Identity can be an uncomfortable but beautiful paradox

Written by Andrea Nwabuike

One of my favourite memories from high school is of our yearly Culture Day celebrations. Most of my peers were the children of immigrants from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. Culture Day was our opportunity to showcase the clothing, food, dance, and music we inherited from our families.

Jeans and hoodies were exchanged for delicate sarees and intricate Ankara dresses. Classrooms transformed into street food stalls brimming with the scent of patties, jollof rice, and lumpia. The highlight of the day was the talent show, where students danced to bhangra and dancehall music while spectators waved flags and cheered without restraint.

I remember walking through the halls with a profound sense of pride and belonging, not because I was one of several Nigerian-Canadian students but because I was one of many second-generation Canadian students.

Although our parents had different immigration stories, religious beliefs, and parenting styles, my peers and I had remarkably similar childhoods. We were sent on errands to the convenience store to buy calling cards. Fruit roll-ups and Dunkaroos lined our cupboards alongside spices that could only be found in the ethnic aisle of the grocery store. We spoke as if performing the sequence to an elaborate dance, switching between accents, dialects, and languages.

We carried our parent’s fears that we would lose touch with our heritage and become “too Canadian” alongside our own fear of not being Canadian enough. We walked the line between two cultures, attempting to reconcile our Western and non-Western sources of identity into a unified sense of self. This experience was often processed with humor as we laughed about the disconnect between our families and the world outside of our homes. But beneath our jokes, there was unspoken uncertainty and discomfort.

In her 2014 research paper entitled Children of the Land or Landed? Sandra Uwase summarizes the tensions experienced by second-generation African-Canadian young adults. She writes,

“As young adults, they now grapple with Western cultural values of individualism, though raised with a collectivist mindset. A culture of strategic time management, though time is flexible in their parents’ country of origin. A competitive culture where you need to prove yourself, though they were always told to go by the book and avoid being domineering.”

When I was younger, I sought to reconcile this conflict by prioritizing one source of identity at the expense of the other. As a child, I refused to call myself Canadian and insisted on being recognized as a Nigerian. When I was in elementary school, I would get annoyed with my parents for playing music in Yoruba or Igbo and stopped eating the Nigerian foods I had demanded as a toddler. In my early twenties, I felt a deep sense of shame for not being able to speak my parent’s languages.

Consistent in each season was the sense of unease in my cultural identity, the feeling that I was never quite at home on either side. God has not allowed the weight of my experience to go to waste. Instead, He has leveraged my bicultural identity development to expand my capacity for tension and complexity, both of which are necessary for the task of being a Christian. We are in, but not of, this world.

Christians are people of paradox. As Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, said, “If we are willing to live by Scripture, we must be willing to live by paradox and contradiction and surprise.” We pledge allegiance to a kingdom that has come and is coming. Our strength is made perfect in our weakness. We are assured of our salvation and yet we work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Paradox flows from the very nature and teachings of Jesus Christ. Fully God and fully man, eternal and yet begotten, he died that we might live. Yet, paradox is inherently uncomfortable. To live in between extremes requires us to move beyond the safety of concrete categories.

The human brain is naturally wired to resist pain and discomfort. As such, our instinct is to reject the complexity and tension of paradox in favour of rigid labels and ideologies. It is no wonder that tribalism has intensified throughout the chaos and panic of the pandemic. The Church has not been immune to this response. At times our zeal to preserve our identity has led to the reduction of Christianity into a checklist of political affiliations, hot takes, and doctrinal camps.

I understand this desire for simplicity and safety. I pursued the same when I tried to force myself to exist as either exclusively Nigerian or Canadian. But when I rejected the complexity of my ethnic and cultural identity, I lost sight of who I was.

The panic of my identity crisis subsided when I embraced my in-between status as someone who is both Nigerian and Canadian, at home and yet not settled in either culture.

In that process, God expanded my understanding of my identity in Christ beyond the rigid boundaries of theological camps and denominational stances. I don’t mean to deny the existence of absolute truth or the necessity of clear conviction. In Christianity Today, pastor and author Peter Chin writes about his “third culture experience” (a broader term than second-generation for individuals who identify with multiple cultural categories):

“Now it would be easy to think of this as a perspective of compromise, as if third culture people do not really believe anything, but that would be a mistake. A third approach in no way precludes conviction, and Christ sits solidly enthroned in my heart and in my life. No, third culture is not so much a perspective of compromise as it is one of creation: the creation of a third and new way, one that no longer sees all things as a pitched and destructive battle between one ideology, culture, person and the other. It is a way forward, a way of synthesis, which is what we need now more than ever.”

Jesus did not teach his followers by listing a set of opinions and stances to be adopted. He told stories. I am convinced he did so in part because stories allow room for paradox, contradiction, and surprise. The truth is not compromised by these elements. It is allowed to shine in all its beauty and complexity. So, when someone asks me, “Where are you from?” I see it as an invitation to tell a story; one that synthesizes the land of my birth and the land of my heritage.

Andrea Nwabuike is a Nigerian-Canadian mental health counsellor and writer. Her love of words began in childhood when she would hide under the covers with a flashlight and a juicy mystery novel. Those reading sessions expanded her imagination and ignited her curiosity. Andrea’s passion for the written word has drawn her to write about the intersections of faith, ethnicity, and gender. When she isn’t writing or counselling, you can find her eating plantain chips or belting out 90s R&B classics.