Living between two cultures

Jan 13, 2020 | Karen-Luz Sison

Have you ever felt torn between different parts of who you are? 

As someone born in Canada to Filipino parents, living out an identity stuck between two cultures has often felt like being the rope pulled in a tug-of-war. 

I grew up in the Filipino church community and with a big Filipino family, surrounded by large family gatherings with heaps of Filipino food. Karaoke was a staple at many holiday parties, and we would often send money and “balikbayan box” care packages back to family in the Philippines.

At the same time, sixteen years of schooling in Canada inevitably instilled in me Canadian values and practices, whether participating in Canada Day celebrations or cheering on Canada in the winter Olympics. 

As a child, I never questioned my identity of being both Filipino and Canadian.

But as I grew up, I realized I was more out of place in these identities than I had thought. There were practices, ideas, and values—in both Filipino and Canadian cultures—that I didn’t follow, disagreed with, and sometimes even strongly opposed. 

It was because of these disagreements that I often felt rejection from both cultures. I never quite felt like I had the right to make myself at home in either culture.

And I am not alone. According to 2016 data from Statistics Canada, over 40% of the Canadian population is identified as part of the immigrant population—either having migrated to Canada or being born to one or more immigrant parents.

At a more individual level, at the heart of that statistic for many immigrant Canadians is the desire to feel at home, to belong. 

On one hand, when you come to Canada or when you’re raised in an immigrant community, you live with cultural values and experiences that are different from North American society.

On the other hand, the longer you live away from your country of origin, the more you end up adopting ideas or practices from the country you now live in.

I struggled with something that many first-generation and second-generation immigrants realize after living in Canada for a while: home doesn’t seem like one country or the other anymore. 

Instead, you find yourself living between two places, but still yearning for “home,” even though you don’t know what that looks like anymore.

But, while this constant longing for home has often felt frustrating for me, it’s through that tension between identities that God reveals to me again and again that the gospel calls us to embrace and discover the beauty of being in-between.

You find yourself living between two places, but still yearning for “home,” even though you don’t know what that looks like anymore.

Excluded, exiled, persecuted 

The Bible is full of stories from the very beginning about people who live between cultures. 

The nomadic lives of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph in the book of Genesis, the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt to find the elusive Promised Land, the siege and exile of Israel by the Babylonians are all significant examples of a people who faced rejection from different nations and felt a deep longing for a home they didn’t know how to describe.

In the New Testament, the disciples left their families and travelled all over Israel with Jesus. During the days of the early church, Paul and his fellow apostles purposely put themselves in places where they felt culturally out of place in order to share the gospel. 

Peter was told to eat culturally inappropriate foods in a vision from God; Paul acted as mediator between Jews and Gentiles; Philip was moved by the Spirit to share the gospel with an Ethiopian eunuch.  

God pushed the apostles into an uncomfortable space between cultures, where they were called to bypass cultural boundaries and move into a new cultural space. 

I personally relate to that tension.

As a Filipina, because I was born in Canada, I often felt the need to “prove” my Filipino identity to people, to justify being part of the culture. I’ve been rejected by fellow Filipinos and told that I can’t call myself Filipino for a myriad of reasons, from not having full knowledge of the Tagalog language to not adhering to certain cultural expectations.

As a Canadian, I’ve heard stories of discrimination from my community due to their immigrant status. In the past decade, we’ve seen mainstream understanding of Canadian history unravel as deep-seated racism against Indigenous people rises to the surface. And as a result, I know I can’t fully resonate with Canadian pride and patriotism.

But, despite and even because of my misfit feelings in both aspects of my identity, it’s in this space that I know God can use me to minister to both communities, just like Paul the Apostle.

Being an ambassador

It is through Paul that we can learn what it means to live as a Christian between cultures. As a Roman citizen who was also brought up in Jewish tradition, he utilized his “in-betweenness” to effectively engage people around him with the gospel as much as possible:

“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.” (1 Corinthians 9:20-21)

Throughout his ministry, he navigated the biggest intercultural conflict of the early church: joining together Jews and Gentiles. 

Undeniably, it was because he was immersed in both cultures that he could have clout in this conflict, from calling fellow apostles out on their rejection of Gentiles to dispensing wisdom on how the calling to the gospel transcends culture.

Paul was living proof that God can use the experiences of people who live in between cultures to speak gospel truth.

And the beauty in Paul’s experience is that he didn’t let his ministry get bogged down by the cultural prejudices of the people he served, because he recognized a greater truth.

Our identity in Christ is worth far more than our identity in any earthly culture. At the same time, this doesn’t mean we’re meant to abandon our cultural roots!

Through the gospel, we can see both the brokenness and the beauty that God sees in the different cultures he has called us to partake in. 

Through the gospel, we can see both the brokenness and the beauty that God sees in the different cultures he has called us to partake in. 

The beauty in difference

Even with the unease within my identity, to a certain extent, I can appreciate aspects of my Filipino-Canadian identity.

I find joy in the togetherness of celebrating Canadian accomplishment on a global scale, like Raptors championships, and food-filled parties with my big Filipino family—all celebrations reminiscent of the global church family gatherings to come with my heavenly Father.

Paul didn’t simply tell Jews and Gentiles to abandon their culture to take part in the salvation of the gospel. He told the church to see the vision of the gospel beyond their cultural differences—a vision of a global church of all cultures. This is a vision described in Revelation 7:9-10:

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’’’

It’s through the gospel that we can see how God calls us to an amazing identity, one that is rooted in the gospel—a gospel that saves people of all tribes, tongues, and nations, a gospel that celebrates each culture in the ways it can reflect him, a gospel that redeems the parts of cultures that are broken by sin. 

For sure, there are times I may feel rejection and abandonment in both cultures I was born into. But, like Paul, I’m learning to remember that my true identity and self-worth are found in Christ—and, in the future, in my true home.

The journey to find home has always seemed long, arduous, and unending for those who follow God.

But, it was exactly how God meant it to be, because our home was never meant to be in this world. Hebrews 11 summarizes it best:

“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.

If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)

Life on earth has always been only a shadow of someplace better, a taste of what is to come for those who love God and yearn for a home. So, naturally, discomfort in the present day is a part of living in the expectation of a glorious home beyond this life.

To step in between cultures, to hope and long for a home that transcends our understanding—this is the call of the gospel for God’s people. 

The journey to find home has always seemed long, arduous, and unending for those who follow God.

It’s definitely not a comfortable place to be in. Yet, the calling of the gospel isn’t a call to be comfortable, to fit into the cultural moulds of this world. 

It’s a call to make the same sacrificial journey Paul did, a journey Christ took for us—to glorify God by bringing people home.

I may never feel quite at home in the cultural spaces of this world. 

But, I have hope and comfort in realizing my home isn’t here at all.

My home is in the gospel that takes us in when no one else does, in the Saviour who accepts us for who we are no matter what, and in the future of a glorious reunion with him—and with my fellow Christ-followers of all tribes, tongues, and nations.

 

This article was written as part of the Writing Mentorship with our P2C-Students Editorial team.

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About the Author

Karen-Luz Sison

Karen-Luz is an alumna of Power to Change and a journalism graduate of Carleton University. She currently works in communications and social media for a church in downtown Toronto and for a non-profit supporting women’s voices in the media. Outside of work, she’s dancing to her favourite rap albums or walking her dog while listening to her favourite podcasts. She’s grateful to be a work in progress.

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