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The Hauntings of a Bicultural Childhood

Being a product of two cultures isn’t just “the best of both worlds”


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Angela Yurchenko

4 months ago | 7 min read
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Being a product of two cultures isn’t just “the best of both worlds”

Several times a week, with predictable regularity, my mind launches on an eerie escapade to five thousand miles away. A picturesque town bordering NYC where soared by the twelve years of my childhood and teenage years opens up the doors of its dwellings to my wandering, sleepy psyche.

Eyes shut to the real world, I keep circling the rooms of my childhood, meeting its inhabitants all over again as if stepping into a weird parallel dimension where life goes to sleep when I wake, and wakes when I fall asleep.

In this unconscious realm that shapeshifts between past and present, I reenact not the most exciting environments and people I had known, but those that in waking life I remember as the deepest shade of monotonous.

In fact, I now believe their monotony had been a safeguard against forgetfulness, a means of self-preservation through repetitiveness. If so, the trick has worked. In the spaces I return to night after night, the details have been preserved meticulously. Life’s repetitiveness is an impeccable storage facility for memory.

Within my dreams, I never ask questions. What I see is what I believe. The questions begin when I wake up. Because I know the dreams haunt me for a reason and I know my trigger.

The trigger isn’t trauma or even nostalgia. It’s the fear of losing anchor.

Ifthere were something like cultural bipolar disorder, that would be me.

I’m quite sure my initial split of reality started twenty-one years ago on the day my parents (sans questioning either themselves or understandably, me) landed their nine-year-old child on the opposite side of Earth. One they had not a kindred soul on.

As a result, I was brought up isolated from my homeland and the rest of the duality just rolled off from there. Two languages and cultures became responsible for everything I think, speak, write, and dream; I went on to have two professions; my life alarmingly alternates between seclusion and the bustle of big cities. It’s almost as if my whole environment is bipolar, except I’m not.

I came to the U.S. at the turn of the new millennium. A faded photo of a nine-year-old girl riding the NYC ferry against the background of the intact World Trade Center innocently shows the brink of the new life both I and the world stood at. At that point, none of us really knew what the future held.

Thanks to my education, I was familiar with certain things, like the language. But the new habitat took me by surprise, as did many other things. Regardless, all of them soon solidified into a clump of a life that went on, with ups and downs, for twelve years.

Had I stayed put in the States for longer than these twelve years, there would’ve been nothing strictly ‘bicultural’ about my experience of life. Immersed so young, I would have fully assimilated the adopted culture I was raised in.

However, eventually, I felt it was time to forge a new path and rediscover my roots. I traveled halfway across the globe back to my original birthplace, plus 400 more miles. And to everyone’s surprise, I stayed.

It’s been almost ten years now and in no case would I trade either my current life or my youth around NYC, essential in educating my subconscious and conscious selves. Yet I’m also fully aware of the split this bicultural life formed in my psychology — the split that my dreams, pleading as they are of Jungian analysis, is only a stubborn manifestation of.

Nine years had passed since I walked the streets of my childhood, and in all these years I’ve felt no sentiments about the departure. Essentially, I have no need to romanticize the past, for several times a week I come revisiting it without so much as a knock.

One could say the dreams haunt me. But in the optimistic, blazing daylight there’s no sense of either nostalgia or pain following these hauntings. They’re just there, monochrome ghosts living a life of their own.

Even without touching base on a topic as captivating as Jungian psychoanalysis, I know what the “ghosts” are and what they want. They’re my subconscious manifestation of a fully conscious refusal to let go. To let go of the part of my life that has chiseled and taught me one of the fundamental principles of life — fragile unity, but has also split me in two.

Almost everything I do in life is, in some way, a result of my bicultural experience. The choice of English as the language to write everything from diaries to journalism to poetry while living thousands of miles away from English-speaking lands is an homage not even to the culture but to the literature that has shaped my mind.

Yet it’s not about language alone. Language is only the “umbilical cord”.

It’s simple enough to say all people are part of one big Mother Earth, regardless of culture. It’s simple because it’s fair. But to know it down to your bones is something we feel only through long years of experience.

The cultures that bring us up leave a permanent trace on our mentality. Even in our centralized, globalized world where each city resembles another like a twin, it’s impossible to feel each of those thousands of human mentalities and cultures without calling one or other them off as “weird” or “peculiar” — at least sometimes, in the privacy of where it’s safe and “politically correct”.

The greatest gift my bicultural experience has given me has been the ability to drop the veil of hatred from seemingly opposite cultures. Its greatest pain has been seeing the powerlessness of this experience.

The same experience that makes me see people as defined only by their humanity, their kindness, their humane essence, and not by politics, society, customs, is a source of great pain when I see the duality and double standards the world is comprised of.

Although this fact is so simple that we proclaim it from the tribunes, in practice, the more we shout about diversity, the less we understand it in a non-mainstream way.

What is happening right now is that diversity is becoming “fashionable” and a part of the political arena. We may have switched the tables around, but it’s still about the “good guys vs. the bad guys”. And the roles are already pre-distributed to us by mass media. We’re just served the cooked dish. And we swallow it.

On the contrary, if the world as a single community stopped pressing upon its differences, there would be no more violence or wars. Every single act of violence in history started with igniting difference among a group of people. Every act of peace started with unity.

Contrary to popular view, a child that is a product of two cultures doesn’t just take in “the best of both worlds”. He or she is faced with a constant struggle to choose where their loyalty lies — pressed by their peers, the social system, even their family.

As that child ages, it understands the duality that will forever accompany it. It also understands that the perfect Ying-Yang balance its parents may have once imagined as the metaphor for a bicultural childhood is an illusion.

The “Ying and Yang” will keep fighting for their place under the sun (dominance in our life and psyche) throughout our life. Each language and culture will try to tip the scales in their own favor in small but poignant ways.

Ever since I moved out of the U.S., almost all my relationships have rotated around the multi-cultural scene. As a result of my own culturally “bipolar” experiences, I have gravitated towards people from other foreign lands and have been terrible at forging friendships and relations with people next door.

In fact, it seems to me that I put up barriers to barricade myself up in advance. It’s not that I don't give local relations a chance. I am simply not able to communicate well with people who have no experience of the wider world.

Somewhere in such relationships, there’s a searing gap, the one where their understanding ends and my “other life” begins — a gap on which I’m all too ready to heap the blame of any misunderstanding.

As I grow older, the gap grows with me. It sticks out in my subconscious via recurrent dreams, but it sticks out in my waking life no less. I know what it wants, what it’s after — to make a statement, to make itself remembered.

It’s my “other side of the moon” calling out, turning its face to the sun, uttering “do not forget”, and since it fears the voice may be lost in daylight, it just keeps shouting through the dreams.

The shouts are getting difficult to stifle. And more than once now, I’ve thought of what they really mean and how far I’m ready to follow them.

Isit time to stop being haunted by my past? The time to let go and accept things simply, organically, dropping the fear of being the overprotective parent for either of the two cultures within me?

Is it time to just let things roll without posting the protective tape around any parts of myself? Perhaps do something foolish — take up a white sheet of paper and draw up all my old houses, people, and towns in colorful crayons as my six-year-old self once did to stop the recurrent nightmares of a horror movie?

If it worked then, perhaps it could work now?

Yet here lies the paradox: closure is what I’ve been trying to avoid so stubbornly, all along.

Is not the whole haunting my psyche subjects itself to on a permanent basis a protest against the possible annihilation of a certain self that feels endangered, unprotected, vulnerable in a non-native environment? Is the very possibility of letting go of any part of my biculturalism, in both directions, a betrayal?

I may not be able to answer the questions completely. In fact, the answers themselves evolve within me as I start to fear less and explore more.

What I know for sure is that my biculturalism is more than a paradox. It has made a home in me for a reason.

It’s my umbilical cord to the immensely greater world — even universe — than we can fathom, reminding me that only if people (despite all differences) can preserve unity through kindness, will we survive.

As another night draws near and I anticipate the somnambula of familiar paths, all I can do is attempt to harmonize the eternally struggling opposites of my two homelands, assuming that somewhere within the spacetime allotted to me, I will find a way of making “the best of both worlds” click.

May somewhere within that space my heart find a permanent anchor.

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Angela Yurchenko

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Bilingual pianist & business journalist. Writing about the Human Experience.


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