Third Culture Kids

Beyond the sea

One of the things I love the most are beaches. Beaches are gateways, a place that exists between other places. Whenever I’m on the beach, I love gazing into the horizon and imagining that on the other side is someone else looking my way from their beach too. Both of us realizing that this country, this land–it’s not the only place in the world, nor is it the center of the world. Bjork, one of my favorite artists, sang the song Oceania for the Athens Olympics in 2004, with the meaning behind it indicating that we create continents countries, and borders, and the ocean, where we all came from, sees it all as mere islands in the same ocean that spans the entire planet.

We are all human beings, ultimately, yet many choose to create separation rather than unity. The Olympics, being an event of world unity, and music, being the one true religion that transcends cultures and brings everyone together, are all representative of my values as a Globalist and Third Culture Kid. Music brings people together, whether it’s because we’ve all had that time when we fell in love but couldn’t express it in the lyrics of a piece, or if another one has a hauntingly beautiful melody, if another makes all of want to dance, or when we recognize the same song to sing in a karaoke bar.

For some reason, though, in spite of our common ground as a species and many ways to bridge gaps, we end up being ostracized and alienated from others because we don’t feel tied down to any place, religion, ethnicity, or nationality. Simply put, because we’re not acting and thinking like Americans in America, or Australians in Australia, we are deemed to be denizens–not even second-class citizens. Worse, since we live in a world of xenophobia thanks to the events of 11 September 2001, anyone who does not feel patriotic or nationalist runs the risk of being seen as a spy, traitor, or terrorist.

So what is it to be a Third Culture Kid then, in my experience and personal definition?

Avoiding Wikipedia and Google searches, I’m not going to define what being a Third Culture Kid is for everyone, but I’m here to define what it means for me. But to give you a general idea, it’s about movement between cultures: when I moved back and forth between Hong Kong, the United States, and Philippines, it doesn’t mean that I have three cultures in me from those countries, where you can measure how American or Filipino I am and which side comes out most. My Chinese-Filipino ethnic heritage isn’t what determines my culture, either.

Culture is a mask, a fashion statement, and a set of behavior and values that we adopt in order to form an identity, and in moving between cultures, it is difficult to default to any one culture that stands as your first and foremost standard by which you compare other cultures to and against. Without this default culture, it creates confusion, and often, we as TCKs are viewed as un-patriotic and “anti-American” or anti-whatever-culture. This to me, in the words of Arundhati Roy, is a ridiculous label because it ultimately displays a lack of creativity just for disagreeing and not being tied to any culture. I highly recommend you check out the free movie inspired by her words, “We”.

The third culture I talk about comes not from accumulating cultures you’ve lived in and amongst and tallying them up. This third culture is a result of the movement between cultures: think of each culture as a city you drive to, such as from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Paris to Lisbon, or Beijing to Shanghai. The culture here is from being on the road, sitting in the car and taking a few pictures, clothes, and food preferences in your head, not really feeling like a San Francisco, Los Angeleno, New Yorker, Parisian, Londoner, or Beijinger, but being a traveler. The people you meet on the road or in those countries, cities, and cultures who have this experience of being road warriors know that home is not the city you’re in, the country you were born in, or the country where your ancestors came from, but the journey itself, and the people whom you meet and call your friends.

Thus, the place I sleep most comfortably in is not a king-sized bed, but from leaning against a window on an airplane; the place I feel most at home is in the airport, because everyone is coming and going, and we all share that in common at the very least.

These videos should give you an idea of what it means to transcend cultures, to not be a tourist who is out on the road and eventually going home, but that sense of knowing that the world is yours.

I don’t need anyone to tell me I’m being Chinese for being spendthrift, or that I’m being too American for being highly-opinionated, or that I’m too Filipino for trying to avoid being labeled as the typical Filipino–I’m just Johnny C. I’m an individual who happened to be born in the United States, of Asian heritage, and dragged around the world. My experiences do not dictate my actions, but they may have shaped a good amount of my perspective. I am the only one who dictates my actions, and no nationality, ethnicity, religion, age, or gender can be blamed for whatever screw-up I make, nor can they be credited for whatever accomplishment–all good and bad things that are done through me are by my will alone.

I am not ashamed to be called a foreigner, to not belong to any group. Whether or not a group chooses to have me represent them, I choose to associate with others based on their values and ideals. So for the most part, I am a Globalist, and lo and behold: being a TCK may not make you into a Globalist, but it facilitates the potential to become one. The easiest way to determine if someone has a Globalist perspective: by how they ask questions instead of passing judgments in order to better understand rather than categorize and label someone as “anti-American” or “Asian-American” or “young college punk”.

Below is a manifesto I wrote and re-published as a post on this site which I feel is significant enough to warrant its own page now.

So You’ve Just Discovered You’re a Third Culture Kid

For the longest time, I was shunned by other people, whose (mis-)judgment of me destroyed any confidence, self-respect, and self-love that I had. From being accused of lying about where I’m from (the mind-killer question), being weird, or stupid for not doing things “normal” people do within their society and community’s value system, I was a pariah, I was ostracized, I was alienated, but worst of all, I felt there was something terribly wrong with me, and I was all alone. What could I do to be “normal” like everyone else so that I could feel some love or acceptance and belonging? If I did “normal things normal people did” then I wouldn’t be different and I could make good friends who would understand me and be happier.

After changing my behavior, I still couldn’t fit in. So I tried to do this with a different group of people who didn’t know me before I made these changes. Still, I was shunned because they thought I was trying too hard. Repeat this a few times, and eventually, being myself or trying to be what they wanted didn’t get me what I wanted.

My next phase was to assume that there was nothing wrong with me, everyone else was just rotten except for a few people like me. I grew up in the Third World, and I knew what it was like to see people dying on the streets, terrorists, bombings, and extreme poverty. They probably didn’t even see that on TV because they are all too shallow and uneducated, unworldly, and therefore, undeserving of my attention. I am better than all of them, and I don’t need to associate myself with lesser people, I’ll find a small group of people who are like me and know what the world is really like.

I never met like-minded people with this approach. There may have been others who had similar upbringings traveling the world, but we didn’t connect because something kept us apart no matter how much we shared in common. Then I realized the problem wasn’t other people, and the problem wasn’t me: it was the questions I was asking and the attitude I was carrying.

Long before I learned the term that best describes me, my upbringing, my social group, and attitude, I thought there was something seriously wrong with me. The end result was that I tried to please other people to accept me and I ended up being even more unhappy because I felt a different isolation since I wasn’t myself. The next approach of blaming other people instead of myself was that I couldn’t foster quality relationships, and I alienated more people than before, furthering the negative image of myself. When I later realized that it was the questions and attitude, I saw the proverbial light and finally understood.

What’s wrong with me? Nothing! Why do other people not like me or understand me? Because they don’t understand, and if they don’t understand something, usually they don’t have a good reason to like it! What can I do to make them like me? Nothing, because if I have to do something to make someone like me, that’s not being true to myself. “Don’t sell yourself, only prostitutes sell themselves, just be yourself,” as my old professor once said.

So am I better than everyone else? Nope. I’m different, not better. Should I be with a good crowd of people who understand me? Well, it’s a two-way street. I didn’t understand why they found me so strange, and I always jumped to the conclusion that something was definitely wrong with me–or them. Actually, the key there is to try to understand what makes them think that way, which involves compassion and empathy–imagining myself in their position as part of a community and society with a defined identity as American or Asian-American, then they meet some guy who is an American citizen who grew up in several different countries but still doesn’t say he’s American when he clearly has a passport, so that’s where he’s from. If I try to understand what they’re thinking even if I know it’s very limited compared to what I know, I then know that it’s difficult for them to fathom my situation.

As I realized it’s difficult to meet others or make them understand, my expectations of others changed, as well as my interaction with them. No longer was I trying to change to please everyone, nor was I trying to use my nomadic life as a badge of merit to flash in people’s faces while demanding their respect for my self-elevated importance. Instead, I was asking them questions about themselves to understand them, and if a conversation went well, I’d be careful of how I shared myself because I was self-aware of how talking about riding elephants and surviving mall bombings could make them see me as a boastful and arrogant rich kid; in their eyes, only those with money can afford to do all those strange things and travel a lot. And I didn’t look down upon them either, I saw them as people who grew up under very different circumstances. From this interaction, I could connect to fellow Third Culture People and non-Third Culture People. Some I could connect with better than I could with others too. Then I began to be more comfortable with myself, because my self-awareness increased.

Struggling with identity and loneliness, it’s easy to default to blaming yourself, then blaming others, before realizing that it’s not about being weird or being better, but about how well you know yourself. And if you know yourself, you are aware of your actions, thoughts, and words; how you see yourself, how others see you, and most importantly, what you want. It doesn’t take growing up in a dozen countries by the time we hit adulthood to teach us that, but it definitely makes it easier.

Why then do I believe that it is our responsibility to understand before making others understand us? Because we’ve been through many things others haven’t, and it’s quite different growing up in countries some people never even heard of, let alone people who think they understand us and the countries we’ve lived in because they’ve learned it all in high school or saw it on television. Don’t be the colonialist who forces ideals down people’s throats and gets angry at them for not understanding them, then pulls a gun and shoots them for not understanding. Don’t be the tragic artist who drinks hemlock to die because nobody can understand him or her. Be the self-aware, educated, patient, open-minded individual who doesn’t elevate oneself or please everyone. Be the individual who listens and tries to understand first, which we had to learn growing up amongst different people and different cultures.

I believe that even before I knew I was a Third Culture Kid, that I could do great things with it because of what I knew. I believe when I finally learned I was a Third Culture Kid, I realized that I was different and that’s why I got so overwhelmed by other people and my identity. I believe after applying the lessons I learned which asked me to understand and be tolerant of the cultures and countries I was in, I stopped being a Third Culture Kid. Why? Because I became a young man who, in spite of different circumstances growing up, developed the right attitude to live amongst others; race, religion, age, gender, nationality, TCK or non-TCK–we are all human beings in the end.

There’s no need to share my life story unless someone actually wants to hear it. There’s also no need to get frustrated that very few can understand it. Not everyone will like me, but I can limit the number of enemies I make by being careful of how I talk about myself. I may not be boasting, but speaking about growing up overseas and how I fit the label of a TCK might sound boastful to others, and won’t win me any respect. It’s not about them being closed-minded, it’s about me having no self-awareness or patience and understanding for others.

So don’t try to be the Third Culture Kid who is proud of being a self-professed open-minded individual for your upbringing; strive for being the Third Culture Kid whose heart is open to understanding others and being patient instead. I guarantee you’ll feel better connected instead of limiting yourself to just other TCKs because you believe they are the only ones who understand you. After all: we don’t build the bridge of understanding by building a fortress of isolation when dealing with others and making friends.

2 responses to “Third Culture Kids

  1. I think your last paragraph was so true. I think if we were limit to ourselves to only being friends with TCKs; we would miss out on a huge number of wonderful people. Just because they have lived in one place their whole life does not mean they haven’t developed in a similar way to use. I think it’s more about someone who is open-minded, who has experienced different life events, and who is willing to learn about a different sort of person.

  2. You’ve just articulated a lot of feelings that I have felt throughout my life, a lot of thoughts I have had bottled up for a long time, and a lot of lessons I’ve learned in my life. Thank you. Thank you for being you. You’ve inspired me to be me!

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