The Burdens of Code-Switching between your “Motherland” and “Home”

Growing up as a “Third Culture Kid”, I spent my ‘formative years in places that are not my parent’s homeland’. I was born in Zambia but left by the age of three. I went to international school in Côte d’Ivoire, spent some time in Botswana and grew up predominantly in the UK. Millions of children around the world are brought up in similar environments; travelling to different countries that their parents wouldn’t call home, getting accustomed to the politics of international schools and growing friendship groups across borders. With such an international background, we all have the internal panic when someone asks you where you’re from. Does this mean where were you born? Where do you currently live? Where did you grow up? What is your ethnicity? It’s a question weighted with complexity.

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Yet, despite having not lived in Zambia since I was three, my parents made sure that we continued to have strong connections with our family, Zambian heritage and culture. While I knew that in the UK, my friends’ parents would be called by their first names, the second I met a Zambian parent, they would be ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’. I knew that my white friends wouldn’t take offence if I declined an offer for tea, yet I wouldn’t dare decline an offer of food from a Zambian family. There are certain behaviours that you grow accustomed to depending on your environment. You soon learn how to code switch and fit in the best way that you can according to your cultural setting.

However, as I grew older, I realised that the more time you spend away from your ancestral culture, the harder it becomes to switch back between codes. As you try to reconnect with your original culture you can become alienated from your new home, and vice versa. Code switching is a skill that we try to hold on to in the diaspora, yet can never be authentic since we’ve grown up outside our ‘home’ countries. Add gender to the equation, and you realise that expectations for you as a woman to be true to your ‘native’ culture exceeds that of men. As women, we’re meant to have children and pass down our culture to them through recipes, traditions, stories and tales. We’re burdened with creating multiple personalities that adheres to the cultural trends in the societies we interact with. Using my latest trip to Zambia as inspiration, these are just a few examples of how code switching gone wrong can affect pretty much anyone with an immigrant background...

1. It’s impossible to code switch if you lack some cultural references

Landing in Lusaka, a security person asked me a question in nyanja that I couldn’t quite understand. So I replied in English. Her face dropped as she looked down at my passport. “You’re a Mwanza and you don’t understand nyanja?”

That statement really hit home; I was not seen as a ‘true’ Zambian, even if I saw myself as such. Growing up outside of your native country, you never quite belong. I’m not completely British, and my lack of cultural references means I’m not 100% Zambian. I’m caught in a no-man’s land where I can identify with both spaces, but am not completely accepted in either. This feeling is heightened when travelling back to Zambia. I automatically feel like I belong; for once I’m in an environment where everyone looks like me. Yet, as days go buy, I’m burdened with the fact that I haven’t grown up there, I don’t know or understand why certain things are acceptable and others not. I don’t have the same cultural references, nor do I know what the latest trends are. Coming from the diaspora you have to mentally prepare yourself to not feel completely at home when travelling back ‘home’. Code-switching isn’t the answer to everything.

2. When code switching pulls you in opposite directions…

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Despite having just graduated, written a children’s book and launched a new not-for-profit project, conversations would always go back to one thing: when am I getting married? My fellow diaspora ladies can definitely relate. You spend so long being told to stay away from men, focus on your studies and make sure you get a good job. Then the minute you graduate, your lack of potential husbands suddenly becomes an issue.

Yet, when I look at my friends, pop culture and general sentiment in the UK, there’s an emphasis on delaying marriage (or never getting married), and focusing on an independent life. I’m stuck between contradictory messages pulling me in opposite directions, and it's hard to opt for one viewpoint without alienating the other.

3. Failure to code-switch leads to emotional distress

“Wow what happened, you’ve put on so much weight!”

“Have you been eating a lot of ice cream in the UK? You used to be so small!”

“I can see you’ve been enjoying a lot of Nshima!”

These were just a few comments I received from relatives and family friends who I hadn’t seen in a few years. I was horrified. My weight and body have always been a sensitive issue for me - I still struggle with ideas that my body isn't small or good enough. Therefore, hearing people make such comments on my weight gain was heartbreaking. And the fact that so many people were pointing it out got to me. Then it clicked. Comments on my weight gain aren’t malicious digs trying to push me down, they’re compliments. Similar to the woman who told Meghan Markle that she’s a fat lady, the growth of my hips and curves is simply a sign that I’m healthy and doing well.

I was my own victim of failing to code-switch. While in the West, “fat” has grown to be a pejorative term because of European standards of beauty, it’s meaning in Zambia is far from that. Having been surrounded by this negative rhetoric for so long in the UK, I failed to see that, in the Zambian context, I was being complimented.

Code switching allows you to have multiple perspectives in situations, and have an understanding of different cultures. For those of us living in the diaspora, we’re able to question eurocentric narratives and demystify colonial rhetoric that might prevail in our societies. In the grand scheme of things, these code-switching setbacks are minor inconveniences when we realise that we have a richer, wider and more diverse cultural heritage that we can draw upon and enjoy.

Article by VERVE Operative & Blogger Chanju Mwanza

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