Born of a Taiwanese family, my parents sought a better future for my siblings and I. In a politically unstable generation where Mainland China breathed down the Republic’s neck with frequent missile testings, families with the means immigrated out of the island in search of better opportunities.
After spending a three-year stint in Australia, we moved back to Taiwan, but I was placed in an international school for the remainder of my childhood. This made me different from local Taiwanese kids, growing up with a Western education and expat peers, speaking fluent English and a basic command of Chinese.
I hardly remember much of my Passport culture, having only spent my upper elementary years in Australia. Despite the fact that I learned pennies, nickels and dimes in math class, memorized the Gettysburg address in history, and read American classics like Huckleberry Finn in school, I had never touched ground on American soil until age 18.
I am a TCK—a Third Culture Kid. A label for those who don’t belong.
We are meant to belong. So when we don’t, we act like we do. I learned how to shape shift into whatever context I found myself in. With my Taiwanese family, I drew on cultural mores I learned from my Chinese storybooks, and spouted pop cultural references from Taiwanese variety shows. At school, I spoke English, perfectly imitating the American accent of my teachers and peers. This chameleon-like ability became fully integrated into my cultural identity. I learned how to live a partial story.
Moving to America for college only multiplied the number of ways I didn’t belong. Unlike my fellow international students, I could speak flawless English. I am most often mistaken for being Asian American, yet I do not carry the same history as my Asian friends. As a missionary convert, I discovered the face of evangelical Christianity in the WASP dominant Christian College I attended and it looked fair-skinned, blue-eyed and blond. I worshipped with brothers and sisters who shared none of my history and culture. I continue to cope with life on the fringe.
I was terribly lonely those first years in a strange land overseas. Meaningful connections require common ground, so I made the initiative to become like my peers. I learned to say, “hey, how are you?” in passing (after realizing many people didn’t actually mean for an in-depth analysis of my current state of being).
I figured out how to stay busy, because having a full schedule was cool in America. I never did get into the wasteful food fights in the cafeteria—even the Americanized version of me didn’t enjoy mess. I learned becoming like other people made them more comfortable, so I hid my foreign stories for a chance at building relationships. Before long, I had amassed many friends, but something about our relationships were off-kilter, lacking substance and depth.
It was because our conversations became one-sided. It was easier for me to just pretend I shared everyone else’s worldview because 1) it was less cumbersome to not have to breakdown the nuances of every differing perspective, and 2) it was less painful to avoid facing misunderstanding and worse, indifference.
Before long, I had mastered the art of living the dominant narrative and hiding my own unique and complicated story.
This is why a deep friendship requires so much time and tendering. It takes time, energy, and focused will to discover all the complexities of our complete stories.
I learned to recognize the people in my life, who despite my expert attempts at living partial stories, pushed to hear my complete story. They were the ones who asked questions and listened without interrupting. They were the ones who would remember details of stories I had told. They were willing to live in the uncomfortable tension of uncommon ground. After a lifetime of learning to become like others, I found people who were willing to become like me. I discovered a satisfying relationship can only come from a desire to know each other’s complete stories.
I made great acquaintances by living partial stories. It was only by mutual participation in each other’s complete stories that I made some true friends. Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, a missionary who thought deeply about cross cultural ministry says, “There is no way by which we come to know a person except by dwelling in his or her story.”
On an interpersonal level, the consequence of silencing stories is the regrettable loss of a mutually satisfying relationship. However, when this dynamic is scaled to a societal level, where the dominant party controls the civil rights of the other, and the marginalized side continue to diminish in voice and power, the result is systemic injustice. When we consistently see only a partial story of an entire people group, they become a mere caricature, and not equal human beings with rich histories and dynamic culture. Like acquaintances, they can be easily discarded and forgotten.
We are called to build deep and lasting relationships, not just on an interpersonal level, but between communities, societies, and nations. This requires a willingness to be in an uncomfortable tension where there is yet to be common ground, and a desire to become like those who have so long lived the majority culture. We are called to dwell in each other’s full stories—listening, being uncomfortable, and changing. This is the less traveled road, the cost to meaningful connections. Without taking this path, we will continue to find ourselves on opposite sides of dividing lines, and injustices will continue to deepen.
I never offered my complete story to people who were busy telling theirs. I waited until they asked, and discerned whether they cared.
Those of us with the power and privilege of holding the microphone, we must put them down some of the time and invite those with partial stories to complete them. Only then, can we live full lives together.
Only then, can justice roll.
I write from Taiwan about finding faith in the irreverent, miracles in the ordinary, and beauty in the margins. I drive a Prius, am more interested in being evangelized than evangelizing. I’m super social justice-y, and a feminist. You can find me at cindywords.com, where I tap my words out from the thirty third floor of the high rise I call home.
Image credit: PS Lee