We Are Third Culture Kids: living at the moment — A Reading Response

‘Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds,’ by David C. Pollock, and Van Ruth E. Reken


By YVIE YAO      March 16, 2015

The book starts with Erika’s story as such:

As the Boeing 747 sped down the runway, Erika sat inside with seat belt secure, her chin propped against a clenched fist, staring out the window until the final sights of her beloved Singapore disappeared from view.

How can it hurt this much to leave a country that isn’t even mine? Erika closed her eyes and settled back in the seat, too numb to cry the tears that begged to be shed. Will I ever come back?

For nearly half of her twenty-three years, she had thought of Singapore as home. Now she knew it wasn’t–and America hadn’t felt like home since she was eight years old.

Isn’t there anywhere in the world I belong? she wondered. 

Thus, my story begins…


I.

I am

a confusion of cultures.

Uniquely me.

I think this is good

because I can

understand

the traveller, sojourner, foreigner,

the homesickness

that comes.

I think this is also bad

because I cannot

be understood

by the person who has sown and grown in one place.

They know not

the real meaning of homesickness

that hits me

now and then.

Sometimes I despair of

understanding them.

I am

an island

and a United Nations.

Who can recognise either in me

but God?

—“Uniquely Me” by Alex Graham James

This poem by Alex, an Australian national who grew up in India, touches the soft spot in my heart whenever I read it. It compels me to confront my paradoxical identity—connected to every culture and yet displaced by every culture—which I have been trying to avoid facing, which I still have not found a way to reconcile.

II.

I go to Northampton Brewery with Serene on every Friday night, and last Friday was no exception. Upon opening the door, the warm ambience and the hot hair immediately intoxicated me and made me forget the frigidness outside. Both Serene and I are poised and somewhat introverted in public. We do not talk much about our personal lives, or our confusion unless a little spice is added—two cups of cocktails, a cacophony of people’s chattering, and a few men’s fanatic cheering for their beloved football teams.

I ordered a cup of Ruby Red Martini. In a spicy pink colour, the bitter-bite Ruby Red Vodka lost its sharpness with lemon-flavoured Bacardi Limon Rum and a mixture of fresh grapefruit and raspberry juice. Serene ordered a cup of Fresh Punch, something unusual appearing in her drink menu—she likes drinks with an acerbity of taste. She did not even know the taste of a potpourri of Bacardi and Kraken Rum, Falernum, Grenadine, Rocks and different fresh fruit juices. The waiter tried to flatter us by affirming our choices, but he would never find out our muddled and puzzling attitudes towards these two ordinary cups of cocktails, that embodied all of our ambivalent identities and life experiences.

Yes. We are Third Culture Kids (TCK), bred by cross-cultural transitions and high mobility in today’s globalized world. David Pollock first coined the term TCK as a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any.

I was born in Qingdao, China, where everybody is forthright and candid. Then, I decided to leave my hometown and embark on a new journey to Singapore at the age of fourteen. Although three-quarters of the entire Singapore population are ethnic Chinese, I still felt an explosive sense of cultural shock. I understood that opportunities only came with personal efforts, but not parental help or kinship ties. I realized that good academic grade was not the only criterion for one’s personal mores and values. I recognized that China was not the middle kingdom of the world and I needed to be more modest and open-minded. I thought that my experiences in Singapore had fully prepared me to be a mature and undaunted world citizen, but this was only my naïve illusion. When I came to the U.S. at the age of twenty, I was confronted by a new reality—how to socialize with people with completely opposite cultural backgrounds, how to network with professionals and alumni, and how to integrate into a society that is diverse but xenophobic at the same time.

As for Serene, she left her footprints in more places than mine. She spent the first nine years of her childhood in Wuhan, China, and another nine years in Guangzhou, China, when her dad changed his job. That was the turn of the 21st century, when Hong Kong was just released by the British back to the mainland, when Hong Kong dramas became the new fanatics among the youth, and when Cantonese became a new status symbol for unconventional young people—like those stiliagis of the Soviet Union in the 40s and the 50s. Serene also jumped onto this bandwagon of Hong Kong enthusiasm and went to Hong Kong for her university.  She always thought that Hong Kong would become her final destination, but her exchange experience in Harvard made Hong Kong forever an erstwhile friend and an obsolete dream—she wanted to study and stay in this land across from the Pacific.

I met her here in Northampton, a small but delicate town in West Massachusetts. I still remember that I saw her for the first time when we were both at the Health Center waiting for a health check. Whenever I recalled the situation that day, I thought our relationship defied the eternally true theory of “like charges repel each other.” We were both interested in the other person’s past experiences, those entangled with a cycle of moving, adapting, assimilating and leaving. We both admired the other persons’ courage, maturity and optimism for the future. Once we asked each other our plans after graduation, but soon realized that the answer to this question could never be predictable.

III.

During those Friday nights in Northampton Brewery, our conversations always ended with the same topic—a sense of fear that we both do not know how to overcome, a fear to be asked where we are from, which culture we identify ourselves with, and where we belong to.

“I hate self-introduction.” I grumbled and sipped my Ruby Red Martini. Serene nodded and listened to my grumbling. “Those people who have stayed in the same place could never understand our complexities. How shall I answer where I am from? I do not even know where I am from. I also want to be like my friends who can easily give a one-word answer to this question, but I cannot.” With the effect of the alcohol, I finally burst into tears. Indeed, I am one of the protagonists described in Alex’s poem, a confusion of cultures and identities. It is still difficult for me to just accept it as a fact, but an unresolved identity crisis. Serene padded on my right shoulder. I knew that she understood me.

She sipped her Fresh Punch and started her narration.  She told me that the concepts of identity and a sense of belonging are really fluid to her. She did not lament her displacement because she believed that all of her multicultural experiences and international friends had already become a part of her identity. She belonged to where she lived at the moment, and she identified with whom she created connections to forthwith.  She said that without a fixed identity, her future opportunities notwithstanding became less limited.  However, her heart has always been thwarted by hardship in maintaining long-term friendships. She lamented that her friendships always ended abruptly with her unexpected move to a new place. Although she treated friendship seriously and made efforts maintaining it, her will was eventually defeated by time and distance. She stopped talking for a minute and put her attention onto her cup with half-filled Fresh Punch. Suddenly, she looked at me and confessed to me, “Yvie, you know actually I am just afraid of facing the reality that when I talk to my old friends, I sound like a foreigner and they have no idea what I am talking about.”

The hot air froze. We quickly changed topics.

IV. 

Whenever people talk about TCKs, they express their jealousy. They are envious of our expanded worldview and our multicultural experiences. Serene told me a story, once.  In the past three years, she lived with thirteen different people for a long period of time when she moved to a new place. When she travelled to a new place, she not only observed first-hand many geographical differences around the world, but also learned how her roommates viewed life from different philosophical and political perspectives. Take an example of relationship and marriage. She told me that her understanding had been refreshed whenever she had a conversation with one of her roommates. Her homosexual roommates in San Francisco introduced to her a new model of marriage and prompted her to reflect the conventional meaning of love and desire. Her current roommate from West Africa taught her that sometimes responsibility was more important than love in a relationship. Her roommate said that, “Maybe I will not fall in love with anyone, but I will get married, establish my own family, and take care of my husband and children with my commitment and good wishes.” Serene admitted that she would never have such awareness that there could be more than one way to look at the same thing if she never travelled to new cultures, and met new people.

Yes, we might have a unique three-dimensional view of the world, imbibe cultural differences from real encounters with people, and experience the world in a tangible way that is impossible to do by reading books, seeing movies, or watching nightly newscasts alone. Meanwhile, we also writhe with value dissonances that occur in our cross-cultural experience. Such a dilemma has bothered me and put me in grieving discomfort since I came to the U.S. where its cultures and values are bipolar to those ones I grew up with. Shall I be an independent woman with a solid career and a bright future at the expense of my husband and children? Shall I take up the double burden of modern women? Shall I support government’s censorship and interference with private market and human rights? What is the difference between Chinese guanxi and American networking? Which value is right? Which is wrong? Or is there even a right or wrong?

I became even more frustrated when I had to deal with more complex topics such as politics and patriotism. Should I commend America’s effort in supporting Tibet’s independence when this is detrimental to my home country China? Should I turn a blind eye to Chinese government’s violation of human rights when it opposes democratic values and universal human rights that my host country America endorses? Should I only make Chinese friends in a closed circle or should I make American friends in college? Such confused loyalties I have make me apprehensive and distressed because no matter which position I take makes me seem unpatriotic and arrogant to my fellow citizens and my friends in my host country.

Yes, we might look confident, poised and open-minded living with cross-cultural enrichment. We adopt a sense of ownership and interest in cultures other than just that of our passport country. We read newspapers daily, visit every hook and cranny of the host country, and treasure every opportunity talking and knowing new people. Just look at my personal experience. When I lived in Singapore, I enjoyed aspects of Singapore culture others might not appreciate. I was proud of my local accent “Singlish,” my knowledge of Singapore history, and the number of sites I visited in Singapore, some of which even local Singaporeans were unfamiliar with. Even now when I already left Singapore and came to the U.S., I still follow Singapore’s local news agency Straits Times, share its Prime Minister’s Facebook status, and  make commentaries on its recent policy changes socially, economically and politically. My Singaporean friend Amanda always teased me that I behaved more like a Singaporean than her. Indeed, we devote all our energy and time to integrating into the local culture and becoming a part of it.

Nevertheless, while we know all sorts of fascinating things about other countries, we know very little about our own.  Agony, the only term I can relate to. I have never been through entrance exams to high school and university in China, which are almost common to every Chinese’s experience. I have never experienced high school sweethearts’ romantic stories. I have had little knowledge in lives in a communal dormitory. I am always slow in Chinese pop culture and well-known celebrities. And I have lost almost all my childhood Chinese friends. Although I spent my childhood in China and I am an ethnic Chinese, my formative years abroad in other countries ironically inculcated a sense of ignorance of my home culture. Where is home to me? Am I still a Chinese?

Yes, we might be independent thinkers, effective communicators and visionary intelligentsia. We are prone to cultural shock and at the same time adapting to cultural shock. We are sensitive to people’s cultural backgrounds and show our respect to their individuality and value systems. We refrain from categorizing people into different groups and assigning stereotypes to them.  We become stronger and more confident confronting challenges and taking risks. We reap all the benefits of being TCKs, being self-reliant, self-independent, determined, culturally tolerant and less judgmental…

However, we are also suffered from detriments of being TCKs. I heard many times from my American friends, and my internship supervisors that, “Yvie, you are a bright individual and I am sure you will find a job after you graduate from college. You don’t have to worry about it right now.” I am certain, too, but they never know my hardship in finding a sponsorship, my limited sources for networking and my limited choices for a job in America as a foreigner. Nor can they fully comprehend my reluctance going back home for a career, not only because I have alienated myself from my home culture and lost my Chinese working proficiency, but also because I do not want to live under my parents’ umbrella for the entire life.

My boyfriend is also a TCK, regarding every new place as his home, every new culture as his new identity. Once, I asked him how he felt being a TCK. He said, “People like us could never stand on the acme of any society and become leaders. Leadership in the modern sense is built based on Woodrow Wilson’s grand blueprint, where vision and people-skill are quintessential cornerstones. Although we have seen so much through our cross-cultural experiences, we lack the ability to be deeply rooted in one culture, of gaining communal support, and of bridging the society through our personal connections.” I could feel his sorrow and helplessness. We, TCKs, can never become arbitrators.

V.

In between worlds,

In between cultures,

In between languages,

In between moves,

In between homes.

Living in between.

Never fully belonging,

Just used to blending…

Like a chameleon.

Never one of them,

Always the ‘other’.

Living in between.

We are many things abroad:

Immigrant, expat, foreigner.

And many things at home:

Hidden immigrant, repat, foreigner.

How do you reconcile

Living in between?

—“Living In Between” from Musings of a Third Cultural Kid

We live in between, but do not think in between. I want to share our stories, the TCKs’ stories, with everyone. If you are not a TCK, I hope you will understand our dilemmas, our psychological struggles, and our unspoken poignancy. If you are also a TCK, I am proud of your courage, your confidence, and your willingness to understand others and passion for embracing the world. In this boundless crowd and vast anonymous population, our connection of being TCKs makes our relationship more precious and cherished. I do not know how long I can maintain my relationship with Serene and where we will be in future, but I am more than contented and fulfilled that we have found each other at the moment.


THIRD CULTURE KIDS: GROWING UP AMONG WORLDS

By David C. Pollock, and Van Ruth E. Reken

360 pp. Nicholas Brealey Publishing. $19.95.


Ten Must-read Books for TCKs

1. Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

2. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama

3. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

4. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

5. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

6. The Persepolis: The Story of Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

7. The Odyssey by Homer

8. Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard

9. Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar

10. What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng by Dave Eggers

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