By Emilija Krysén for KidSpirit's Education issue.
Our cultural upbringing shapes the narratives we tell and greatly influences our views of the world.
Growing up as a third culture kid, I often struggled with this part of my identity. A third culture kid is someone who has never lived in the places that they come from. For context, my mother comes from Lithuania and my father comes from Sweden. We lived in Russia for seven and a half years before moving to Switzerland, where we have resided since.
The countries I’m from and the places I’ve lived always seemed like completely unrelated entities that I couldn’t connect to in the way that others around me seemed to. I have never particularly felt a patriotic streak for any country. Moving has given me a wider view of the world but has also taken away the feeling of home. When people ask me where home is, my mind goes blank. Is home where my house is? Is home where my parents are from? Is it where I live? Is it where I used to live? I couldn’t tell you. To switch between countries is a gift my parents gave me that I will always be grateful for, but it is also a double-edged sword. I have freedom that many can only dream of, but I also have the ever-present loss of a place that I have never known. Until recently, this was not something that greatly troubled me. However, a recent experience has transformed the way I feel about my background and other people who have similar stories.
Currently, I attend an international school. When we first moved, we were unsure of our plans and how long we were going to stay in Switzerland, so this path was an easier alternative to moving often, growing accustomed to a new school system, and then having to start all over again. As with any case, moving can present its challenges, especially when you’re presented with a completely different culture. Instead of one, I was bombarded with many diverse cultures. This is perhaps the most exciting part of human interaction: exchanging stories and beliefs. Learning from one another and growing as people.
I am extremely grateful for the way I have grown up, because now, I can say without hesitation that I truly consider schooling and education as one of the largest influences on my intellectual and personal growth. I have met people from all over the world, people of different nationalities, cultural backgrounds, religious beliefs, and personal values. It is almost unbelievable that people that are so different have found their way to a single place. People that would otherwise likely not have crossed paths are now connected by a common experience.
Recently, my English teacher brought us outside. Even though we’re teenagers, this simple but wondrous concept had us racked with anticipation as if we had gone back to kindergarten. As instructed, we stood in a line as she gave us a brief, vague description of the activity for the class. This activity, called the privilege walk, is a relatively common activity in the United States but never one I thought we would do or that would so drastically affect the way that I view my peers. Starting shoulder to shoulder, the teacher reads out statements. Depending on whether it applied to us or not, we moved forwards or backwards. In the end, we saw where people were in relation to each other, which was meant to illustrate who was the most privileged (the most at the front and the least at the back).
Everyone was brave and respectful in a way that is a rare experience among high school students. As the activity went on, people felt more comfortable opening up. It was an incredible sight when everyone looked around at the end, the looks of surprise on people’s faces as they saw where everyone stood, themselves included. I did not realize how many assumptions I had made about my classmates. I don’t think most of us do. It is very easy to distance ourselves from others, especially if we don’t truly make the effort to take the time to get to know them or if they’re far away. People tend to get caught up in first impressions or gossip that they hear about others, so they subconsciously put them in boxes. Therefore, we sometimes forget that we are all connected.
Personally, the most surprising part of this for me was the newfound connection I found with other students, which comes back to shared experiences. It was mostly the negative ones that struck me. The girls who stood forward for sexual harassment. The kids who acknowledged a substance abuse problem in their family. The people who shared their mental health or development issues. A large portion of the class who said that they barely see their parents. I don’t know if this necessarily should have been the most astonishing part for me. Everyone has their own struggles, even if they don’t show them. You can never guess what people are struggling with; most people will not show their true feelings because it is the way they have been conditioned: to look out for themselves and bottle up their feelings. This means it can be draining to trust people and open up. However, opening up and showing empathy are the only ways we will ever truly understand each other.
The reason this activity was so successful was the level of vulnerability it required. If no one is honest, you don’t get a clear picture. Once someone is brave enough to speak up, other people gain courage as well. It’s a snowball effect. Especially in a very academically driven school, we often neglect personal relationships in favour of academic success, meaning that we do not have the same connection with our peers as students in some other schools might. The success of this activity and the new trust that was born from it was due to the bravery and vulnerability of our small community.
As a society, we build walls using bricks made out of labels we assign to one another. We then use these walls to block out other people and to block in ourselves. If there is one thing that I have learned from my multicultural background, it is that despite our differences, at the end of the day emotions are a universal human experience. From the privilege walk, I have changed my perspective about myself and how my experiences have influenced the person I have become. My background has gifted me a larger understanding of the world. When I think of the type of person I want to be and what I wish to accomplish, I am glad to have my life to look back on as a source of wisdom. As cliché as it sounds, no matter our cultural or religious backgrounds, we are one people.
The privilege walk helped me overcome the wall between myself and my classmates to walk the road towards empathy. In a world so divided, we have to stand together despite prejudice and bias in order to fight injustice. We all have voices. We all have ears. We only have to learn how to use them in balance.
When she wrote this piece, Emilija Krysén was 15 years old. She is from Sweden and Lithuania but currently lives in Basel, Switzerland. Emilija is passionate about music, literature, linguistics, history, and the pursuit of education.