Transcultural Acculturation

Last month, we discussed why “biculturalism” is an outdated pillar of Dual Language Education (DLE). Biculturalism is a term that University of Texas Education Professor Seth J. Schwartz and Professor of Preventive Medicine at University of Southern California Jennifer Unger define as “proficiency” and “comfort” with “both one’s heritage culture and the culture of the country or region in which one has settled.” Having biculturalism as a goal of DLE suggests that proficiency and comfort with a culture can be learned from a book or a class rather than imbibed from day-to-day living. For students who are not members of cultures associated with the partner language, “teaching biculturalism” is tantamount to teaching cultural appropriation and racial arrogance. For Third Culture Kids (as defined in the next paragraph), “teaching biculturalism” exacerbates an already existing, paradoxical pressure to both completely assimilate to the surrounding culture and to simultaneously resist assimilation. Finally, biculturalism suggests the existence of two beings inside one person between whom one can switch without ever being authentically oneself. Therefore, in hopes of freeing our students from this false ideal of being “bicultural,” I urge us to embrace the idea of Transcultural Acculturation instead.

Transcultural Acculturation is what I define as the process through which Third Culture Kids accept and honor that the intersection of cultural identities within them creates complex and unique individuals. Third Culture Kids, or TCKs, are kids who grow up in a culture different from that of their caregivers. Therefore, they live and experience elements of at least two different cultures. In the context of the United States, TCKs’ school and extracurricular environments expose them to certain aspects of American culture while their home life exposes them to aspects of the heritage culture(s). However, in spite of these exposures, students will never experience all the characteristics of either culture, leaving them often feeling like they do not belong completely to either, but partially to both.  

In my own case for example, my proficiency lies only in the South Indian culture when it comes to food. My family is culturally vegetarian, so as a child I brought idlis and chapatis for lunch instead of buying my meal lest I accidentally ate meat. Furthermore, in accordance with my culture, I grew up eating with my hands rather than with forks and knives. While I’ve learned more about Western food since childhood, I am still uncomfortable around it, especially when it conflicts with my traditional, Indian values. Yet while food is one area where I am far more proficient in my heritage culture, there are other areas where I am more proficient in the Western culture. For example, school helped develop my Western fashion ideals. Therefore, I have made more sartorial faux pas at Indian events than I have at American ones, and feel far more authentic wearing my cowboy boots than Indian chappals. Even as an adult, I continue to keep current on emerging US fashion trends. On the other hand, I know little if anything about Desi trends.

While this cultural mestizaje, or mixing, is unique to me, it does not describe the cultural amalgamation of every Indian descent TCK, as, in my experience, the unique intersection of cultural characteristics of each TCK will depend upon:

  1. Individual family habits and values
  2. The individual’s own temperament and interests
  3. The characteristics of the students’ school and other exposures to outside influences  

However, regardless of the cultures involved, most TCKs will have limited proficiency in both cultures and have instances such as mine with food, where cultural values conflict.  

In order to help students know that it is okay for students to embody their own unique mestizaje of cultural identities, they must engage in Transcultural Acculturation.  Transcultural Acculturation involves a process where students:

  1. Explore the intersection of their multiple cultural identities
  2. Learn that the mestizaje of their cultural identities results in a unique and complex individual with characteristics from (rather than proficiency in) all their cultural identities
  3. Accept and honor this uniqueness as not only enough but special and worthy.

Here are three strategies to help students along in the process of Transcultural Acculturation:

  1. Create a class puzzle of students’ cultural identities. Give each student a printed puzzle piece on which they illustrate and label different elements of their cultural identities (pictured). For example, a student who is of Mexican descent may label Mexico on one side of the puzzle piece and America on the other side and go on to illustrate vestiment from both cultures. Then, give students the opportunity to verbally share what they chose to depict on their puzzle pieces and why. Finally, put the puzzle pieces together to visually depict how all TCKs must navigate their multiple identities and emphasize how each TCK in the class is special because of their unique identities.
  2. Watch the Twice as Perfect scene from Selena. In this movie clip, the father of popular singer Selena talks about the pressure he experiences to simultaneously be Mexican-enough and American-enough. Watch the video with your students and ask them if they feel the same way about their own cultural identities. While most of the discussion should be led by TCK students, it is important that you assure students that they are in fact enough and that their unique cultural mestizaje is an asset, not a weakness.
  3. Read and discuss books that feature TCK kids. Books that feature TCK kids give students an opportunity to see others who are navigating multiple cultural identities as well. This representation is validating for TCKs. While reading such books, incorporate the following questions into discussions: 
    1. What explicit or hidden messages are made about race/identity?  How do you feel about these messages?
    2. How does the character negotiate their two cultural identities in this event?  
    3. What are the characters’ struggles? Do you agree with how they resolved the conflict? Why or why not?
    4. What is a unique strength the character has from their unique mix of cultural identities? 

Some books you may want to try are: Mango, Abuela, and Me by Meg Medina; How Tía Lola Came to Stay by Julia Alvarez; When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed; Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario; Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas.  

The most important key in encouraging Transcultural Acculturation is to engage students in positive conversations. Keep the discussions going with these activities, and slowly, your students will realize how special and strong the intersection of their cultures really makes them.

Aradhana Mudambi
Author: Aradhana Mudambi

Dr. Aradhana Mudambi is an accomplished, multilingual educator and social justice activist. She is the proud owner of Social Justice and Education. She is currently the Director of Multilingual Education at Framingham Public Schools, Adjunct Professor of Intercultural Communications at Eastern Connecticut State University, and President of the Multistate Association for Bilingual Education. She has extensive experience writing grants for language acquisition programs. She is also an experienced advocate for Dual Language Education and World Languages, having been invited recently to speak at institutions such as Harvard University and the National Association of Bilingual Education. You can learn more about her and her work at www.socialjusticeandeducation.org.

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