Borrowed Identities: My Life as a Third Culture Kid and an Accidental Asian-American

I’m constantly asking myself where my identity as a Third Culture Kid ends and status as an Asian-American begins. Compared to most Asian-Americans who have the privilege of a distinct identity, I don’t really seen myself as Asian-American, but rather Asian and American from my time moving between Hong Kong, Manila, and the U.S., which as a result, also made me a Third Culture Kid due to movement between cultures.

So by common definition and through a series of life circumstances, I’m an Asian-American, for being born in the U.S. and having Asian ancestry; yet I’m a Third Culture Kid for having no special love for America or any other nation or state I belong to. Constantly in transition and between cultures, never really belonging to any group, always an outsider or a guest. How do I feel personally? I’m both and neither.

The moment I chose to become Asian-American was around the time I chose to do something different for my Extended Essay for my International Baccalaureate Diploma in high school in the Philippines. The folks in Geneva, Switzerland who would be reading my essay probably would never have heard of common themes in Asian-American literature, so I made it a point to get two books, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and Jeanne Wakatsuki-Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar.

When I saw the confusion of cultural identity that the protagonists in each work faced, I decided I finally found who I wanted to be: an Asian-American, because I was Asian, and I had an American passport, so it made sense. I was tired of not having any affiliation and not being able to answer the cursed question, “Where are you from?” because I could say I was an American and born in San Francisco. After my experience for the first two years did I realize how far from being Asian-American I was–I just didn’t connect to the identity I thought I had.

When someone asks the dreaded “Where are you from?” to an Asian-American, it means something different to them than it does to a Third Culture Kid. To most Asian-Americans, it’s an offensive question, because it’s a form of micro-aggression, a soft rejection that designates them as “others” and denizens, people who are forever foreigners and don’t belong in a land they feel is rightfully their home as well for being born in or immigrating to, and adopting the values and attitudes of being an American. To them, it’s denying them the American Dream because of their race.

The “Where are you from?” question isn’t so much as an offense or attack to us Third Culture Kids as it is a sucker punch that throws us out of our Zen. What is our ethnicity? Where were we born? Where did we grow up? What was the last town we came from? What is our citizenship? Why do I speak Chinese when I’m technically Filipino and what was I doing in Thailand and Argentina as a child? In other words: we don’t know what each individual asking the question means, because it could be any one or all of the different meanings ascribed to it.

Most of the Asian-Americans I talked to had a different type of friction than what I experienced with my own parents. For them, their confusion came from wondering how to be more “American” to fit in and not be rejected, then later on to try to be more “Asian” so that they could reconnect to their culture. Like a fashion statement, like a fraternity, being Asian as they perceived was a stigma when struggling to be treated with more dignity in comparison to their friends in the white majority, but as they grew older, it was a badge of pride.

People I came across, before knowing of my background, would call me “whitewashed” for whatever silly criteria that they set for being “Asian” that I failed to meet. Whether it was if you spoke another language or if you drove a certain car, or if you were one of the juveniles who would give threatening looks to Asian women who dated white men, their criteria varied and some people measured their “Asian-ness” by whether they were “real” Asians (Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean) compared to “fake” Asians (Filipinos, Indonesians, Malays, Indians), others by how much they clung to cultural practices (“Do you know how to eat with chopsticks properly? Do you know how to pronounce ‘Nguyen’ correctly?”). I never came across such strange ways to categorize someone or how to “measure” a culture until I came across many of the Asian-Americans, nor did I realize that there were “real” and “fake” Asians.

After years of going between people with their shallow categories (who often seemed to be the majority throughout college), I tried to disassociate myself from being Asian-American at times. In my own loneliness as a Third Culture Kid and an individual, it was when I saw the Chinatowns, the Japanese-American obon festivals of the summer, or the Filipino dance groups that I held onto the borrowed identity of being Asian-American, that perhaps I could adopt the culture as my own even if it was not something I could call “mine” and feel a part of. Sure, I was Asian-American by definition, but not by culture. My home and my values weren’t American, they were globalist, and I took no offense at being seen as less than American or as a foreigner–it was nothing new to me, because I always feel like a foreigner wherever I go. I just want that feeling of belonging to a community, having a tradition to look forward to on the calendar each year that is mine–the patriotic holidays of the 4th of July, the 12th of June, and the 1st of October all mean nothing to me no matter how much I want to share in the pride and joy of the people who have love for those holidays.

When I meet Asian-Americans traveling to their respective ancestral homelands for the first time, whether they be Taiwanese, Filipinos, or Koreans, they relate how they don’t know who they are, feeling too American to be Korean, Taiwanese, or Filipino, yet not truly “American” because they are Asian. I roll my eyes and text my fellow TCK friends who know what it’s like to really not belong, because at the end of the day, most of these kids will go to that allegorical place they call home, which we as Third Culture Kids do not have. Manila, a place I spent most of my childhood, is no home of mine now that most of my friends are dead or gone,  my father is dead and my apartment doesn’t belong to me anymore. My mother may be in San Francisco, but it is no home of mine the moment she moves to another city.

I never had the friction of culture many second-generation Asian-Americans do with their parents, trying to get them to respect and honor their parent culture, while trying to get them to understand that their blood is of no importance, it is their nationality and their desire and hope to be more American, instead of being strangled by their parents’ culture. I got along just fine with my parents; they both spoke perfect English and we had respect for each other, as well as interest in each other’s “culture”. My father saw me as very American, my mother sees me as very Asian, my stepfather sees me as very interesting since he can’t quite put his finger on how to label me to better understand me.

I think back to what it means to be a global citizen in the words of my friend and founder of tckid.com, Brice Royer: “My people are not defined by their race, religion, nationality, age, or gender, but by their values.”

I’m not special as a TCK, it’s another accidental identity too–I never asked to be dragged around the world or from town to town, going through a dozen schools growing up. Sometimes I still wonder if I’m really a TCK at times too, but whenever I’m traveling or I run into someone who doesn’t care one way or another about where they belong, that they can up and leave, moving to the Carribean, Taiwan, Prague, or Bangkok without any reservations, it’s when I know I just met kindred spirits.

Sometimes I want to ride the wave of being part of the Asian-American community solely as a way to reach my individual potential, let their support for me be there exist simply because they want to look at the movie screen and see another face that is one of them. Other times, I do believe in helping them because a part of me does connect to them, no matter how loosely. Then I feel I owe them and they owe me nothing, that I’m just an individual, and I belong to neither the Asian-American or the Third Culture Kid groups.

Ultimately, I don’t intend to struggle with identity for the rest of my life. Some days, I’m very Asian-American (usually during the cultural festivals or events like the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival), other days I’m more of a Third Culture Kid because I can’t connect to anyone, and I feel that being in the company of people who constantly know what it’s like to be the outsider are the people I can best relate to–until I feel that even amongst them, I’m not enough of an outsider to be cool like them. 😉

I’m taken back to my old sociology class in college as I conclude this thought: some of us define ourselves by age, others by gender, ethnicity, nationality, profession, college major, social class, political affiliation; but very few define themselves by their hobbies. I think of my friend Tom, a b-boy and hip-hop enthusiast, and I remember a quote we came up with together: “Music is my religion, for it is the only faith that brings people together instead of dividing them, whether it is a love song or a haunting piano melody that makes us all think to ourselves ‘I know that feeling too'”.

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9 responses to “Borrowed Identities: My Life as a Third Culture Kid and an Accidental Asian-American

  1. The differences in response to “Where are you from?” are so true. I hadn’t thought of that.

    Otherwise, love the post. I feel the same conflict between being Asian-American and an ATCK. I chose the Third Culture route though: I was tired of being taken as what I wasn’t.

  2. I definitely prefer the TCK route more myself. Sometimes, I just don’t feel Asian-American, especially when I don’t feel rejected when people think I’m not American, nor do I feel any badge of joy for being American. I’m just Johnny C, and most people think of me as that rather than “Johnny C the Asian guy”. Occasionally I’m “THAT Johny C” or “That weird guy Johnny C” but hey, it means more to me as an individual because I see it as transcending the broader labels and categorizations. We don’t choose to represent any group–but for some reason, groups choose us to be a representative of them, if and when it suits them.

  3. Great article Johnny! =) People shouldn’t be using a ruling stick to measure your “American-ness” or “Asian-ness” or . Unfortunately we live in a very racist society…but be strong!

  4. Thank you for writing this! I hate answering the ethnicity question on so many forms (including the national census) here in the U.S. At what point am I considered Hispanic or Latina? My grandparents emigrated to South America a hundred years ago. My mother grew up in two countries there, I was born there, I have family there (in several countries), I speak the language without a “foreign” accent. But even though many in South America are of European ancestry, to them I am a very confusing “gringa”, and I definitely have no “right” to call myself something else. The questions and suspicion and confusion seem to always be there until a deeper friendship develops. Most people from the U.S. and Canada can’t seem to fit it into their heads that I’m not just like them, but with this kind of annoying predilection for talking about the world and my background in ways they often seem to find intrusive and unimportant. Most of the time I just let it be. Even other TCKs don’t quite get it unless they are, like me, second and third generation TCKs. It is an altogether different identity. (And like yourself, though for me it’s because I have lived in the U.S. now for so long, I often feel like I’m not cool enough to even claim that, lol!) I think these identity issues wax and wane throughout life as our relationships and circumstances change. There is more joy than pain in these things for me, ultimately. There is a richness to the TCK heritage and experience that is absolutely worth it. Even when I feel (sometimes deeply) envious of people with clear roots and “home”, I wouldn’t trade who I am and my perspective as an adult TCK, nor my kinship with fellow TCKs around the world. Not ever.

  5. I find my life is easiest when it’s taken outside America: I don’t get that conflict. Out here it’s just even more internationalism, as an Asian who was born in America but grew up in Asia anyway. A different part of Asia, even.

    Personally I find that Americans find definitions and identity more important than other cultures. I suspect it’s partially because being “American” is very hard to define, despite what conservatives think. It’s technically just values, but people know deep down in their hearts that identity is far more than taking on dispassionate political values.

    That’s why they really delineate themselves by race. They assign themselves cultural characteristics based on race because they want to define themselves by something. Other developed countries tend to have more international contact and their citizens tend to travel. They know much better who they are being able to constantly judge themselves in light of how they judge others.

    Baseball and hot dogs don’t represent all Americans, and even for the ones who do enjoy it it’s not quite enough.

  6. Try this: lots of people look at me and say I’m not really Chinese because I don’t “look” Chinese and my last name isn’t traditional. When I tell them about the history of the Chinese in the Philippines and how there is diversity in China, they think I’m just ashamed of being Filipino.

    I don’t know: I didn’t grow up eating most of the Filipino foods or doing the practices of pressing an elder’s hand to my forehead, and my family was just my father and sister instead of dozens of siblings and relatives. I grew up eating Chinese food, and we were Buddhist at home, not Catholic. We spoke English at home, and my father spoke eloquently with a hint of an Englishman in his accent.

    Yet for some reason, I’m whitewashed, even if I spent more time in the Philippines than most Filipino-Americans ever did, and I’m not Chinese because I don’t “look Chinese” in their eyes, and I’m Asian-American because I have a passport and ethnic heritage. People can define me however they want–I don’t have to agree with it.

  7. Hong Kong and the Philippines are just one of the few countries in the area with a recent colonial history so it’s expected that you would have a certain degree of westernization even if you were born and lived there. Next time someone tells you you don’t “look Chinese” tell them they don’t “look American” and have the local authorities deport them to Arizona to join their racist kin!

  8. Haha I’m horrible at being Vietnamese. My family is Vietnamese, sure, but I never learned the language beyond the basics. I feel very, very out of place in Vietnam. There’s a word “Viet Khiew” (not sure about the spelling) which means “emigrated Vietnamese.” It means all the Vietnamese who have left, and they tend to come back to Vietnam wealthier and have a tendency to abuse their so-called success.

    But I’m not one of them. When I meet Vietnamese Americans in the US, I feel just as uncomfortable, if not moreso because Vietnamese Americans tend to define themselves by their exodus at the end of the war. They tend to be conservative and right-wing after losing their country to the Communists.

    While I don’t have the same history with Vietnam that you do with the Philippines, I feel just as strange among Vietnamese people.

    I don’t even look Vietnamese. Both Koreans and Vietnamese have judged me to be Korean, before.

    But in most countries outside of the ones people say we’re supposed to call home, we’re just interesting foreigners. I find that’s an easier environment to work in.

  9. Pingback: You Spoke My Heart – Mis Diarios Pálidos

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