Third Culture Kid

Written by Kaitlyn Wells | Photographs by Evelyn Kwan, Ethan Chen and Isaac Yee | Edited and Supervised by Jeffrey Yeung

I was born in the US to an American father and Chinese mother, and I moved with my family across the globe to Hong Kong on the brink of turning five. Third culture kids are acculturated by cultures other than their parents’ for a significant number of their formative years, through their environment, other human influences, and the media. The “third culture”, by definition, refers to an amalgam of the culture of the kids’ parents and that of the society in which they are living.

When visualised, the concept does not apply only to the archetypal third culture kid image we conjure – the white and mixed children of Caucasian expats and interracial couples who enjoy the luxury of travelling and living abroad, but also people of any ethnicity, circumstance and socioeconomic class. You could be born in Pakistan to lower-middle class parents, who moved to Hong Kong for a better life and sent you to a Cantonese-speaking local school. You could be a Hong Konger who goes to an expensive Anglophone international school, who barely engages with the local community, and go to a summer school in the US every year. Or perhaps, just like rapper Rich Chigga, you could be homeschooled your whole life in Indonesia, yet become so thoroughly Westernized via the Internet that you could rap and sound like an American. While these examples of cultural hybridity are hardly what we have in mind when we think of third culture kids, they more or less live up to the definition that has been set.

Linked with culture can come language, developed either through environment or inheritance. DenizenMag found that 85% of third culture kids can speak two or more languages. Being multilingual is a desired and practical skill, allowing for another depth of understanding so vital for grasping the values, behaviour, customs, and craft of culture, usually achieved thanks to a ‘third culture’ upbringing. Open-mindedness and adaptability are the two main traits that are perceived to be widespread among third culture kids. Having to adapt to shifting cultural environments, third culture kids engage in foreign practices. I think that adjusting to each of the many foreign experiences of Hong Kong culture after moving here, and honing in on a perspective or way to genuinely admire each of them, has definitely made me more open-minded. To me, it’s wonderful living a cross-cultural lifestyle, especially since it’s naturally cultivated in me a positive and accepting mindset.

Once upon a time, I was totally oblivious to the cultural and ethnic differences that set myself apart from a majority of people. As I grew older, I began to realise how these came to affect the impression this leaves on others, from the language you speak, your accent, your appearance and cultural knowledge. I only recently realised that I find myself feeling more attached to the culture opposite to my environment. In my case, I feel more Chinese when I’m in the West, and feel more American when I’m in the East. In China and the United States, I would always feel half-connected to the people and things around me. Never an outsider, but never an insider either. Being biracial, I sometimes unwittingly attract eyes that try to figure out what I am, especially in Asia, and particularly in less urban and international areas where the number of foreigners trickle. My relationship with Hong Kong is also one of complexity, because even though I am not speaker of Cantonese, I am nevertheless forever homebound to this place where I have been raised for most of my life.

Third culture children who live a nomadic lifestyle may be more likely to experience stress from the internal and social strain induced by moving, and finding yourself immersed in an unfamiliar culture. Third culture kids can face great problems when moving to a different community, may it be the grief of separation or pressure of handling the unknown. Losing that sense of environmental familiarity, so significant in the human experience of childhood, can really be difficult, but surely something a third culture kid can learn from. When my five year-old self went to kindergarten in Shanghai for a year in between our transition from New Jersey to Hong Kong, I remember crying throughout the first week of school, because I felt displaced in this alien environment where everyone spoke Mandarin, and I could only really communicate in English. During the Olympic games, my mom would jokingly pressure me into picking a side whenever Hong Kong, China, or the US were ever up against each other. My dad would emphasise the importance that I understand American history, even when my knowledge of Hong Kong’s current politics and history as a British colony is shamefully basic, thus oddly widening the space I felt between myself and the faraway US. When I tell people in China that I come from Hong Kong, I’ll usually have to follow up that statement with “我的爸爸是美國人 , 我的媽媽是中國人” to diffuse the confused looks.

Now there is one question that has the power to give a third culture kid a sensation of dread. It’s probably been in your mind the whole time you’ve been reading: “where are you from?” That’s the whole reason why sharing my personal experience and outlining my perspective might be helpful. This intimidating, bewildering, ambiguous question is one that not many third culture kids have a definite answer to. Their reply can take many routes, depending on where, by whom, and in what situation it is asked. For third culture kids, it reminds them of their cultural homelessness, in that they are not bound to any one familiar place and culture to which they fully belong – a key contributor to happiness and self-fulfillment. However complicated your answer may be, I don’t think it’s any hassle or offense when someone asks a question like this out of pure curiosity. Inquiry should always be welcomed, no matter how silly or ignorant it may sound to the person being asked, because exposure, tolerance, and most importantly understanding, is what makes the world go round. It’s actually healthy to practise how to form a response to ‘where are you from’, because what you say out loud and tell others is always derived from some truth, and should be a sincere expression. It forces you to think about and reflect upon your perception of your identity, what you consider yourself to be, and how you choose to portray yourself to others. Although the answers can be easier to find for non-third culture kids, it definitely doesn’t mean that they are in any way less interesting or settled in terms of self-identity and background. It’s a significant step forward in the pursuit of self-discovery, given that identity plays a huge role in understanding yourself and recognising your individuality. After all, everybody has a different familial and personal story to share.

I am a firm believer in a what-you-say-goes policy of expression of self identity. I am not bothered or unnerved by repetitive, crude, or baffling questions like ‘where are you from’, because I’ve grown to know that confusion is okay, and that it’s your own responsibility to ensure that you perceive others as more than just a background, culture, or ethnicity, since everyone would like to be treated that same way. It takes a different amount of time for every third culture kid to finish figuring out how to define their story and background in a handful of words. It’s crucial to maintain a positive, humble, and open-minded approach to such matters of background and belonging.

What we can take away from all this is that no matter your background, how many places you’ve lived, how many languages you speak and ways you identify as, it is always beneficial to maintain a receptive and positive attitude when sharing or learning from others. Exercise this by asking questions, wondering what other people’s lives are like, in families of cultures different from or similar to yours. Each one is unique – a fingerprint of the land, people and history that comes with it; each one will mean something different to everyone. As Pliny the Elder said almost two thousand years ago, “home is where the heart is”.

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