with my Spanish. At times just like you, the wrong word comes up. I try to practice the language of the country I am going to visit before I go - hopefully that helps. I have thought about that method of playing them while you sleep. Has anyone had success with that? "And how does it make me feel?" As a sojourner without a real culture. I console myself with the thought that "this is not my home." One day I will be there - and feel totally at home and in a culture where I fit in - but for now - God has something for me to do in "this earthly world."

  2. Dies ist ein guter Artikel. Usted es un escritor excelente. Vous faites quelques bons points. But...I'm just not sure I can relate ; )

  3. Ah, I got a hearty chuckle from this (and the multilingual comment below). And I'm definitely sending it on to our member care too! Thanks for putting words to how we often feel. I know my current language semi-well but spit out a number of all simple things to know in the language of the last place we lived. And where did all the English words I used to know go? or how to spell them? I notice when fellow Americans do things I know will get on locals' nerves (is it getting on mine now too?!). The first time I went home I wanted to wear a sign that said "I live overseas." Thankfully that feeling decreases with frequency home but I see the connection with others doing the same. So thankful to be known by the Father--who/what else can we rely on as to who we are now or who our TCK's will become.

  4. What a great post! I love the visual of the member care worker--me pouring out my guts (well rehearsed because I only get one chance a year!) while eating Reese's cups and them playing Uno with our kids! Ha ha! Oh my.

    I'm so glad that you wrote about this, it makes me feel more normal. I find myself pondering these questions often. I really value being authentic, so feeling so chameleon-ish makes me question whether I'm really being genuine, do I understand and am being understood. These are some of my greatest inner struggles. It helps me when I think of God's omniscience--He understands it all and I never totally will. He cares for me in the midst of it. That quiets my mind for a bit...

  5. hahahaha! I'll see you in my office....

  6. Thanks, lovely people. so glad we've found a place we can all relate! ha!

  7. THANKs for unpacking thoughts that we all try to repress, and opening your heart!

  8. I'm a little late with this, but OH PAM...oh so true. You are certainly not alone in your self analysis and your ability to put into words what so many of us feel is phenomenal & very helpful!!! I can relate to others' comments as using another foreign language when your knowledge of the present one runs out; where to place fork & knife when finished with a meal; what time of day...or dress... is most appropriate. I chuckled at the remark..."you need to plan your crisis..." :)

    I can only echo others' remarks...that it becomes easier the more you cross the ocean...and even more important...that this world is not our home! The assurance that He gives the grace for the task He has called us to is our mainstay....and that it's not about us...but about Him.

    Thanks, Pam, for reflecting the beauty of Christ in your life!!!

  9. Pam, this was deeply poignant and vivid and your words so resonated with where I am. I have been definitely feeling an inner confusion in a way I haven't before. Learning this third different culture has worn me more than I ever expected and I do share the same core language, but the subtle differences and nuances of meaning plus the centuries of history here have caused my cross cultural resilience to grow quite thin. I found your description of member care interesting as we are trying to do this more from within. Apart from visits from MC people, where do you find a safe place to unravel all the cultures and all that goes with it? Also, praying for Bruce as he journeys part way with his dad home. We are still trying to grasp that Steve has no more living parents. Take care, sister and I hope we can share some moments together when we come to Malaga in April. love, Renée

  10. I enjoyed your schizophrenic cross cultural crisis, Pam. I have been reading a book by Lingenfelter called "Ministering Cross Culturally." It is excellent and he covers a lot of the points you bring up in your blog. I can relate to so many of those feelings. Now I have the conflict of dealing with people from other cultures and wondering, "Do I relate to this Iranian woman (for example) like I would in Iran (no eye contact, etc.) or like an American professional?" She is in fact an accomplished IT executive who deals with Caucasians all the time. But do I just want to be another insensitive white guy?

    Did you know that Forbes magazine rated San Jose to be the most diverse city in America? (34% white, 33% Asian, 32% Hispanic, 2% Black, and the rest mixed. I am pretty sure they are including both Iranian and Indian in the Asian category. By "diverse" they indicate that SJ has large populations of a large variety of ethnicities, rather than just one big one with a smattering of others.

    There are over 70 ethnic groups in Silicon Valley.

    Oh, I started the m. candidate program at Venture last winter. Currently there are 14 people who have gotten started with the program. It has been word-of-mouth only so far. I haven't advertised it.

    Last Sunday we all went to the Iranian Christian Church. It is 85% MBB's. I was amazed to hear their testimonies, see their worship, witness their Biblical acts of annointing, prayer for the sick, appointment of an elder, lifting holy hands in prayer, participation in worship, and their ministry to refugees. I was stoked.

    On Friday we visited the mosque in Santa Clara. The tour, the speech, and then observing the rote prayers. You know the routine. The imam preached on doing good deeds to earn "points." No kidding. He said, "points." The beautiful structure is located next to the former OC headquarters. Time has changed things in Silicon Valley. The pursuit of money has played a hand in it too.

    Well I want to say again that I enjoyed and related well to your blogging. Keep it up. A few of us are listening!

    Alive for Jesus, Dan

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  13. Seems like a good moment to reflect on this older post... because my girls are both here to try to spend some time with their mom before she leaves for heaven... but are in such a confused state of mind they can't decide if they want to stay or leave at any given hour. Superficially, they are wrestling with the exhaustion of their own grief and the desire to bless and be with their mom... complex and difficult enough tension on its own.

    But I see some TCK issues and cross-cultural themes blending into their experience of grief. TCK's often keep distance from past relationships after moving to the next place in life because it is too painful to face the loss of the relationships that have gone before, or too expensive to construct regular communication with people left behind. A meeting in an airport or a pizza passing through, no problemo! Connect to the real tangle of relationships and issues from years ago... gotta run, and catch train, plane, or longboard. And then there is the issue of death and grief... do you draw near in time off death, or flee? Do you bring chocolate or flowers or stay close or stay back or sit quietly or read a book to your dying mom? And what if, when you finally get the courage to walk in and be with her, a nurse or a caregiver or your grandmother got there first? Why do other people get to be with my mom when I want to be with her? What's the cultural pecking order IN MY OWN HOME THIS WEEK? And who can I talk to about all these feelings?

    Fortunately, as Fonda said to Sue in a Skype conversation last week, my kids have something that cultural shifts, crowds of strangers, and waves of grief cannot take a way: they have been loved deeply and unconditionally by their mother and father, and they will never be as rootless or emotionally unstable as most of their peers, no matter what storms they go through or how hard the winds blow. They ARE loved. And long after Sue is gone, that deep abiding love will remain.

    Like the song says,
    "I pray that God will fill your heart with dreams
    and that faith gives you the courage, to dare to do great things,
    I'm here for you whatever this life brings,
    So let my love give you roots, and help you find your wings."

    Underneath the confusion of our cultural bays and inlets, beneath the crashing waves of our emotions, beyond reach of the gale force winds of our circumstances, the deep, deep ocean of God's love lays untroubled beneath us. In that calm, quiet, beautiful space, there is still rest for my boats keel to ride through, and a force that lets my rudder navigate through the next wave.

    Thank you for putting names on some of the craziness in my family members complex hearts, and putting a smile on my face as you have done so... your bright writing lightened my load today. Dana

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