The Torn Bilingual Soul?

by Alice · 5 comments

By Alice Lapuerta

Let’s talk about “Bilingual Identity.” The split bilingual soul. The fragmented personality, the eternal half, the uprooted Third Culture Kid eternally searching for home.

It is interesting that whenever I read something on the “Bilingual identity,” I do so with complete detachment. It takes a while for it to sink in: they are actually talking about ME! I’m bilingual and bicultural. I grew up between Korea and Austria, the East and the West. It can’t get more extreme than that.

So, go ahead. Pop that question at me. The one you are burning to ask; the “What are you” – question. Or the do-you-feel-more-Austrian-or-Korean-one (which is a politer way of inquiring “what” I really am, but it’s really the same).

I will groan inside and think this is the most “boring” anyone can ever ask me, and will people please stop asking me this?

But instead I reply, “That depends, you know!”

That usually earns me a confused look.

“What do you mean?”

“It depends on where I am.”

“Of course I’m really Austrian.” I clarify, when I see that he still doesn’t get it. I try to be patient.

“Of course.” His face brightens.

“But,” I continue – his face falls, – “not when I’m in Austria. Then I feel more Asian. But in the US or Ecuador or anywhere else I definitely feel more European. So I guess I’m really European…. with Asian roots. But you know what?” I lean forward, feeling wicked. “ Sometimes I also like to pass as an American!”


Okay, so maybe that is not the most conventional of answers, but it is an honest one. And I am not completely done yet, either. But for now, let us leave our inquisitive friend to puzzle over this, and we will return to him again, later.

The interesting thing is that if you were to ask me whether I have several identities within myself – I would deny it. Nah. Don’t think so. You mean, like, schizophrenic? Pathological nutcase? Of course not!

But my friend would disagree. She tells me that my personality changes when I switch languages. She says, “You are different when you speak German.”

“How so?”

“I don’t know. You appear colder, somehow. More aloof.”

“And when I speak English?”

“You are warmer, more emotional.”

I am? Wow.

Believe me, I am not aware of this Dr Jekyll-Mr.Hyde transformation at all. I find this as interesting as anyone else. It is not as though I consciously tell myself, “OK Alice, you are going to switch to German now, get ready to pull out your German Self.” Do I even have a German self? Or would that be an Austrian Self? An Upper-Austrian Self, to be exact? What does that mean, anyway? — So, you see, it’s not so straightforward.

Some multilinguals openly admit to having two, three, four different identities within themselves, though, and have no problem with it. I find it rather difficult to identify and sort through my various selves like that. Maybe it’s simply an organizational problem that I have.

I just find it hard to say, “ok, so this part over here, on the left, is Korean; this part on the other side is Austrian, this part up there? Second drawer to the right: American. Oh, and this little tidbit is Ecuadorian. And in this dark corner, I’ve shoved a Swedish part of myself that I’ve all but forgotten about.” This doesn’t really work for me.

But some multilinguals do precisely that. Some people even assign percentages to themselves. “I am 34,56% Japanese and 65.44% Norwegian!” Some are content with hyphens (Asian-American). Others, though, are deeply offended by hyphens. Some Bilinguals speak of putting on different hats with different languages. I like this analogy best so far. Pulling on a different coat, like an actor. But can I be acting when I am not aware of it?

Parents tend to be rather alarmed by all this “split bilingual soul” talk. They worry. Sometimes needlessly so. I can appease all you worrying parents of bicultural kids: having a bilingual identity isn’t nearly as painful as it sounds! Honestly. Except many people find that hard to believe.

My mom likes to relate, shortly after she got engaged to my dad, how people used to ask her whether she’s thought of her “poor” children and “what they are going to be like, one day.” Poor mites, so in-between two cultures. So displaced. So neither here nor there.

“Can you believe we actually used to worry about this?” she asks me now. I am grateful to my parents that they never made an issue, a big deal out of this torn-bilingual-soul-thing.

When it came to multilingualism, they did not burden me down with rules, expectations. That was the wisest thing they could have done: being always there for me, but also letting me be. It’s a difficult balance to find. But we weathered through those years and now, looking back, all I can say is: it was good the way it went.

Let us return to our confused friend, who is still waiting for me to reach a conclusion about who, or what I really am. Let me finally satisfy his curiosity so we can move on to other things. So I tell him:

“Look, ultimately, I’m just a Eurasian! I’m the best of both worlds! No big deal. But really? Totally honestly? Deep down this question is quite irrelevant. I have no labels at all —I’m just me.”

I am confident that your bicultural children, one day, will find peace with their various multilingual selves by reaching a similar conclusion.

Photo Credit: d’n’c

Alice Lapuerta, Managing Editor of Multilingual Living Magazine, is a trilingual, bicultural Third Culture Kid who wouldn’t have it any other way.
For a further discussion on identity, the definition of “home,” and being rooted in more than one culture see Alice’s “The Wonderful World of Third Culture Kids” in the January/February 2007 issue of Multilingual Living Magazine.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Melanie August 14, 2010 at 5:36 pm

W.E.B. Dubois labeled the term “double consciousness” regarding the multiple consciousnesses of African Americans, and I’ve long thought about that concept as it applies to bilinguals. Any minority, and if we are bilingual or multilingual we often tend to be a minority considering that so many people are monolingual-any minority will walk around carrying double and triple, etc consciousnesses. And I think it’s a good thing. It means that we can morph and cross borders into different cross-cultural worlds. I used to feel confused about it, but I have embraced it because I think that not many people can play with different forms of consciousness.


2 ngtlne December 11, 2011 at 3:20 am
3 Barbara August 14, 2010 at 9:34 pm

I wonder if we get less questions about that here in the US. After all everybody is a mix of some sort and most people are proud to tell me about their German ancestors. On the other hand I like to play a game with people when we are travelling within the US. The hear my accent, hear us speak German and then inevitably ask “where are your from”. I like to answer “from Portland, Oregon”, just to have some fun with their confused face. When I want to be nice, I add that I’m originally from Germany…


4 Tyeisha August 17, 2010 at 10:35 am

Third Culture Kid? I haven’t heard that term in awhile. I don’t think that anyone encounters that term unless they know individuals who have lived in international locations or have experienced it themselves.

I know this post is about torn “bilingual souls”, but with the TCK concept I guess many can fall into having a torn cultural identity. I think of my mom, being African-American she grew up in the Phillipines..she is not bilingual now…but growing up we ate a ton of Philipino food. Pansit, lumpia, and adobo were staples in my home even though I grew up in the Southeast United States. My friends could never understand why we always ate so much like “Chinese” people.

Anyway…that was just the way it was….and, I think that if the family is comfortable with being a mesh of things..then you won’t be torn..

I agree with the morphing concept as Melanie mentioned. Eventually you just learn to embrace it…and I have passed this concept on to my children as well…


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