How I Live a Partial Story

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By Cindy Brandt | Twitter: @cindy_w_brandt

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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.

___________________

About Cindy: 

cindyI 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

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  • Sandy Hay

    Your blog speaks loud and clear to me. My former daughter-in-law is Ukrainian. Reading your words helped me understand the separation she and I have (and sadly my son)…she doesn’t desire to” know anyone’s complete story”. so it all seems like as act. Even though this is somewhat the reverse of your story, it bring such clarity for me.

    • I’m sorry to hear about your son’s marriage – being in a cross cultural marriage is not for the faint of heart (I’m in one myself)! Much grace to all of you.

  • HBurns

    ‘We are called to build deep and lasting relationships, not just on an interpersonal level, but between communities, societies, and nations.’
    What a great education you are giving us today Cindy to help us understand each other better. I haven’t heard the term TCK before and this makes so much sense to me and I will take it to heart. Thank you so much!

    • Thank you for listening, Helen. TCKs struggle with friendships for a variety of reasons, but befriending one is well worth anyone’s time, in my unbiased opinion. 🙂

      • HBurns

        I would agree – I love the depth and richness of every single new relationship. I so appreciate insight to the unique challenges you have faced. So helpful. xo

  • Donna-Jean Brown

    “willingness to be in an uncomfortable tension where there is yet to be common ground”

    This is the threshold feeling that’s hard to cross with the “others” we meet. I see it in microcosm even at church coffee hours where folks would rather hang with their friends than talk to visitors.
    Well said, Cindy, and thankyou for writing.

    • I love that observation of a threshold in meeting new people. It is hard! Thanks for reading!

  • What an articulate presentation of your experience and the transcendent wisdom that has been catalyzed by it. Thank you, friend. I’m better for listening.

    • Thank you for listening, Kelli!

  • Melinda Cadwallader

    Yes. Let us slow down our hustle and learn how to pass the mic. So many stories are waiting to move acquaintances into deeper friendships. Love this. Thank you, Cindy.

    • “slow down our hustle”…a lesson I sorely need to learn.

  • Anne-Marie

    ‘They were willing to live in the uncomfortable tension of uncommon ground’ Hi Cindy – yup this was the line that grabbed me too. Much to think on here – especially widening the ‘uncomfortable’ meeting place to nations and communities. Great! Thank you! And – some of us are hidden in our complexity. Most of my earliest years were in Spain and I was bilingual and spent half my time with a Spanish family, but not the rest of my home family. I used to literally divide myself – taking on the language and culture that went with each family, but not ever able to blend them. We returned to the states when I was 5 but I think a piece of me is Spanish. I never felt fully at home here after that. Ever. Lovely to meet others who stand on a mixture of soils. blessings to you in the walking and connecting!

    • Hello Anne-Marie! The challenge with growing up cross cultural is as a child, we aren’t able to breakdown the nuances of our experience yet, so much of “living a partial story” is internalized subconsciously. It really takes some effort to learn how to live more integrated. I’m still learning.

  • What a privilege to hear more of your story, Cindy … Thank you so much for sharing. xoxo

    • I feel more safe (less foreign) knowing you have spent time in Taiwan and can imagine some of my story. Appreciate you so much.

      • I feel pretty connected to you, I have to say, for the things you have expressed here AND the fact that you live in Taiwan. I feel a little closer to that beloved place, thanks to you. I’ve written over at Rachel Pieh Jones’ place about feeling like a Third Culture Adult … I first learned about TCKs in Taiwan and it made so much sense. And now, living in Canada, I never feel like my story is simple to explain. When people ask, Where are you from? I think: How much time do you have …

        Btw, love that Newbigin quote.

        So so happy to have you here.
        xoxo

  • Excellent. Thank you for this.

    • Thank you for reading, Sarah. Congratulations on your baby Boy? Girl? 🙂

  • Profound words: “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.” Thanks, Cindy, for honoring us with your story.

    • I wanted to share my story as one who needed to live more fully, but also speak to myself as one who needs to listen more. I hope that message came across. We all are in positions of privilege and margin depending on context. Thank you for reading!

  • cjdeboer

    Very powerful and eye-opening, Cindy. Thank you for blessing us with your words and helping me to understand more about being “the other” as a TCK.

    • Thank you Claire! TCKs are increasingly more common – I hope the rising generation of TCKs feel more and more welcome and less lonely.

  • I love this, Cindy. Wow. It’s so true that we won’t offer up our stories until there’s a level of trust there to merit that vulnerability. I love how you connect that idea to the whole concept of being marginalized–we just don’t hear the stories unless we break down our own deafness.

    • Thank you Heather. I wrote in an article last year that justice really is simply friendship at its core. Learning how to listen well as a friend is the foundation of social justice, I think.

      http://sojo.net/blogs/2014/01/24/friendship-justice

      • “Justice is simply friendship at its core”. Think I might have to get this tattooed someplace.

  • Beth

    Thank you for articulating this so well, Cindy. Your words resonate deeply.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Beth. 🙂

  • Marilyn Gardner

    Oh my gosh – Cindy! I Love this piece so much. I will be quoting it all week. And your quote from Newbigin is so apt. I just wrote today about ISIS success in recruiting people from the west – primarily young men and you get at the heart of it in this post. Wow. Would love to talk to you about this all day but for now just thank you for your ability to articulate this need to dwell in each other’s stories….it is reminiscent of those beautiful words “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us….”

    • Marilyn…you humble me, always, with your generosity of encouragement. Thank you. And yes, the Incarnation doesn’t get the attention it deserves in the theological world – but truly Good News for us all.

  • Wally

    Been reading Brene Brown books and she echoes the your idea of connection, especially in Gifts of Imperfection. Stories are what make/solidify relationships. why are there no men responding on here?

    • Love Brene Brown, I’m honored you hear echoes of her ideas in this piece. Thankful you are here, Wally.

  • Susan

    This is why it is so important to travel and experience when you are given the opportunity. We can then relate better to the world!

    • I love to travel and try new experiences for that reason, but it really is a privilege. Many people don’t have the luxury of traveling.

  • “I learned how to shape shift into whatever context I found myself in.” What a great story about trust and story. We so underestimate their importance – both of them – in building relationships that matter. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • I love how you correlated trust with story – they do depend on one another. Thank you for reading!

  • pastordt

    Wow, this is well done. Thank you for writing this out so powerfully, for calling us to take the time to listen well and to engage the whole person.

    • I hope I am calling myself to such a task as well. Thanks for engaging with this piece.

  • Anne

    Excellent article. I’m interested in bilingualism, and I’ve found that occasionally parents, dedicated to making their child bilingual or international, somehow don’t realize that by doing so, they may end up having a grown child whose identity is a puzzle to them. Some examples of situations I’ve encountered: Japanese parents who raise their child in an American private school for ex-pats. Your parents, who did something similar. A former student of mine, Taiwanese, like you, whose parents sent her off to Argentina for schooling because they knew someone there and objected to the Taiwanese educational system … and then sent her to LA for high school … and then wondered why she didn’t wouldn’t come back to Taiwan for college and to marry a local (Taiwan) boy. A father I know, wanting his son to know his Japanese mother’s language well, let her take him to Japan for the whole summer every single summer. Then, both parents were shocked that the son wanted to go to college in Japan and stay there. The father said, “We just wanted him to be international, to be bilingual.” I wonder how often you’ve encountered “partial story” kids like yourself. There are a lot out there. And, while I’m a great believer in bilingualism, I think parents can make decisions about “education” and “language” without fully understanding the issues of culture and belonging and identity that come attached to those decisions.

  • Olivia

    Absolutely amazing post. The writing made me actually stop and take the time to delve deeper into your story. I am a TCK too and so much of it resonated with me. Especially the part about often not telling my story because I can tell they don’t actually care or want to know. I have learned like you said to live a ‘partial story’ and only those who take the time and effort to get to know me at a deeper level will get the chance to have the full story. Can’t wait to read more of your posts. I hope you keep writing about what it feels like to be multicultural!

  • Oh Cindy, I’m late to this post, but I’m so glad to have read it.
    I relate so much to your partial story, and to the not belonging.
    Thank you so much for sharing so vulnerably here.

  • I absolutely love this post! I’m a TCK, too. US citizen but mostly grew up in Thailand (my parents were missionaries). Always trying to figure out where home is. I definitely understand that need to hide a part of oneself or one’s story. BTW, There’s a great community of TCKs on the internet and twitter. We have a TCK Twitter chat every couple of of weeks.I hope you’ll join us sometime!

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