26 February, 2015

The struggle for identity

I've written before about how I struggle on how to introduce myself. Or, how do I fill out the form, say, at the doctor/physio: "Occupation?"

Usually at churches we're introduced as "The Marshalls from Japan" or "The Marshalls who serve in Japan".

When I went to the writer's conference in November, I ended up with the name tag on the right, primarily because I couldn't decide which place to write for "where are you from".

I say, when I need to, "I'm living in Ipswich/Brisbane but usually live in Japan."

There is an element of identity in this. Without context, it is hard to have much beyond a cashier-type conversation with people. It can get complicated fast if I refuse to tell people a bit more of the story. I'm a simple person: straight truth is the easiest manner of conversation. And if that means I admit that I've lived a weird life, well so be it.

The matter of identity is more complex for our kids. I can get away with saying, "I was born in Toowoomba and went to uni in Brisbane." It's only after that that things get more complicated.

My kids, however, have been labelled most of their lives with "missionary kids (or MKs)" or "from Japan". They feel strongly Australian, but when in Australia know for sure that they aren't the same as other Australian kids.

In Japan we're also labelled. No matter how long we stay there, our appearance states out front that we're not insiders. We don't belong. That's a factor of the Japanese culture, where belonging is strongly tied to "sameness" and genetics. We're not genetically Japanese, so we'll never be truly Japanese (even if we become citizens).

The labels help with communication, but sometimes they hinder. With labels comes stereotypes. 

Our labels produce questions like these in Australia:
"Oh, you like sushi?"
 "You're fluent in Japanese?"
"You must like living there!"
Or, in Japan:
"Ah, beer drinking Aussie who carries a large knife!" (Just kidding, no one has ever said that to me.)
"Why aren't you tanned, don't all Aussies swim and get brown?" (Truly, I've had this from Japanese people.)
"Of course you're a Christian, you come from Australia where everyone is Christians."
People, even Christians, often feel uncomfortable at the label "missionary", which is why I often avoid using it first up. Just the other day I wrote "editor" on the form at the physio. I later told her I was a missionary, but it wasn't at the start of our conversation. 

So I can totally understand this young man's reluctance to be introduced as "an MK from Japan." By all means find that out, but start with finding out about me, not my label.

Many people have this struggle, people with disabilities, for example, or even people who are extraordinarily beautiful, talented, or famous. There is a barrier to getting to know the real person and most people don't get past the barrier.

If you go to the link above (this young man), you'll find some great suggestions for non-MKs, including this:
On Behalf of all MKs everywhere, please, treat us like normal people. True, we may be strange, socially-awkward, and not have the best fashion sense but all we want is to have a fair chance to be your friend. The reason we are weird is because our life is weird. 

1 comment:

Tim and Susan said...

Thanks for your post. Oh, to help our weird kids in their weird life....I guess it helps that their parents are just a little weird too. (smile)