Mari discusses struggling with her identity as a Third Culture Kid, growing up in a two-religion household, and embracing her differences.
What was your journey like moving to the United States?
I've known my host dad since I was maybe 10. He goes to Senegal twice a year. He's an optometrist, so I've known him since I was little. Whenever he heard that I was coming, he said that I could stay with him and his family here in Birmingham. I've been with them for the past seven, almost eight years. Honestly, not everyone has the love, nurturing, and support that we have. It's been a blessing.
I have two sisters from that family and a little foster baby that we're about to adopt. Then I also have my biological brother Josh.
Do you plan on going back home to Senegal soon?
Hopefully next Christmas. Plane tickets back there are so expensive which is a big reason why I haven't gone back. They're like $2,000. During the summers, I've worked to pay for nursing school, so I haven't really had a block of time to be able to go back. By Christmas, I'll already be working at my job in Atlanta and will be able to take off a week or two.
I do miss my country. It's so hard though because I can't really relate anymore since I've been here so long. I've adapted, and I'm not in contact with my people as much. It takes a toll, but honestly, I've never really belonged there. They never saw me as one of them because I was half Asian.
That's kind of surprising to me. I've never really thought of Africa as a place that has those kinds of racial tensions. Maybe it's more of ignorance on my part.
It is when it comes to multi-racial and multi-religious couples. Overall, my parents are from different countries, cultures, and religions. It's then very hard to balance the two. My mom still tries to keep her Korean side in her and pour that into us. In Senegalese culture, the majority of the population is Muslim, and it's much more of a patriarchal society.
I always grew up wanting to be independent. Both of my parents are highly educated people and both very open to letting me think for myself. They would never force me to marry anybody. I've known people who were in arranged marriages. Lots of people have negative opinions on that, but I've known lots of people who are truly happy in their marriages. It's just different.
What was it like growing up in the dynamic of two different cultures?
I feel more Senegalese than Korean because I grew up more in that culture. That's what I would hear and deal with every day. Thankfully, my mom has a very strong personality and made it a goal to teach a little bit of her culture and religion. It's so funny because sometimes the way I behave can be more Asian and sometimes very African. I've picked up different parts from my parents and both cultures that they bring.
What is your mom like and what was life like for her before she met your dad?
She had been a Christian for close to five or six years before she married my dad. She was Buddhist but didn't really practice it that much. She did go through a lot in her life until she reached a point where she hit rock bottom and became a Christian. That's when she decided to go back to school and met my dad.
My parents have been married for almost 25 years. My dad had to learn Korean to talk to my mom, and she had to learn French and their native language to talk to his family. They set the bar so high for me. I feel like it will be hard to find a man because I've seen what sacrificial love does. The reason my mom left Korea is that she loves my dad. Before, she was making five or six figures as a chef and teaching at a culinary school. Now she's got a small bed and breakfast.
I believe that God has used her to make me a better follower.
Your mom is Christian, and your dad is Muslim. It seems like it would be hard to practice your own religion and then step back to let your children make their own religious decisions. What was the family dynamic like and how did you come to choose one or the other?
Honestly, I ask myself that every day and I just go back to God's grace because if it wasn't for my mother, I wouldn't be here today talking to you. If I were my uncle's daughter, I would be off somewhere, married with a Muslim husband. My dad is a very special person. He's educated. He has his doctorate in nutrition and food processing. He traveled a lot and has seen the world. That's how he met my mom in South Korea. They got married in a church, so he had to relinquish that part of him to have her. He's never really given up his religion, but he's open to hearing about Christianity. My mom came into the marriage being a firm Christian. She was originally Buddhist.
Before having children, they decided to teach us both religions, and at the age of 18, we would get to decide which religion we would want to be. I think my mom did a better job of teaching us her religion because my dad travels a lot. So he wasn't able to sit down and teach us many things. I hate that people here are saying that Islam is such a bad religion because I know so many kind and awesome people who are Muslim. Sometimes my dad would send us to my uncle who is a religious leader for a weekend to learn about the Quran and memorize Surahs.
When it came time to decide which religion I wanted to be, I knew that while the religion is very beautiful, I was going to fail at some point. This was during a time when I felt that I was never good enough. I just knew that under Islam, I wasn't going to be able to please their god. The more I learned about Christianity and the fact that it's not about my actions, but what He did and His grace that's when I became more confident in who I am. I was able to find more of my identity in being a Christian. It just clicked for me. If God created men and He doesn't require me to do all of that work in order for Him to accept me, then why would I do it for his creation?
We interviewed my friend Maya, who calls herself a Third Culture Kid. Do you consider yourself that as well?
I do. I grew up in Senegal, but also was instilled with my mom's Korean culture and then basically grew up in America. It's a unique experience because you're bringing so much into this new culture. Most Third Culture Kids have a hard time with identity and the way that they feel about themselves. You don't really know who you are. You're everything and nothing at the same time. I struggled with that for a long time but just came to the realization that being different is beautiful. I have this unique ability to claim three different continents. I actually want to embrace it.
It's so interesting hearing you talk about this and seeing the similarities in both of your experiences. I wasn't sure if her struggle with identity was isolated to her story or if it was a common thread among others with multi-cultural roots.
Yea, it is hard. For example, when I was 17 or 18, I lost my passport and paperwork, so I had to go to the consulate in New York to get a new one. I walk in there, and they all look at me like they're wondering what I was doing in there. A Senegalese person is known to be super dark, tall, and skinny. I'm none of those. I explained the situation to them, and they asked me if I am sure that I need help. I actually had to start speaking my language! I can speak several of the languages back at home and to have to prove myself in that way was strange.
Funny enough, it's not the first time that it's happened. When I go back home, sometimes I will go somewhere, and they will speak to me as if I am a foreigner because of the way my skin looks.
I feel like I can relate in some ways having grown up here as an African American kid in the South. I struggled with not being considered "Black enough" because I didn't know the slang and all of the cultural references. Then on the other side, because I'm clearly Black, I couldn't completely fit in with White people either. I always felt caught in between. How did you deal with those kinds of experiences?
Yea. I totally can relate. In African culture, anyone who has Asian eyes is Chinese. When I'd walk in the streets with my mom, kids would call me Chinese. At first, it would really upset me. It just hurts me that even though they are my people, they're not seeing me as really part of them. It was very hard, and it took a lot of proving myself which is why I speak three different tribal languages from my country. I think that's one of the reasons why I was so good with languages. I wanted to outdo myself and prove that I was part of them. Every time I had a chance, I would speak in my native language and dress in my native clothes. All of my friends were Senegalese, so they accepted me how I am. I had been to their houses enough to know that I'm not like them, but somehow I am still them.
At some point, I had to realize that I could not live my life to please others. I don't let anyone define what I should or should not be. I have learned to accept both my Asian and African side. It so interesting being here in America because when people see me and my skin color, they think that I am Black. They call me African American, but I'm not. I'm African. There's such a huge difference between the two. I am culture shocked when I see some of the things done in the African American community. I'm fascinated. I've been around them for so long now that I've picked up parts of the culture to the point that I can kind of blend in sometimes, but people always see that I'm different. There's only so much you can blend in.
All that to say that I absolutely understand where you're coming from.
The whole social construct of race is so complex and woven into our culture.
Yea, I mean just because you use proper English doesn't mean that you are any less Black than anyone else. I feel like some African Americans are being prejudice without even knowing it to their own people just because they're behavior is a little bit different. I'm in a unique position to see different sides when it comes to race. I have white host parents, but then I'm also Black, so I get treated the same way that Black people are treated here. I don't necessarily try to have opinions about that, but when I hear someone say something that is wrong, I am sure to call them out on it. People can be very ignorant. I try to be vocal, not just about American race relations, but about things happening globally as well.
Having grown up as a Third Culture kid, how has that affected the way that you interact and build friendships with others?
I love learning about people. I think learning so much more about my parents and their cultures made me more open to others. There are certain ways that we behave back home that you would think is odd. My mom would also tell about things that did in Korea, and I remember sometimes thinking, "Oh! That's different." Different to me is almost a compliment, and I think that is what drives society. People want something that is different or better than what they already have. I think every person has such a unique story. We're all so different and beautiful.
I have some friends who had a hard time opening up to me because of their background and things that happened to them in the past. I've had the privilege of working with them, becoming their friend, and seeing them accept those things that happened to them as being part of what made them who they are. Accepting those things can be a hard moment in your life, but I don't regret leaving home at 15 and other things that happened to me because I would not be in the place that I am today. I'm very grateful for the things that I have and mentality that I have.
Sometimes I'll speak to the people our age, and I'll see so much emptiness. Many people don't know about themselves, their history, or where they're going. I don't know where I'm going, but I have an idea and goals. To me, if you don't know where you've been, you won't know where you're going or how far you can. I think that's one of the things that is going to cripple our generation. We are so lost, and it's crazy.
I don't think that we ever fully know ourselves, but how does one know more about his or herself?
I think it's part reflection and part experience. The person you are comes from what happens to you, but also comes from you sitting down and learning what you like. Go exploring. Do new things that nobody else forced you to do. Do things that make you uncomfortable. It took a lot of that for me to learn who I am and what I identify with. Leaving home at 15 to go to a different continent where I did not speak the language or know the people was one of the biggest things for me. It made me more courageous. It made me more daunting. It gave me the courage to seek for more.