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  • Writer's pictureAbdoulaye Diop

FROM LONELINESS TO IDENTITY CRISIS TO EMBRACING MYSELF AS A FIFTH CULTURE AFRICAN

By Abdoulaye Diop


Imagine yourself back in kindergarten, surrounded by a lively classroom filled with beautiful kids just like you. You're sitting at the lunch table or engaging in class activities, seeking friendship and connection.


But as you settle into your seat, a strange phenomenon unfolds before your eyes. One by one, your classmates start getting up, leaving their spots, and gravitating away from you, finding solace in another corner of the room, leaving you all alone.


Puzzled and disheartened, you feel the tension and unease in the air. Questions start flowing through your mind asking what you might have done to be abandoned in such a way. Now imagine hearing their whispered words making it clear to you that they reject you not for something you did or said, but simply because you are an African. Your first taste of discrimination at a very young age. Let that sink in. You are just six years old, trying to grapple with these heart-wrenching moments. To imagine those hurtful comments would come from kids, including kids who share the same rich brown skin tone as you. It’s perplexing, isn’t it? It’s a lot for the mind of a six-year-old boy to handle.


This was my childhood in Washington, D.C. I live with these memories. This discrimination did not happen all the time, but enough times for it to have an impact on my life. These moments left me feeling isolated and disheartened.


My name is Abdoulaye Diop and I am a fifth-culture adult of West African descent. In case you are wondering, a fifth culture adult (FICA) is an extension of the more common concept of third culture kid. FICA refers to individuals who have had experiences of living and adapting to multiple countries or cultures beyond their parents' culture and the culture of their childhood. FICAs have a unique perspective and worldview shaped by their exposure to a variety of cultures, and they may feel a sense of belonging to a global community rather than any one particular culture.


My life has been a remarkable journey, shaped by my multicultural experiences as a result of my parents' diplomatic careers. We lived on four continents and in seven countries.


From my birthplace in Senegal, I embarked on an adventure that traversed continents, leaving indelible imprints on my life. The United States, Senegal, Malaysia, Taiwan, France, China, South Korea, and finally Canada became chapters of my story, each offering new encounters and cultural immersion. In total, I spent six years in Africa, thirteen years in North America, seventeen years in Asia, and three years in Europe, and I had the privilege of studying in six education systems and learning five different languages. This diverse odyssey has shaped my perspective, fostered resilience, and instilled a deep appreciation for the richness of global cultures.


“We lived on four continents

and in seven countries.”

My collection of foreign currency

The journey of navigating different cultures has presented its fair share of challenges, including loneliness, identity crisis, and racism. However, I have come to understand that these trials have played a significant role in shaping me into a stronger individual. By embracing multiple cultural backgrounds, I have made tremendous personal growth. I strive to use this asset to make a positive impact, create inclusive spaces and contribute to a more harmonious and interconnected world.


But first, it became apparent that I needed to embark on an inner quest of discovery, notably delve into the depths of my Senegalese heritage and connect with it.


From America To Senegal: The First Culture Shock

Born in Senegal, my journey overseas began when at just six months old, I embarked on a new chapter in the United States, where I spent my formative years until the age of eight.


I then left America and relocated with my parents and siblings back to our native country of Senegal. Moving back forced me to encounter a culture shock in my own homeland. My relationship with relatives in Senegal was generally fine. Despite the language differences, we managed to communicate to the best of our abilities. However, my biggest culture shock came when I started attending school in Dakar. From an entirely American educational system I was used to in Washington, DC, I found myself transferred to the French-Senegalese educational system where I didn't understand a single word of Wolof nor French, which were the primary languages of instruction. This language barrier made it difficult for me to communicate and comprehend the lessons.


While the teacher delivered her lectures in French, I was often confused. When the teacher directed questions to me, I struggled to understand and respond. My classmates cast curious glances my way, then spoke in hushed tones in Wolof. Their whispers seemed to revolve around the mystery of my limited understanding and participation.


During recess on the playground, students would approach me and initiate conversations in Wolof. In those moments, feeling overwhelmed and unable to communicate, I would simply express in English that I didn't speak French or Wolof and resorted to a simple "leave me alone" hand gesture, signaling my desire to be left alone.


Many students would often refer to me as toubab. I didn’t quite understand the meaning behind it. At the time, I interpreted toubab as an insult, which led to several conflicts and fights. In Wolof language, “toubab” refers to a foreign person, notably white or of European descent. Moreover, I later found out that some students swear at me in Wolof. I prefer not to disclose the words they said. Of course, this led to even more tensions and misunderstandings between me and my peers.

My classmates questioned how it was possible that my parents were Senegalese, yet I couldn't speak Wolof fluently. The discrepancy between my Senegalese name and my inability to communicate in Wolof only added to the confusion and curiosity of my peers as they had never met a Senegalese who couldn’t speak Wolof. These comments added to my feelings of being an outsider and I was struggling to fit in.


I had to adjust to a whole new set of cultural differences. For example, Senegalese communication tends to be more indirect and polite, with a strong emphasis on greetings and formalities. In the United States, communication is often more direct and informal, with less emphasis on formalities. Another example would be the fact that in Senegal, there is a strong emphasis on community and extended family relationships. Respect for elders and communal values are highly valued. In contrast, the United States places more emphasis on individualism.


“They had never met a Senegalese

who couldn’t speak Wolof.”


But over time, I worked hard to overcome these challenges. I immersed myself in learning both Wolof and French, which gradually helped me understand and communicate better with my classmates. The credit for this achievement goes to my parents' wise decision of immersing me in my grandparents' house during the holidays and weekends. A decision deeply rooted in Senegalese traditions.


Since I shared the same name as my paternal grandfather, I was sent to live with my paternal grandparents and their extended family. This gave me a chance to form close bonds with my paternal grandparents, uncles, aunts, and numerous cousins, immersing myself in the core family home of my father's side. A similar arrangement was made for my sister, who shares the same name as my aunt on my mother’s side and was sent to spend the holidays there. This is a common tradition in Senegal, where children with names matching those of specific family members are placed with them to strengthen familial ties.


In Senegal, naming children after relatives or close friends is a cherished tradition. It serves as a way to honor and pay tribute to family members while fostering a deep connection between the core family unit and the extended family. As a result of sharing my grandfather's name, I often go by the nickname Pa Laye which is a diminutive form of Pa Abdoulaye. Additionally, my aunts lovingly refer to me as Suma Pap which translates to my father in Wolof.


My loving family’s supportive embrace helped me adapt to Senegalese life. With their guidance and encouragement, I became proficient in both Wolof and French. However, I speak Wolof with an American accent, leading some Senegalese to mistake me for a Gambian – Gambians also speak Wolof with an Anglophone accent.


This first experience and cultural immersion in Senegal laid the foundation for my subsequent immersions in various parts of the world.



Navigating Racism In The French System: My Life In Malaysia

Having lived in several countries, I have unfortunately experienced various degrees of discrimination and racism. However, the most severe instances of racism occurred during my time in Malaysia, particularly in the French school there, and also in France.

After one year in Senegal, my family moved to Malaysia when I was nine years old and we lived there for three years. It was the mid-90s, it was uncommon to see black people at that time in Malaysia, and I often became the target of curiosity. People would approach me in malls and touch my hair without permission. This was all very surreal for me. I constantly felt the weight of being stared at, which made me hyper-vigilant. One time, an elderly Malay man touched my hair and remarked that it felt like a rug. In response, I touched his hair and commented that it felt like grass. That was a light-hearted moment, but I also faced bullying from Malay children who would call me names like the n-word or monkey and hurl insults at me like Go back to your country, sometimes even instigated by their parents. Despite this, I also encountered kind individuals, such as my Chinese Malay friend Jesson, my Indian Malay friend Murali, Shoron my Malay friend, and my second Malay mom, Rohiza and her family, who made my time in Malaysia more enjoyable.


“He deemed my skin dirty and

felt the need to cleanse himself afterward.”


Ironically, the worst experience I had in Malaysia was not the discrimination I faced in my condominium complex by other Malays, but rather the racism I encountered in the French school I attended. I was the only black African student in the school and faced constant bullying and insults from French children. Shockingly, some teachers even took the side of the French students. The school principal, M. Petit, showed a clear bias, consistently siding with the French students who did not hide their racist views. I particularly remember a half French- half-German student named Julien Schmidt. He was exceptionally cruel. During a chance encounter, our paths crossed, and we accidentally bumped into each other. With a disdainful expression, he uttered hurtful words, instructing me never to touch him. He deemed my skin dirty and felt the need to cleanse himself afterward. His expression looked like someone who had just come into contact with a repulsive creature as if he had touched a cockroach. I touched him again and we got into a fight. No one came to my defense – neither my classmates, teachers nor the principal.


There was a time, in the halls of our school, a new face appeared by the name of Francois Xavier. With a sense of empathy, I reached out to this lonely newcomer, offering friendship. We became good friends. However, the harmony of our friendship took an unexpected turn when Francois Xavier distanced himself and found solace in the company of the same racist bullies. Our once-strong friendship shattered. At that moment, I understood the meaning of hypocrisy and betrayal.


Back in my school days, there was a classmate of mine named Isabelle Goh, a French girl of Chinese descent. I had a secret crush on her. Among all the students, she was the only one who showed kindness toward me. Others sensed that I had feelings for her. One memorable incident was when she invited me to her birthday party and I happily attended. The atmosphere was filled with joy as boys and girls danced together, and I found myself quietly enjoying the music from a corner. Unexpectedly, Isabelle approached me and asked if I would like to dance with her. I was taken aback and felt shy since I never imagined that she would ask me to dance. I gladly obliged.


However, a few days later, some of the bullies from my class told Isabelle's two older brothers that I had feelings for their younger sister. These brothers were older and bigger than me in size. They were in high school. They cornered me and confronted me with a warning, threatening to beat me up if I ever approached their little sister. I took their threat seriously and realized I needed to prepare myself for any potential confrontation. Consequently, I decided to enroll in martial arts classes, aiming to develop the necessary skills in case they acted on their promise. It was disheartening.


Following that incident, I got into a fight with a French-Canadian student named Justin who used a racial slur at me, particularly the N-word. When the teacher arrived, everyone falsely pointed to me as the culprit. As punishment, the teacher slapped me right in the face and left me in the classroom for almost an hour while the air conditioning was running so high that I was freezing. When he returned to the classroom, the teacher panicked, realized his mistake and apologized.


The discriminatory treatment came in various forms, sometimes subtle, other times more overt. In a school play organized by the art & theater teacher, I was assigned the role of the ogre in a story play. I do not remember the name of the play, but I clearly remember deep in my heart that I didn’t want to be part of it. It felt like I got the role solely based on being the only black child among the predominantly white students. It was not as if the teacher asked who wanted to play the role of the ogre in the story. She fixed her eyes on me, leaving no room for anyone else to even consider volunteering for the part. There was no open invitation or a chance for others to express their interest—it felt like a predetermined decision solely based on my presence.


The teacher's insistence on my participation in the play reached a point where her anger became evident when I refused to comply. She made it clear, in a manner that left no room for negotiation, that my involvement was mandatory. Whether or not there was a passing grade associated with it, I cannot recall with certainty. However, the pressure and sense of coercion I felt left me with no choice but to reluctantly participate. The experience was deeply unsettling, as I was compelled to take part against my own wishes and personal comfort.


I despised every second of being in that play. Every moment I spent involved was filled with deep disdain. On the night of the opening, I found myself standing before an audience composed of French parents and educators. It felt as though the entire school had gathered to witness me, the black kid costumed in a black robe with green and white makeup on my face playing the role of an ogre. It seemed like some sick joke or twisted fantasy being fulfilled. Some of my bullies were smiling.


“It felt as though the entire school had gathered to witness me, the black kid costumed in a black robe with green and white makeup

on my face playing the role of an ogre.

It seemed like some sick joke or twisted fantasy being fulfilled.”


As the play concluded, random parents and teachers congratulated my performance. I suppose I played the role to their satisfaction, but I couldn't help but question the personal cost I had paid. I felt coerced into participating, and that night left me with a profound sense of dehumanization.


Unfortunately, it seemed like the entire school was against me during those moments.


Contrasting Experiences: From A Welcoming Community In Asia To More Racism In France

I moved to Taiwan at age thirteen with my family. When I started attending the European school in the French section, I had my guard up, remembering the trauma of my previous experience at the French school in Malaysia. However, I soon realized that the situation in Taiwan was different. People in the school were incredibly friendly, and I never experienced racism or discrimination. We formed a close-knit community, which became one of the most positive experiences of my life.

After three years of living in Taiwan, I moved to France. The move to France was not because of a desire to experience and live in France, but rather because I had no choice but to complete my final two years of high school studies. Unfortunately, I couldn't pursue these studies in Taiwan due to the unavailability of high school classes in the French school in Taiwan. So, I had to go to boarding school.


In stark contrast to Taiwan, my time living in France was far from pleasant. I could feel the racism and discrimination at every corner. It was the early 2000s, a period when far-right ideologies were gaining traction, as evidenced by the high vote count they received in the presidential election. I have encountered several incidents where people looked at me with disgust. I encountered racial hatred and microaggressions from restaurant managers and store clerks.


In France, racism and microaggressions against minorities seemed to be everywhere — in French media, in the rhetoric of French politicians, from law enforcement officers, at the border patrol in Charles De Gaulle Airport, at school. I even faced racism and discrimination from university professors and struggled to obtain a visa to study in France by French diplomats, despite meeting all the requirements and having the means to do so. Prior to finishing high school, I aspired to attend the prestigious Reims Management School. However, I learned that I was not accepted, while a French classmate of mine of European descent, who had performed academically worse than me and had to repeat a year, was.


This experience revealed to me the biased nature of the system against Africans. After graduating from high school, I attended Lyon 3 Jean Moulin University, a public high school in France. Little did I know that the dean of the university, Bruno Gollnisch, was closely associated with Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former leader of the far-right party known as Front National. The school environment was filled with banners supporting FN and I felt a climate of hate permeating the campus. It became clear to me that France was not a place for me. As a result, I made the decision to leave the country and never return.


“In France, racism and microaggressions against minorities seemed to be everywhere.”



But I was determined to continue my studies, so I moved back to Taiwan where my parents resided, for two years. I then pursued my bachelor's degree in management entirely in Mandarin at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, China, graduating at the top of my department. Ironically, my university had exchange students from the same business school I applied to in France. These students had come to study in China for a dual degree. After completing my bachelor's degree in China, I continued my education and pursued an MBA in technology management at KAIST Business School, one of South Korea's elite universities, where I also excelled academically.


Embracing Asia

Taiwan, China and South Korea filled me with pleasant memories and genuine friendships. These are some of the best experiences of my life. I put in tremendous effort to get an appreciation of the Asian way of life and philosophies which have shaped part of my identity and made me the person I am today.


In Taiwan, I formed deep connections with locals who shared their customs, traditions and stories. The warmth and hospitality of the Taiwanese people are renowned, and it's heartwarming to know that I was able to build genuine friendships during my time there. Friends like Remi Liu, Susan Hu, Kin Meng, Darrell, Dahee Kang, Howard Chung, Clement Barthelemy, Khalid and Chaima Taha, Laurel Chor, Steffen Sander, Dumo and Tiv Dlamini, Stephanie Houng, Katya Braslavakya, Bou, Valerie Vignaud, Kristelle Hardy, Jenny Ng, Celia Chang, Ashley Yuan and so many more made the experience in Taiwan memorable.


“I didn’t really know if I was

African, American or Asian.”



Similarly, in China, a country steeped in history and diversity, I had the opportunity to meet incredible individuals who welcomed me into their communities. I have fond memories of my companions, such as Zhang Yang, who was my first Chinese friend in China. He warmly welcomed me into his home and we initially met at a basketball court. Together with another friend named Wang Wei Yi, we embarked on an adventurous journey climbing the Simatai Great Wall. Another dear friend, Ma Jing, played a significant role in teaching me Mandarin and introducing me to Chinese food and culture. I also have cherished friendships with Wuqian, Eunha No, Lishanlie, Keita Okatani, Arina Ochirova, Huang Qi Zhe, Amy Zhang, Hyozhong Zhang, Jessica Li, Kim Boyoun, Juhyun Heo, Kim Joohyun, Park Soojoon, Sooyona, Melya and many more. These individuals hold a special place in my heart and I continue to value and appreciate their friendship to this day.


And then there was South Korea, known for its vibrant culture and friendly people. Whether it was bonding over shared interests, exploring the vibrant streets of Seoul together, or immersing in traditional customs, the memories I created with my friends in South Korea are undoubtedly precious. I treasure these moments as much as the experiences shared with my Korean friends I met in China, such as Hyozhong Zhang, Boyeon, Juhun Heo, Sooju and Sooyonna. Additionally, I had the pleasure of making new friends like Lin Tun Tan, Quynh Ngo, Mark, Kate Lee, Hesham Mas, Elaine Shih, Jaehwan Lee, Giuliano, Jay Heon Jung, Rahul, Yunsu Ryu, Sooyoun Bae, Kiand many others, who left an indelible mark on my life. The diverse friendships I cultivated in both China and South Korea have added immense value to my life, filled with cherished memories and meaningful connections.


Stitching A Tapestry Of Cultures: Embracing Identity as a Fifth Culture Adult

By the time I was thirty years old, I had already lived in seven countries. Navigating multiple cultures all those years left me struggling with an identity crisis. I didn’t really know if I was African, American or Asian. This identity crisis continued as I pursued my education and career, witnessing the social, political, and economic transformations of various countries.


After living in South Korea for three years, I returned to Senegal to work for a Korean multinational company for four years. In 2018, I left Senegal to pursue another Master's degree at HEC Montreal in Canada, specializing in data science and analytics. I am still in Canada.

“...loneliness forced me to go inside myself

and find the strength I needed to be resilient.

It prompted deep self-reflection,

allowing me to explore who I really am.”


Today, I identify as a fifth-culture adult. At thirty-nine years of age, I am now fluent in five languages: English, French, Chinese, Wolof and Korean. I am still learning countless more. Having cultivated a strong adaptability to different environments, I can seamlessly navigate through various cultural contexts, embracing new customs, traditions and ways of thinking. This adaptability has allowed me to acquire fresh perspectives, challenge my own assumptions, and foster a genuine appreciation for the diversity of humankind.


But I must confess, there was a time in my life where I wondered if I would ever overcome loneliness and identity crisis.


Loneliness felt like being a solitary star in a vast sky, surrounded by countless constellations of human connection, yet unable to find my rightful place among them. But though difficult, loneliness forced me to go inside myself and find the strength I needed to be resilient. It prompted deep self-reflection, allowing me to explore who I really am. My quest for identity has also become a transformative discovery of my evolution. So, I have questioned my cultural roots, traditions and values. Through this process, I have gained a deeper sense of self, a stronger foundation of identity and a profound appreciation for the diverse perspectives and experiences that come with embracing different cultures.


In the process of discovering my identity, I have come to acknowledge certain truths in my life.


Firstly, I am grateful for the support and friendships I formed along the way, as they have been instrumental in overcoming the obstacles I encountered.


Secondly, I found solace and success in my academic pursuits in Asia and North America. This sense of self-achievement helped me to heal after the challenges and racism I faced in Malaysia and France.


Thirdly, racist beliefs often stem from deep insecurities. When comparing racism and discrimination between Asia and France, there are distinct differences in their origins and manifestations. In Asia, discrimination and racism often arises from a lack of exposure to diversity, resulting in instances of curiosity, stares, or ignorant comments. This is primarily due to limited interactions with individuals from different racial or ethnic backgrounds. It stems from a lack of understanding rather than intentional hostility.


On the other hand, discrimination and racism in France is strongly influenced by its history of colonialism, immigration, and the complexities of its social and political landscape. Given the greater diversity of the population and the history of immigration, experiences of racism in France can vary and encompass overt and systemic forms. Verbal abuse, employment and housing discrimination, as well as systemic inequalities affecting marginalized communities, are among the various manifestations of racism in France. Debates surrounding immigration, multiculturalism, and tensions between different communities further contribute to the complexities of racism in the country. Throughout my travels and experiences, these differences in racism and discrimination between Asia and France have been apparent. But it is important to state that racism is everywhere but at various levels depending on the country. But for me, France has been the most unpleasant country I have ever lived in when it comes to racism.


"By my African descent, I am linked by blood

and heritage to Africa,

yet I am also connected to the rest of the world.”


Fourthly, I am committed to breaking down stereotypes and fostering inclusive and accepting communities. I believe in seeking common ground, celebrating our shared humanity and nurturing connections that transcend cultural boundaries. The experience of racism has been emotionally and psychologically challenging, but it has also fueled my determination to advocate for equality and justice. Overcoming racism has required immense strength and resilience, reinforcing my belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, regardless of their background or appearance.


Fifthly, I have come to understand that no culture holds superiority over others. Instead, I firmly believe in the complementary nature of cultures. We have more in common than what divides us. Every culture possesses its unique strengths, values, and contributions to offer. It is not about labeling cultures as entirely good or bad; rather, it is about recognizing what is suitable or not suitable within different contexts.


Sixthly, my ability to connect with people from different countries, speak multiple languages, and seek to learn more is a blessing from Allah. I recognize that Allah has granted me the opportunity to acquire these skills, which enable me to approach people with an open mind, bridge cultural gaps, and foster meaningful connections with individuals from diverse backgrounds.


Above all, I hold one truth as my guiding light: I am a proud African; I am a proud American; and I am a proud Asian, all in one. By my African descent, I am linked by blood and heritage to Africa, yet I am also connected to the rest of the world. As a fifth culture individual, I am a virtual machine that runs on multiple cultural operating systems, synthesizing them into a unique and dynamic whole. This distinct cultural identity allows me to embrace my global mosaic and celebrate the rich tapestry of experiences that make me who I am today.



Abdoulaye is a Data Science Consultant and Entrepreneur based in Montreal, Canada. He is an entrepreneur, world traveler and proud fifth culture adult passionate about AI, data, technology, business, language & culture, travel, networking, and personal growth and development. His personal life motto is: embrace your heritage, embrace the possibilities and empower your journey.


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Tamu
23 Nov 2023

Just wondering where your parents were when you were being so badly mistreated. As a Black American any instance of racism , my Mom was extremely and proactive in standing up and defending me.

Suka

Tamu
15 Agu 2023
Dinilai 5 dari 5 bintang.

Thank you! As a TCK my life went all wrong for me. It is a significant challenge to live and experience a sense of dissimilarity, even when one is over the age of thirty. My sister and I are mentally broken, and we share a big misunderstanding in life, but we are in a different level of pain. The need to get my voice out often chokes me more, therefore keeping it private to forget. Thank you for the details in your story

Suka
Tamu
02 Sep 2023
Membalas kepada

Thank you for sharing your story. Living as TCK is not an easy path to take. I can attest to it. It sounds like you and your sister have been through a lot and are struggling with your experiences as Third Culture Kids (TCKs). It's important to acknowledge your feelings and talk about them. Expressing your thoughts and emotions, even if it's difficult, can help you heal and find ways to cope with the challenges you're facing. Remember that you don't have to go through this alone. Would you like to connect?

Suka

Tamu
06 Jun 2023
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Great character is forged through hardships.

Suka

Tamu
03 Jun 2023
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Trials in life just go to show how far you can go. With a strong mindset no1 can stop you. Thank you for sharing your story.

Suka

Tamu
03 Jun 2023
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great 👍🏿

Suka
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