The Differences Between Asian Americans And Third Culture Kids

This guest article was originally published here and has been reposted with permission.

By Daniel

I was asked anonymously about the differences and similarities between TCKs (third culture kids) and Asian Americans. The person pointed out that they share some similarities, particularly in cultural identity and confusion.

Anyway, yeah, Asian-Americans face some of the same problems that TCKs do, but not all of them. It certainly isn’t the same struggle, but it has its similarities.

Asian Americans struggle between two cultures, that of home and family, and with the new society around them. This is particularly acute with second generation Asians, whose parents may still be traditional, but who are growing up with a different reality. This is a larger issue with them than other immigrants because the cultural difference is often actually very large, and often come at odds with each other. Asians also appear alien compared to the other American races, and find it hard to shake off the fact that Americans always assume that Asians come from somewhere else first, instead of accepting them as homegrown.

This is different in a lot of ways from what TCKs go through, even if the essential problem of culture clash and identity crisis run along similar paths.

The thing is that TCKs aren’t always trying to be one particular thing. Asian Americans struggle just to be considered normal Americans like everyone else, and some renounce their heritage to do so, some don’t. Most TCKs aren’t looking for acceptance into a wider group, but instead rather prefer to stand back and want the group to understand them better.

Asian Americans get upset because America is their home too, just like all other Americans, but TCKs don’t really have one home place, and often resent any assumption that they should accept one.

Asian Americans are also, let’s face it, American. Some of them will be more Asian, some of them will be more American, but by and large they are affected by their American experience. TCKs are just that: TCKs, and they have a wide variety of experience and exposure which goes beyond the second-hand experience that Asian-Americans will get about Asia. Many of them never get the opportunity to go back to their heritage countries, and so, just like every other immigrant population in America, they keep some and change most of it.

Personally I had a mixed time with Asian Americans. Initially I found things in common, because I also grew up as an Asian with many Western influences, and there was still that culture clash. It’s mostly superficial stuff, like having to learn an instrument, having a more career-centric family, maybe you weren’t let out much as a kid and took a lot of extra maths lessons because their parents had high expectations. Asian families everywhere seem to have some values in common, and if you’re an Asian TCK you’ll have these in common with Asian-Americans.

But it’s still not the same, because they are Americans, and you’re a TCK. They are, in whatever way they feel is best, trying to be accepted as Americans. TCKs generally aren’t. They want people to recognize their experience as transcending national cultures and differences. They don’t want to be called one thing, but to be recognized as being the sum of many products.

Americans by and large are also relatively less internationally-aware, and this can include Asian Americans too. Sometimes Asian Americans, in the effort to rebel against the racial expectations of them, will be as American as possible, denying their heritage. TCKs generally don’t go along with either of these things. They’ll have traveled enough to maintain curiosity and an open-mind, and often find it difficult to abandon their experience because it’s much closer to home. They don’t want to choose one thing over another. They want to have both.

There’s one advantage to being an Asian TCK in America, though. Most Americans won’t assume you’ll be just like them, because that’s how many of them judge most Asians to already be: alien. Of course, the trouble is that in the racial divide in America, Asian-Americans might assume that just because you’re Asian and speak good English, you should gang up with them. It’s essentially the same problem of picking sides that you really have no relation to.

I was figuring out what it even means to be American, while people were trying to recruit me to their sides. Midwesterners wanted to make me a Midwesterner, Texans wanted me to be proud to be from Texas, Asian-Americans wanted me to be pro-Asian against white people, white people all thought I was a banana because I had good English and a Western education… it’s a lot to take in, and when you’re young and confused about who and what you are, it’s easy sometimes to try and pick something to finally be comfortable in.

But after a while, you realize what you are as you get older and learn your own values.

I have a friend who’s a TCK, and who lived in California for a while. He has some interesting thoughts on the matter, because he too hoped that he could find community and belonging with Asian Americans, but after some time he discovered that they really just didn’t relate. Experience is what identifies you, and the Asian American and TCK experiences are ultimately different.

I might have been an Asian growing up with a lot of Western influences, but I’m still more Asian than many Asian Americans I’ve met. I grew up in Asia. Most of my friends were Europeans, Australians and New Zealanders, Asians, and Eurasian mixed-races. But they ,too, were TCKs. The Americans I knew were, too.

We didn’t struggle in our childhoods with wanting to be American or wanting to be any one specific thing. We lived our childhoods pretty comfortably, because we all understood each other without thinking about it because we shared similar experiences that people back “home” didn’t know. We struggled later when we discovered that going “home” wasn’t that easy, and that “home” wasn’t Home, and that suddenly no one understood us.

To be fair, it’s easier now with social networking. I would have had a much easier time if I’d been able to connect more easily with the concept and with people like me back when I hit my lowest points.

It’s also, in ways, a little easier in America than it is in some places. You mentioned Korea, which is very difficult. They have a lot of national pride, stick together like glue, and often despite travel stay stubbornly and rigidly Korean. This works for some who grow up internationally, since going home isn’t such a challenge… but for the Koreans who really don’t feel Korean at all because of their friends and experiences, it can be extremely tough. On the tidal direction of Korean culture, society is quite unafraid to throw stones at the people hesitating on the current.

I hope this was enlightening. In a nutshell, there are a few things to relate to, but overall it’s not a long term prescription.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: An Asian-American Third Culture Kid, with experience living in Asia, the US and Europe. I used to guru at and currently blog about miscellaneous topics, including politics, history, culture, travel, and Third Culture Kids.

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