What Do You Get When You Cross....?
It’s incredible the influence our cultural lens can have on every aspect of our lives. I stand in a curious position: a biracial, multicultural kid raised by parents from two different minority cultures, living in yet a third culture; a culture with which few of my family members identify. Yet here, in the context of this third culture, we find ourselves living, building relationships, and asking questions.
My mother comes from Pennsylvania Dutch roots in a small farming community in the beautiful foothills of the Pocono mountains. It’s lovely there. Everyone knows all of the neighbors, including those who live miles and miles away from your own door. In addition to knowing all of the neighbors, the neighbor’s children and grandchildren are also known – their names are remembered, and should they stop by, they are all welcomed guests. During my mother’s childhood, her community was predominately Mennonite, a body purposefully separating themselves from “the world,” including mainstream culture and politics. Their culture emphasizes community, faith, peace, and service. When my grandfather’s barn burned down one night in the middle of winter, the entire community placed their regular activities on hold and appeared onsite (with lots of food!) ready to rebuild. My mother raised me and my siblings with this same sense of responsibility to care for others, and in fact, a large piece of my mother’s identity lies in her love of caring or others.
My dad also has Mennonite roots, but from a very different context. My dad grew up in Tanzania, East Africa. Tanzania is a conundrum, a paradox, a riddle. The country lies on the coast of the stunning Indian ocean; is filled with palm trees and tropical fruits; teaming beautiful and diverse wildlife; home to the famous Serengeti plain and to Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain; and is rich with untapped natural resources. At the same time, Tanzania is a previously colonized country, which nearly 60 years after gaining independence is still struggling to find economic footing. The poor are very poor, and many families struggle to provide for their children. Yet, in the middle of such hardship, if you enter a Tanzanian home, you will be welcomed enthusiastically, and you will absolutely be expected to eat, and eat until you are forced to disappoint your host by refusing another plateful. In the streets, you will be greeted by strangers as “dada yangu” or “kaka yangu”, “my sister, my brother.” And one of the things I love most about returning home to Tanzania, is that the relatives will travel (sometimes for days) to greet my family, and on those occasions when I am naïve enough to ask how we fit together on the family tree, I will often receive a surprised look as my family members humor me by tracing back the relation.
In Tanzania, it’s simple, we are family and we belong to each other – the relation itself feels mostly irrelevant. There is a Swahili saying that captures this piece of the culture beautifully: “Tuko pamoja.” It can’t be translated well into English because the idea doesn’t quite exist in our culture, the closest I can get is: “We are together;” but tuko pamoja is so much deeper than that, it is the antithesis of individualism, it marks a sense of belonging to each other and the empathy to understand one another, bringing a sense of unity, shared purpose, and mutual care.
So it is at this conjunction, that I exist. Raised in a home on the corner of community and tuko pamoja, but within the physical context of mainstream America, a culture that prides itself on the strength of individualism, independence, and self-reliance. On many days, living in a third culture makes it difficult to understand the actions that others choose around me, and sometimes, in addition to confusion, it results in frustration, sadness, or even anger. It feels uncomfortable for the values of community, tuko pamoja, and individualism to exist in the same space. Individualism often feels like an enemy, hindering the ability to see our need for each other, but on other days, I love the idea of being able to build something that is just mine.
Individualism isn’t the only place that my worlds don’t jive well – in fact my multicultural roots have brought plenty of internal friction into my space, and into my heart. I used to resent this friction, until just a few years ago when one of my favorite pastors brought it all into perspective and passionately articulated the reason that God has designed so much difference within His creation. I’ll try my best to repackage his conviction here.
Let’s think for a second about a group of people who are all the same, they have the same strengths and they have the same weaknesses. They all hold appreciation for the same traits and values, and affirm these over and over within each other. Over time, the members of the group become even more alike – with both shared strengths and weaknesses becoming more and more rooted and pronounced. It’s a sad picture, actually; a picture without growth. But introduce some people who are different; with different strengths and different weaknesses, and then what happens? Well, first, a LOT of friction and discomfort. But then, if we are willing to be open, something else, something beautiful emerges from the conflict: individual and societal growth.
Without differences, there is absolutely no way that we can learn from each other – there would be no challenge to offer. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that it is uncomfortable to explore the friction created by embracing new values and cultures, but without any room for the “other,” our society will adopt an increasingly normative voice, and as that voice grows stronger and louder, it will only become easier and easier for us to all make the same mistakes together.
We rely on each other and on our differences to move forward and grow, both as individuals and as the body of Christ, and this is something truly valuable and beautiful born from friction and discomfort. But first, we must commit to openness in seeing the differences and hearing the alternative voice that the other brings.
Christine Muganda received her PhD in Population Health with a concentration in Epidemiology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Christine holds a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics and Spanish from North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. Her professional interests include the improvement of infectious disease surveillance systems, and harnessing existing epidemiology data in innovative ways to inform broader public health impact. On a personal level, Christine is passionate about social justice, learning to ask thoughtful questions, building relationships within the everydayness, and working to promote positive community growth.