Building where I grew up in China.

Being a Third Culture Kid

Existing in limbo, between two cultures.

“Where are you from?”

That’s the dreaded million dollar question. I’m from Chicago, but I’m a Canadian citizen since I lived in Toronto for four years. BUT I’m technically from China since I was born there and emigrated when I was five. Quite the mouthful.

I’m part of the modern Chinese diaspora to Canada in the early 2000s due to the laxer immigration policies compared to those of its southerly neighbor. Though eventually, chasing employment, my father did move us across the border in 2006 when I was in fourth grade. My formative years were spent living comfortably in a middle class neighborhood in the western suburbs of Chicago. Born into one culture and raised in another — I’m what you’d call a third culture kid.

Living in the West, my parents tried their best to raise me in both cultures. Mom always cooked Chinese meals at home to keep my palates familiar with the cuisine and balance out the terrifying amount of Western food I consumed at school and with friends. My parents would place presents under our small 5 feet Christmas tree and distribute hong baos during the Lunar New Year. English was spoken outside the household but only Mandarin was permitted within (partially because Mom found speaking English to us too tedious). I’d be watching Drake and Josh on Nickelodeon one evening and then then Xi Yang Yang on CCTV on another.

For a while I loved having the best of both worlds — experiencing terrific cuisines, soaking in the rich histories, learning the different traditions, and receiving twice the amount of gifts as everyone else. But that also meant I shouldered twice the burden. And the guilt that comes with it.

History has determined the destinies of China and America and mine as well. Their cultures, from the values they hold to their attitude towards life, are the direct manifestation of that history. The Chinese commoners have experienced a history of oppression, from the ancient feudal lords along the Yangtze to the Manchurians riders from the steppes to the Imperialist aggressors from the West. Each demanded obedience and fealty, with the threat of death to those who contest that right of authority. As a result, the Chinese bend to authority and rather lower their heads than lose them. Better to hold your tongue than to have it chopped off.

In essence, that’s how I was raised as well. I was told to follow orders instead of questioning them; my parents scolded me for speaking out of turn and for speaking my mind. When asked why I need to play piano everyday even though I didn’t like it, my mom told me to “shut up” and just play. And when my parents expressed that becoming a doctor or an engineer was the only path to success, I listened to them, until I didn’t.

You see, from birth, Chinese children are taught to venerate their elders. Filial piety has been engrained into Chinese culture since the early days of Confucius. It’s customary for the youngest at the dinner table to pour tea for the elders. Sons and daughters, when they have grown up, are expected to care for their parents, and many times the parents end up moving into the same home as their children. In fact there is a Chinese law that fines sons and daughters who do not care for their elderly parents. There was even a time when a father’s decisions were ultimatum. A product of this environment, directly disobeying my parents wishes felt like I was dishonoring them.

I lied and did not tell them I actually did not apply to a single engineering program. It was only until I accepted the offer from Babson College did they realize what I had done.

I wanted to always heed my parents advice and respect their opinions, but I also wanted to exercise free will. America had taught me to be the master of my own destiny. In history class, we learned about Manifest Destiny and the American belief that better lands and opportunity awaited those who dared to be intrepid. Our heroes are those who have questioned the status quo set by figures of authority — from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King. We idolize those whose roads to success laid off the beaten path — think Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Sir Richard Branson.

I struggled to reconcile the two cultures, but, at the same time, I also secretly despised my Chinese identity. I hated the stereotypes that came along with being Asian, that somehow we are all cut from the same mold and trained to be human calculators. I hated that we are forced to be twice as better to have a chance at being accepted into our dream school. I hated the bamboo ceiling. There were times I wished I wasn’t born Chinese because somehow the color of my skin and the letters in my name still limited me in an America that claimed to be colorblind. I’ve lived here for eight years now, but sometimes it feels like I still do not belong.

But I don’t belong in China either. Legally my Chinese citizenship was revoked nine years ago. I can’t read or write and have the conversational fluency of a grade school student. I have no strong grasp of the current social climate. Thirteen years have gone by and the new China isn’t the China I left behind.

Recently, I took a short trip back to China, flying out of Logan Airport at 8:00AM on May 7 (6 hours after I submitted my last final). Looking to make the most of my time as a business student, I had tea with an American-educated Chinese private equity investor whose early investments included Alibaba. I expressed my interest of possibly returning and doing business in China someday, only for him to immediately remark on the extreme difficulty of that feat. Being raised in the West had given me a completely different mindset than my Chinese counterparts.

Here’s an example he used to demonstrate this. It actually happened at a startup he served as the interim CEO for.

Imagine that you’re the CEO at a startup and you call your founding team together for a meeting. At the meeting you highlight your plans for accelerating the growth of the company and that, in order to achieve this, the company needs to bring on new talent and grow the team. After your spiel, you ask your team what their thoughts are.

To the readers: what would your immediate thoughts be?

For a founding team at a Chinese startup, they’d think that they aren’t good enough, and that’s the reason why you’d want to look for new talent. Again, history is the grand culprit behind this pessimism. China’s education system emphasizes on forcing students to prove their self-worth. From early on, test scores are the determining metrics for success. If you scored poorly on a test, you were deemed a failure and scolded by your teacher and parents. Contrast that to the American philosophy. Every kid gets a participation trophy. Their parents pat them on the back and tell them they’re a winner because they’re special. Not commenting on which system works the best, but, clearly, Chinese students developed a strong aversion to failure and believed any sign to be an obvious indication of their failure.

How can I fit in with a people that I could hardly empathize with? Removed from the country, I lacked the formative experiences that crafted the Chinese identity, for better or for worse. I’d have to assimilate into Chinese culture like anyone else coming from overseas, albeit the process would be easier. I realized how unChinese I actually was.

He claimed that someone can only be a part of one culture. You can’t have the best of both worlds because the world would have to come into conflict and you’d have to choose a side, from the values to choose to follow to the mindset you choose to have. This makes it easier to fit into one place. I sometimes wish I could just choose to exist in one culture; it would make life easier. He made it sound so easy, that you can forgo one the other. But how can I do that when bits and pieces of both of been so deeply ingrained in me? I can’t just pull them out. I can’t choose a culture just like how I can’t choose the color of my skin or what reproductive organs I have. I never really had a choice.

Being a third culture kid, I really never had the choice of living in both cultures — only the choice of existing in the limbo between them.