Skip main navigation

Considering multiple identities

Thinking about identity is one thing, but experiencing it is another. In our global, mobile world, more and more people have complex identities.

Thinking about identity is one thing, but experiencing it is another. In our global, mobile world, more and more people have intertwined identities. How can they sort out their hybridity in a meaningful way in social contexts?

A complicated “Culture Story” (Getting to know Andy Halt’s identities)

Andy is struggling with his multiple cultural identities. Part of this stems from his birth parents’ backgrounds, part from his experiences of growing up in different locations abroad, and even more comes from confusion on how he sees himself, or what he thinks he should try to be in various social contexts.

Andy Halt is a Thai-American who grew up as an expatriate child. Andy’s white US American father (the son of German immigrants) grew up in Illinois. His dad majored in business at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana (the U of I), and then got his MBA at the famous Kellogg School at Northwestern University near Chicago. Andy’s mother came from a well-established Thai diplomatic family, grew up with near-native English, got her Bachelor’s degree at the prestigious Chulalongkorn University (founded in 1917 by King Rama IV who modernized Thailand) in Medicine, then got into Med-School at the U of I, where his parents met. They married while his father was working on his MBA, lived for a few years in Chicago where his mom worked as a doctor in a local hospital and passed the Illinois Medical Board exams. His dad then started his career with 3M (the makers of Scotch Tape) and Andy and his sister Annie were born during that time in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Real Midwesterners!

His dad then took executive jobs (and his mom worked part-time with international medical clinics) in Tokyo, then Singapore, where Andy and Annie went to primary school, and they moved and stayed many years in Beijing, where they went to middle and high school at the highly-ranked International School of Beijing (ISB). Andy loved his years in Beijing, developed good soccer skills, had classmates from all over the world, learned good Mandarin (which he had started in Singapore), made some good Chinese friends on the soccer pitch, and felt quite at home! Andy’s grades and SAT test scores allowed him to get a scholarship in the Brain Lamb School of Communications at Purdue University in West-Lafayette, Indiana, only two hours away from Grandpa and Grandma Halt’s home in eastern Illinois.

Among the challenges that Andy now faces as he adjusts to university life in the US is that he looks more Thai than “American,” whatever that is supposed to mean (in any case, not “white enough” for some people in the Midwest, it seems). Some of his classmates keep kidding him about being the “model minority” they have to work hard beat out on exams (a few call him “Asian-Andy”). Others see him spending time and using Mandarin with Chinese students on campus and assume he came from there, either making comments about the “the new China threat” or, assuming he’s in engineering, complaining about the “horde” of “techy, nerdy” Chinese students on the Purdue campus (there are over 4,000!). A few know that his mother is Thai, and they make jokes based on what they’ve heard about the Thai bar or massage parlor scene — all very uncomfortable for him as a Bible-believing Christian. Some joke about his name (Hey Halt! You’re supposed to stop, kid!). Others laugh at him about being a “typically Asian-American banana” or make him feel self-conscious or excluded in other ways.

Even at church he feels occasionally misunderstood by the mostly white congregation. But he’s thankful for the students in his “College Bible Study Group” who have taken the time to get to know him better. But he senses his own identities are often in conflict, and feels displaced and alone most of the time. One of his mom’s friends suggested he read a book about “Third Culture Kids” (TCKs), so he’s wondering if exploring that might help. But right now the course load is heavy, mid-terms are coming, and his sense of not fitting in anywhere is mounting!

What Andy is dealing with is quite complex. His “cultural story” is an increasingly “typical” profile of a TCK, global nomad, or world citizen. Multiple identities can bring benefits, but also raise challenges.

Perhaps you have some feelings, thoughts, or reactions to his situation. Does this case seem to bring to light any biases, comfort-based demarcations, or potential out-group boundaries that you may have previously overlooked in the way you normally think or act?

Though uncomfortable to face, reflecting on how we make assumptions or attributions about others can help us grow in tolerance and respect in intercultural interaction.

© Steve J. Kulich, Shanghai International Studies University
This article is from the free online

Intercultural Communication: Dynamics of cultural identities in global interaction

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now