Third Culture Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

Recently, I got into a disagreement with a friend in my program over one of my life experiences, what he dismissed as “too fantastical to be real”. My immediate response after putting up with this kind of reaction was to cut him down and tell him that his lack of life experience and his limited life experiences clearly indicate he isn’t as open-minded or as worldly as he believes himself to be, in spite of his own travel experiences and being in a program that is focused on international relations. It was only after I realized that getting this defensive about someone’s inability to believe was that this relates to both the life experience and the Third Culture Kid experience.

Though I’ve often said before that I as an individual with experiences most people don’t go through (and that we as Third Culture Kids who have these stories that are difficult to take in) should strive to be more open and understanding of people who aren’t familiar with us or our experience, I think that I am ready to update part of this perspective. I am beginning to believe that though I can be more patient, tolerant, and understanding of people who don’t know or don’t understand me or my experience as an individual and as a TCK, I also have the choice to be around people who are willing to have an attitude that is more open and questioning rather than dismissive with a strong tendency to categorize.

Admittedly, I usually have slim pickings when it comes to finding people wherever I go. I can’t expect people to be open-minded or worldly and well-traveled all the time. That doesn’t mean I have to be alone and unable to connect to anyone for lack of experience, attitude, or outlook though, because the Third Culture Kid hat is just one of many that I can wear, but in the end, I am me, not the summary of all labels or categories I fall into. And for that specific reason, I can relate to people around me on multiple levels outside of that. With a little creativity, I can eventually introduce them to or make the connection to me and my other experiences through the metaphors and analogies of whatever it is we connect to.

One of arguments I had with the friend I mentioned in the beginning related to how I used the word “zonk” and he immediately told me it “made no sense for me to make up words when my brain is dead from being tired” only for another friend to point out that “zonk” was American east coast slang, and it was when I realized it wasn’t about me being silly or strange, but just something that came from my life of moving around. Words or references, meals I cook, stories, attitudes, values–all of them came from somewhere, and in this instance, I thought “zonk” was just a word I made up and I was letting someone cut me down for being strange and absurd.

The next part that came up was that my experiences are too fantastical to be believable, as I mentioned at the beginning, and I realized I was letting him define me. It is the same frustration I get in the Philippines, China, and the U.S., when people call me too American in Manila, in some places where I’m told that I don’t “look Chinese to count as Chinese”, and in America where I’m “too whitewashed to be Filipino since I’m not like other Filipino-Americans”, in spite of growing up in the Philippines for a while too.

Again, I need to affirm that I don’t let others define me, that everyone else can think and say what they want. However, in this situation, when it’s a person whom I call a close friend dismissing my life experience, stories, and quirks as being “too fantastical to be real” and “too abnormal to make sense”, I need to let him know that it’s not cool, and I expect more not just because he’s a friend, but because he believes he is a worldly person for the reason that he is in a program in international relations and he is a multiculturalist American. It doesn’t change the fact I love him, but it is a reminder for me to practice my patience, an opportunity to expand my own understanding and definitions, new ways of dealing with people I care for, and a chance to fire back in defense of myself at someone for forcing his own culture and ideas onto me. Because hey: I value myself, and though I need to be patient, I also don’t need to take crap, especially if it’s from someone who doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does, and even more so because I owe him that as a friend so that he doesn’t get cut down later, or embarrass himself.

So where am I going with this? Whether it’s because I’m an individual who has had strange experiences that were monumental, a Third Culture Kid whose upbringing was accidental, or an Asian American whose label is incidental, I am inevitably going to run into people who can’t, don’t, or won’t understand, let alone open themselves to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, what I’m saying is true, and that I’m not crazy or trying to be better than them–I just have something different from what they are used to.

It’s the accent that throws people off in America when I come off as a local but am in truth a hidden immigrant; my skin color that fools people in Asia until they hear me talk; and the values I have that only come out in my writing and art which people have a hard time grasping, before and after labeling. And it applies as well amongst other Third Culture Kids: people I meet in that group all can say “It’s because we’re TCKs”, but on many levels, it’s not just that, it’s about my individual story, outside of that label. I can’t emphasize this enough.

Best example: I can make my friends raise an eyebrow when they look at the food I eat and cook. That I go out and will try exotic foods comes from the fact I don’t have anything to default to as “my culture, my food”. I read in a poem once about how our culture is expressed through the food we eat and how we eat it. If that’s the case, my culture is expressed how I love all food and I don’t have any one cuisine to default to that I make to remind me of a homeland that’s my own. So whether it’s Jewish home meals learned from friends, Chinese dishes ex-girlfriends craved so much that they didn’t know how to cook that I learned to make for them, or Japanese-styled French crepes my friend made, my culture and identity are expressed through food and cooking, just like it comes out in my writing, my fashion, my values, my spirituality–it’s all distinctly me. And what is the cost of being me? Being written-off as being weird. What is the pay-off for being me? Being loved for my quirks. The costs never outweigh the benefits though, I’m beginning to realize.

What I remind myself to take away from this is that my love for exploration and adventure, my quirks, my preference for food–these aren’t limited to people who are “worldly”, “well-traveled”, or “Third Culture Kids” and “Global Nomads”; these are all part of an attitude and an individual choice to be me. Friends who have never left a country I’ve made can relate to me on multiple levels for the mere fact we share an interest, a hobby, a value, or passions. Even when I have disagreements with folks like my friend who inspired this post, it doesn’t change the fact I love him for a million more reasons than for the very few reasons I have to get annoyed with him.

There’s more to relating to people besides experiences they can’t or won’t understand. There’s more to friendship and relationships besides “getting” someone–it’s called “wanting to relate to someone”. And trust me: I want to relate to people even when we come from different worlds. Especially when we come from different worlds. It’s what makes people not just good travelers, but welcome guests and wonderful friends.

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2 responses to “Third Culture Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

  1. Nice to see you writing again, Johnny. You always write well.

    One comment to add to your good thoughts. In the past couple of years I have come to realize how my international upbringing has given me a world view and lens through which I see the world that is often different from someone who has grown up in one place. It’s easy for me to think they aren’t open minded to try to understand my viewpoint but for some reason, it seems it has only relatively recently occurred to me that I also don’t understand theirs! whoops! I have begun to wonder if I am as openminded as I would like to think I am or if I am really only openminded to others who think “openminded” is “good” but easily look down on those who may, in fact, value a less open society before I at least try to figure out why they see life in that way? Just new wonderings to add to the other thougths you have written. Thanks! and thanks agian for coming to the cross-cultural symposium in October!

  2. That is exactly the point I have been expressing over the years I have been writing. But yes, it’s more about attitude than experience that lends itself to becoming “open-minded” as far as I am concerned. Though I strive to be understanding, my point in this reflection is that on a certain level, I need to be able to be adamant about who I am rather than allowing someone else to walk all over me, even if unintentionally.

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