When I first discovered the term “Third Culture Kid”, I didn’t immediately say “Oh! Now I know what I am! I’m not crazy!”, my first reaction was “Am I really a TCK?” After wondering and wandering through cultures and continents, the answer is a resounding yes at this point, but it’s not the whole of who I am. Last year, I came across one of the jargon terms used in the TCK literature, “hidden immigrant” which pretty much describes who I am when in America.
A hidden immigrant is someone who in spite of nationality and ethnicity, in his or her mother culture, is an outsider. How do I fit into this definition? I have an American passport and accent, I spent the first ten years of my life in America for the most part, and then for college and a good amount of time afterward, I lived there.
Step back and remember that America is a huge country with many cultures within it. You would think that it means it’s an open society to diversity, especially in mega cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. My experience in the west coast for the most part has proven not to be the case. And to a lesser extent in the rest of the country, this was the same but not as bad in the west coast, especially California.
Let’s say you get to know some people whose ethnic backgrounds come from all across the globe, many of them having immigrated at a young age and have become or are in the process of becoming American citizens. Everyone is American, and everyone’s background is unique. Sound too good to be true for a TCK who wants to be amongst like-minded people? That’s because it is. Why? Therein lies the answer: they aren’t like-minded people. And their idea of being global-minded is embracing the diversity coming to America, not necessarily expanding into the frontier.
Here’s what separated me from them: I never saw America as a home, I never had the experience of rooting myself anywhere and being part of a community no matter how much I tried (and believe me, I tried very hard). It isn’t about time, it’s about connections you make with people. Problem is, I couldn’t connect because people had expectations and categories for whom they thought I was.
To many, I was simply “weird” and nobody wanted to be around me (while I thought they were pretty weird for their passive-aggressive nature and why they expected me to be able to read their minds). To others, notably Christian fundamentalists, I was told to “be aware and know how to act wherever I am because I’m in America!” while I thought “well then you come over to Manila or Bangkok and be aware of how to act the moment you get off the plane, jerk!” Mean, weird, arrogant, annoying–a lot of those labels have been thrown my way, and it’s painfully difficult to not believe the voice of the bullshit legion. Add to the mix that many think that the way they act is normal worldwide (it’s not), and I even believed it for a while, until I got out of the country into different work environments and was amongst like-minded people, who, unsurprisingly, were travelers and artists too.
They hear me talk, and I blend in: I’m American to them. Then they hear me talking about seeing naked kids knocking on cars begging for money, about monsoon seasons, struggling to answer the dreaded “Where are you from?” while explaining “I’m from California but not really it’s not my home, blah blah”, and suddenly, I’m a liar, I’m weird, I’m arrogant-but I’m never a foreigner. In their eyes, I’m just a guy trying to look cool from living overseas and I’m no different as an American like them. I can see both perspectives, but the real problem is, their impression of me is already heading toward negative territory. This is also just casual conversation too, but often times that impression stays since it’s critical when getting to know people, I’ve discovered. You’re a liar or you’re weird if you can’t even answer a simple question, which has been my experience from San Francisco to Los Angeles to San Diego.
There was one girl whom I knew for a year and pursued at one point, whose interactions with me and attitude pretty much summarizes how everyone else was in America with me. When I tried to tell her about some of my challenges growing up and how I became whom I was, her response was “What do you want me to think of you?” and unsurprisingly, she rejected me, saying it’s better to know her as a friend before we talk about pursuing something more. In that time frame, she was with someone else emotionally, she explained, then later on, she broke it off and said she still stands by the whole “friends before dating” outlook, but admitted that after ending relationships, it’s usually hard to be a friend again. Then she got with a friend of mine (but was never even friends before getting together), and though I was happy for him, I was expected to just know that that inconsistent behavior is how all girls are (at least in America). Then for some reason, while being sarcastic and facetious with him, she accused me of “being mean”, which I found puzzling. Why? Because my behavior was no different from his or any other guy in our age group being sarcastic with each other like many twenty-something Americans in school or grad school we both knew who all acted the same way too. This is where I don’t know if it’s because a) she doesn’t understand the dynamic between guys, b) doesn’t appreciate sarcasm, c) if my understanding of what is an appropriate degree of sarcasm (because he has been worse with me and others), d) if it just boils down to someone’s immaturity (I don’t know if its hers or mine, but I’m pretty sure most people will say it’s mine), or, maybe, just maybe, it’s e) the culture gap, since a lot of her actions and behavior are pretty foreign to me. She’s a good girl (albeit a bit confusing like most girls are), and I try to be a good guy as far as I see myself, but for some reason, it’s that culture gap that just doesn’t make it easy for me or the people I’m at odds with.
This is why I hate being in America often: I’m a hidden immigrant for having the blue passport and accent, and because of that, I don’t get the extra level of patience that people offer to foreigners. After a misunderstanding, someone explains in a strange accent “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m not from here…” when they unknowingly commit an offense, and unless you’re a xenophobic bigot, you typically think “Oh, he’s a foreigner, let’s tell him how we think and do things around here”, and then he gets off with a warning or slap on the wrist at most.
So yes, America and its multicultural cities are diverse, but it worked against me. I didn’t buy into many of the values of America, didn’t see it as a home, saw many faults with their diversity that wasn’t receptive to outside ideas, was excluded to the point that being a pariah was the only position in society that I thought I fit in…The usual “why me” schpiel. So I get ostracized, and it’s not because I want attention, and it’s definitely not that I think I’m better than anyone else and deserve special treatment– it’s that I have a different outlook on life because of my experiences overseas that causes me to be who I am, and I interpret cultures from a different perspective rather than having one “home” culture as a standard to hold others against.
I feel like a time traveler across cultures. Culture is carried in time; for example, to hear how old Scottish ballads sounded like in the 18th century, listen to American country music. I’m serious, you can hear the influence and evolution of traditional Scottish ballads from the 18th century into what we have today, and when my music professor showed me, I was shocked to dissect and find those elements. So a part of my culture is stuck in 1991 America when I was in different schools and homes but the same country, my Filipino culture is mainly 1997-2002, my Hong Kong culture is a mix of the handover and the post-handover from that same period, and during those formative years, trying to catch up in any of those places just doesn’t work since I wasn’t in the same time stream or rhythm that those cultures flow in. I wasn’t even around for 11 September 2001, I was in Manila sleeping, and having a different psyche from everyone else automatically made me a target because it was still fresh on their minds when I arrived in the U.S. less than a year after.
I diverge a bit to talk about my experience as a Filipino in the Philippines. What was their label for me? The Filipino who was ashamed of his culture because he didn’t speak Tagalog, and was just trying to be American. Yes, because of my American passport and accent, all misunderstandings were relegated to simply being a stupid American to them. In my first year there, I would say that this was true, but the moment I began moving between the cultures, the more I realized I was neither Filipino nor American, and just didn’t know what I was, made worse by not having a home or community to call my own.
When I enter Bangkok or Hong Kong, however, I find myself home and relating a lot better to the people I am surrounded with. And now that I have moved to Jakarta, I’m even more at home, and I’ve only ever been in Indonesia for less than two weeks, and oh, by the way: this is my first time here.
So why do I feel at home as a foreigner in a foreign land? I’m not Indonesian, I am ethnically Chinese-Filipino, I am an American citizen. Well, because my place is just that: I’m a foreigner here, people look at me and may see me as another Indonesian until they hear me talk, then when they hear I’m not even Indonesian American, that I’m Filipino, the whole “Oh! An outsider! And he is learning our language too!” revelation comes and everyone knows who is who and what is what instead of making assumptions.
Being a true foreigner again and having everyone know I am one sets the foundation for people already expecting to have some differences in outlooks and values. No longer am I seen as a “failed Filipino” for not speaking Tagalog, a loser in America for trying to be different, or whatever it is or was: I’m just a friendly foreigner. And it isn’t even about where I’m from, but the simple fact that I’m not from here.
Being a true foreigner for me is what makes me free because I’m no longer a hidden immigrant facing daily prejudices from people who just don’t get the Third Culture Kid experience. I don’t have to explain this to every American again how I’m American but not really. All I say is saya tidak orang Indonesia, saya orang Philippine, saya orang America, and I’m free. If they ask me how I’m American without being white, then I just say I’m Filipino, because both are are foreign to them.
I don’t hate Americans, even if this seems like it. I just don’t connect with many of them, that’s the truth. Nor do I connect with people from any nationality generally unless they are like-minded, well-traveled people. And as I write about being well-traveled, I know there’s a distinct type of traveler whom I consider to be well-traveled, and it’s not someone who lives in many countries but only hangs out with other Americans. It’s a person who mingles with locals and whose worldliness comes from having an insight that is not restricted to one culture.
I have a friend whom I met a couple months ago whom I spent my last weeks in San Diego with. He is an American, and well-traveled: he speaks English, Spanish, French, and German, and when traveling through countries where he doesn’t speak the local language, he learns how to say “Hello”, “Thank you”, “I’m sorry,” Please”, and “Goodbye” and everything else he picks up along the way. He has friends in all the countries that speak those languages, and he has expat friends living in those countries too.
Compare him to a girl whom I met recently at a bar who traveled throughout Europe and Asia, but never bothered to learn the languages no matter how long she was there, and stuck to her English and Spanish, but even in Spanish-speaking countries, spoke English whenever she was with an English native or someone who spoke it well enough. And of course, was only amongst Americans. Her whole “Hey you’re American too! We should totally hang out!” was probably the worst pick-up line I’ve ever heard. It’s about as bad as a Canadian girl I met who was telling me how great Canada is and how everyone hates America while wondering why I’ve stopped smiling or paying attention to her.
This is how I am a global nomad: I am a foreigner and I try to understand and respect the cultures I am in, even if I am not one of them. I am an American, and I am also not one: America is not my home, I do not share their patriotism and nationalism, but I will be offended when someone discriminates me for being an American for their distaste in American foreign policy. I am a Filipino by blood (mostly), but I am not any less of one because I do not speak the language or consider it “my” country or home.
How I simplify all this is that I am Johnny C. I am a traveler. I am an artist. I am an altruist, an idealist, and I am me. Nationality, hometown, and ethnicity are all arbitrary to me because the associations (stereotypes even) people have with my passport country, birthplace, or race don’t fit with me in any way at all. I’m just a guy living his life–no matter how strange it has been. It’s my life, after all, and everyone else has their own too.