by Madisen Ro
On a flight back from Oahu, Hawaii, my mother and I sat in an emergency exit row. We were excited about having the extra leg room until a flight attendant asked my mother, “Are you comfortable with performing all of the necessary emergency procedures?”
My mother, a Korean-American elementary school teacher born, raised and educated in Los Angeles, was a little confused, as she had never sat in an emergency exit row before. Though slightly unsure of the exact procedures, she nodded her head, indicating that she would be fine carrying them out. Taking this slight hesitation as a sign of a language barrier, the flight attendant proceeded to ask, “Do you speak English?”
When we visited Seoul, South Korea, my mother found it slightly difficult to adjust to the culture. She didn’t know how to use the metro or the bus system. She didn’t know about the new, trendy Korean street foods, but also didn’t exactly like the bland, simple food at her grandmother’s house.
Feeling like a foreigner in both one’s home country or culture and one’s parents’ home country or culture is a common theme among many “third culture kids.” This term was coined in the 1950s to describe children who grow up in a culture other than their parents’ during their formative years. In my mother’s case, she grew up in America while her parents are from South Korea.
Many different circumstances can qualify someone as a third culture kid. While the term can be applied to immigrants or children of immigrants, it also includes kids who grew up living in many different places. Often, kids follow their parents to different countries because of their jobs. Some kids of diplomats, missionaries, and military personnel grow up in expat communities and others attend boarding school abroad.
As a student at UCSD, it can be easy to dismiss all of the different international influences that are right here on campus. According to admission statistics of the incoming freshmen class of 2016, over 80% of admits are American. It is far more common to be exposed to the perspectives of American students here, yet international students can offer us new viewpoints and mindsets. In such a globalized world, appreciating and learning about people of other cultures makes us more tolerant and fosters new relationships.
Hoping to gain some insight, I interviewed a few students who identified as third culture kids.
Dorothea was born in Singapore, but moved when she was less than two. She has spent most of her life in the Bay Area in Northern California and considers herself Chinese-American. In addition to speaking English fluently, she can speak conversational Mandarin and Cantonese. When visiting family in Hong Kong or Singapore, she states, “Though I don’t feel like an outsider, I know people in that country definitely see me as a tourist.”
Alternatively, Elaine, an international student at UCSD, has lived her entire life abroad in Bangkok, Thailand. She and her family are originally from Taiwan. She attended an international school in Bangkok and can speak English, Mandarin, and Thai fluently. Though she says that she is from Thailand when someone asks her where she is from, she explains, “I feel like an outsider in both [Thailand and Taiwan]… I speak Mandarin and am accustomed to the culture, but I never lived in Taiwan. I live in Thailand, but my family and friends are not Thai.” She also stated that a “cultural barrier” exists whenever she visits Taiwan because she does not understand pop culture references.
Claire is a Michigan-born American girl who spent ages 5 to 10 in Hong Kong and ages 10 to 14 in Belgium due to her father’s jobs. She attended high school in Wisconsin. Though living abroad for nearly 10 years, she says that she “always considered [herself] to be from [America].” She doesn’t consider herself an outsider in the States because she lived in an expat community in both Hong Kong and Belgium. However, she does consider herself an outsider in both those places.
Veronika was born to an American father and a Czech mother, but grew up in Germany. She speaks German, English and Czech fluently and studied French in high school. It’s a bit more difficult for her to explain where she’s from, as people are often surprised to hear that she doesn’t have an accent and that neither of her parents are German despite being from Germany. Veronika states that “there’s been minor instances where I’ve felt like an outsider, but rarely ever in a negative way… Everyone’s been pretty welcoming of my different background and really just excited to hear a different viewpoint…” That’s not to say that her upbringing didn’t bring about awkward situations. There were times when cultural differences such as different snacks, different clothes, or different sports “will make you the cool kid, sometimes the weird kid - it’s a blessing and a curse.”
All of the students had different experiences living in places where their parents are not from. Some people, such as Dorothea, assimilate completely and find their nationality in the country that is different from their parents’. Others, such as Claire, never truly lose the cultural identity of their parents’ home country despite living abroad for so long. Some people, such as Elaine, don’t identify with just one country as their home. It’s often difficult to label people with one nationality or culture, and even the term “third culture kid” includes a wide range of people with unique and independent experiences.
All of the students expressed that their identity as a “third culture kid” has made them a more tolerant or open-minded person in general. Whether it is because they were exposed to multiple cultures from a young age or because they have had unique and diverse experiences growing up abroad, all of the students’ backgrounds growing up have shaped them into who they are.
Veronika words it nicely when she states, “I absolutely think that being a third culture kid has helped me be more open minded and tolerant. Well, more open-minded, more tolerant of different values and opinions, but less tolerant of things like xenophobia and negative cultural stereotypes. My background has made me realize that there really are no blanket statements for nationalities.”
My mother would probably agree. She is not always accepted in America as an American, yet she is a fish out of water in Korea. Lots of people have experienced feeling like a cultural outsider, and yet these situations have shaped their understandings and subtly taught them the importance of tolerance. Understanding the international perspectives in our own community plays an important role in showing the complexity of personal ethnic or national identities and can be an opportunity for learning and for interesting conversations. In a world that is so interconnected, interactions with the international community is arguably inevitable. Understanding our neighbors can help us understand the world today, and how it is changing.
Image by rvacapinta