By Johnny C
Whenever people meet me for the first time, I come off as just another friendly neighborhood Asian kid who gives his seat up on the bus for the elderly and pays all his taxes. A little later during most conversations, people learn that I immigrated to the United States when I was 18, and are amazed I don’t have an accent. Usually my response is that everyone has an accent, but if they mean I sound like an American instead of a foreigner, then that’s because I went to international school growing up.
Wait a second, what?
Let’s take a step back. A lot of people assume that if you don’t come as a young child, you’re going to have a foreign sounding accent from whatever country you came from. Growing up between Manila, Hong Kong, and California, there’s an even bigger cause for confusion in my situation.
When I first posted about being a Third Culture Kid, I was gearing it toward my peers in the TCK community, and in light of the comments and confusion, I’m taking the opportunity to clarify some things.
I was born in the U.S., moved to Manila, jaunted back and forth fairly often between there and Hong Kong, then eventually moved to the U.S. I could be seen as a 1.5 generation American for being born in the U.S. and growing up overseas, on top of coming here when I was 18, which is technically correct.
At the same time, my values and culture are not Asian American or 1.5 generation. For starters, I don’t feel this sense of being torn between my Asian heritage and my American culture–I belong to both, yet feel connected to neither. I don’t feel this serious offense to being asked the notorious question, “Where are you from?” by people who assume because of my ethnicity, that I am a foreigner and not American. It’s not this micro-aggression that alienates me and singles me out as someone who can’t be included as one of the American people. As a Third Culture Kid, asking us “Where are you from?” usually ends up in either spouting off a mini life story and explanation, followed by an assertion that we’re not weird–or by a confused look and awkward search for words. Does it mean what my ethnicity is? Where was I born? What school did I go to? Where did I grow up? Where do I get my accent?
If a lot of people feel the need to belong to the American culture and identity, as a Third Culture Kid, I have no real value placed on being perceived as an American or a foreigner. As far as I and my fellow TCKs are concerned, we are forever foreigners anyway since we don’t even feel any belonging to our passport countries. An example is my friend, an Italian girl, has never even been to Italy, because she grew up in South Africa and the Philippines. A lot of Asian Americans can feel like they need to prove their worth and why they must be accepted, some even dropping what they feel is “too Asian” in order to be “more American” like it were a wardrobe to be worn and discarded for the occasion. I can just as easily move to Iceland or Thailand and not miss the states, not need to hang out with other Americans, or go to TGI Friday’s. Who are my people then?
I now bring you the long-awaited explanation of what being a TCK is. For starters, it’s not an ethnic group, a mindset, or a counter-culture movement. It’s an experience that comes in many different variations. Say you live in Lisbon, then move to Paris, and constantly move between the two cities. What point does the Portuguese end and the French begin in your culture? This is where the Third Culture begins: when you feel loyalty to neither city, but with the people in the interim: those in the airports, those on the road, and those in transition. It’s the people who can be coming from Marrakech, Toronto, Rio, or Los Angeles, whom you all meet while living elsewhere that you relate to more. Their nationalities and ethnicities are arbitrary–it’s the experience of moving between cultures and being tied to none.
Third Culture Kids can range from being refugees, missionary/military/diplomat children, and even a new category, the Domestic TCK, a person who stays in one country, but still moves around often, like another friend of mine who grew up in 13 states and doesn’t feel like he belongs to any single one of them, yet feels more ties to the international-oriented TCKs than to his fellow Americans.
A close friend of mine was born in Korea, raised in Granada, moved to the Philippines where I met her in high school, then went to college in the United States. Does it matter that she’s a Filipina? She didn’t have an easier time going “home” to the Philippines–if anything, it was even harder because she was expected to be a certain way due to the way she looked and for having a Philippine passport. Add that she has an international school accent like me (which to many people sounds American), and people assume she must be a Filipina-American, further categorizing her and ostracizing her. I don’t relate to her because we’re both Filipinos–I relate to her because when we talk, we laugh about the fact we just don’t know how to answer that irritating “Where are you from?” question.
We didn’t know that a visa was a credit card when we came to the U.S. for college, we drunk dial friends internationally, we memorized the different time zone differences so we knew when to contact our friends, we don’t feel the need to be American or any other citizenship, and we talk about traveling to different countries like they aren’t far-off, exotic lands, but just other places that are as easily accessible as a simple bus ride to the other side of town. We don’t see people as others, we see them as “like”, because we aren’t comparing one culture and elevating it above different cultures that some may see as inferior.
So a Third Culture Kid, I’m not tied down to any one country. I’m not patriotic, and I’m not nationalist. But the big difference as a TCK: I don’t have a home. I can’t settle in any one place forever, because I know there are other places I can live in just as happily. Sure, some 1.5 Generation people struggle to adapt to their new adopted homeland, but I know I’m not going to be here forever.
I’m not better than everyone because of my experience, nor am I a rich brat for moving between cultures and continents, I’m just different. It’s not about where I’m from, but where I’m going: what will I do with these experiences in life? Do I get angry at people for not understanding me? Or do I use these worldly experiences to realize that most people won’t understand, and thus try to make the effort to be more understanding of them, as well as more patient with them? People don’t care about where you’re from, what happened to you, or your life story–it’s whomever you choose to be at the present moment. Using that knowledge, I draw from the breadth of experiences I have to be a good person, a big brother, a globalist, and a friend to everyone. It’s easier to live by focusing on how I can use what I have to give to others that allows me to relate to everyone from everywhere, instead of coming off as an elitist and self-entitled brat scolding people for not understanding me.
ABOUT JOHNNY C: John “Johnny C” Chuidian is your friendly neighborhood adventure kid who grew up between California, Hong Kong, and Manila. When he’s not acting or traveling, you can find him jumping around buildings with other parkour enthusiasts or learning new martial arts styles. He is currently a graduate student at UCSD studying Human Rights and Sustainable Development with an emphasis on Southeast Asia.
[Photo courtesy of Milenamariposa]