Who am I?
Updated: Feb 9, 2021
I recently started a coaching supervision course and the first question we were asked to inquire into in pairs was "who am I"? As questions go I don't think they get any bigger than this. As I thought about it I noticed how important it was for many years for me to come to some sort of resolution about my cultural identity as a foundation. I grew up as an immigrant kid of parents who came to the UK in the 60's to run a Chinese take-away. I had always struggled with being different and the racial challenges this bought about. By the time I was 23 after graduating university I ventured on a journey to Hong Kong to find my cultural roots. To my disappointment what I found was not acceptance, but another expression of otherness being identified as a "banana" by the locals. Someone who is Chinese (yellow) on the outside and Western (white) on the inside. This feeling of not belonging led me to search for others who were like me and the discovery of a group of others who I could identify with who were also UK immigrant kids. I finally had a label to describe who I am. I am a BBC, British Born Chinese, someone who is British by birth but ethnically Chinese. It allowed me to make sense and embrace both parts of who I am.
This cultural phenomenon is not unique and is increasing as the world becomes more global and relationships more multi-cultural. My own children are experiencing this in an even more complex and nuanced way, as my wife is from South Korea, they were born in Hong Kong, lived in Singapore for 7 years and are now in the UK. If you are trying to make sense of cultural identity for yourself or your kids I would encourage you look at the work of David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken in their seminal book "Third Culture Kids" which has helped popularise the term TCK.
I work as an organisational psychologist supporting leaders find purpose, deepen relationship with those they care about and harness the creative power of belonging. The question "who am I?" invariably comes up. Most of the work I do with clients is spent holding the tension between gaining awareness of self in relationship to others and seeking to reconcile "how I can be more of my self and belong?" When we can stand in our difference and experience the welcome safety of belonging to a group or community we can thrive. When we give too much of ourselves to fit in or meet the expectations of others we can lose sight of who we are. Knowing one's true identity helps to free us from the anxiety of "imposter syndrome" or feeling like a fake who is going to be found out. It is particularly important in leadership and today's barrage of "perfect" lives on social media. Will van der Hart and Rob Waller dig deep into this challenge which can be fraught with feelings of shame when we cannot acknowledge who we are warts and all and offer a doorway for others to connect with our vulnerability.
As the question of who I am continues to evolve in relationship to those around me and the context of life. I have been encouraged by my personal experience living out the work of Linda Brim, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD. She has researched how supporting the identity narrative of TCK's can help them become the global cosmopolitans we need to lead our increasingly global, complex and interconnected society. Spending a large part of my career working in Asia for UK and USA headquartered multinationals has allowed my to bring the creative edge of my difference to lead cross-cultural teams and develop more inclusive products and solutions that reflect the needs of diverse communities.
What are you drawn to when seeking to answer who am I? How do you experience life, work and society as someone of multi-cultural heritage? When have you felt like an imposter?
Brimm, L., (2010). Global Cosmopolitans; The Creative Edge of Difference. Palgrave Macmillan.
Clance, P.R., & Imes, S.A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241.
Pollock, D.C., & Van Reken, R.E. (2009). Third culture kids: The experience of growing up among worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealy.
Van der Hart, W., & Waller, R. (2019) The Power of Belonging. Eastbourne: David C Cook