How Social Media Saved Me: Developing a Multicultural Identity

“I am all the places in which I’ve left my heart” — Marina Sofia. // Picture taken in Penang, Malaysia by me.

“Too foreign for home, too foreign for here, never enough for both,” Ijeoma Umebinyuo beautifully and painfully captured the life of a third culture kid (TCK) in Questions for Ada. According to sociologist David Pollock, TCK is “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture(s).” I have always wanted to find a sense of belonging at a place I could call home, but my upbringing made it almost impossible. Though cultural identity will never be short of messy, social media somehow made it possible for me to construct an utterly complicated one.

I was born in Taipei, Taiwan. In 2001, 8-year-old me moved from Taipei to Shanghai and transferred from a local Taiwanese elementary school to an American school in Shanghai.

When I first moved to Shanghai, my English was so bad I didn’t even know the difference between a and an. School was too difficult and I was struggling to fit in. To make things worst, my teachers would insult me for speaking Mandarin at school — “You’re at an American school! If you want to speak Chinese, go home!” Ashamed of my culture, I started speaking more and more English and tried to act as American as possible.

As I entered middle school, Xanga started becoming very popular in the U.S.. All the cool kids at school had their own Xanga (I kind of had one too, but I kept it a secret…wasn’t exactly at the top of the social pyramid). After all, whether we’re Americans or not, we’re taught to act “American.” Xanga was eventually replaced by MySpace, which was then superseded by Facebook. Rather than conforming to Chinese virtual norms (i.e. Tencent QQ and renren.com), most of my peers chose social media that were popular in the U.S..

Around the time Facebook appeared, I started questioning my desire to hide my complex cultural identity — I’ve spent the last 5 years of my life trying to become as American as I can, but is this all I am? That was when I realized, simply being “American” wasn’t enough for me. Knowing that I was simultaneously an American and a Taiwanese living in China, I wanted to be connected to Taiwan and China as well.

For obvious reasons, I couldn’t simultaneously be in all three countries —that was when I started investing heavily in social media. I started spending most of my free time on wretch.cc (無名小站), facebook.com, renren.com (人人), the most popular social media in Taiwan, America, and China respectively. These virtual spaces gave me the opportunity to navigate different cultures, different societal expectations, and different parts of my identity.

In addition to writing on other people’s Facebook walls (thank you, Facebook, for the gift of Messenger), I would spend hours writing, reading, and commenting on blog posts on wretch.cc and designing and curating my personal feed on renren.com.

In my early stages, I would only show one side of my cultural identity on each platform. For instance, I would use popular and common Chinese Internet jargons on renren.com, but would never use them on wretch.cc. I observed carefully and behaved strictly according to the perceived social media norms.

As I began to feel more established on these platforms, I started breaking rules to express my cultural identity more holistically. For example, on October 10th, 2009, I posted a picture of a Taiwanese flag to celebrate Taiwan National Day on renren.com — since renren.com is heavily censored, my politically provocative post was immediately taken off. Though renren.com didn’t exactly like what I did, I started realizing how my complex cultures can coexist, even if it may sometimes make other people feel uncomfortable.

Somewhere in between Facebook, Renren, and Wretch, I found myself. It was there that I learned to be proud of my complexity; it was there that I found a sense of belonging; it was there that I truly became a local in all three homes of mine.

Thanks to social media, I was able to reimagine my world and extend my identity beyond my physical environment. If it wasn’t for the space I was given to explore my cultures, I would’ve lost most of them already — I definitely wouldn’t be completely fluent in both English and Mandarin for one!

Thanks, social media! Thanks for allowing me to teleport myself between America, China, and Taiwan on a daily basis — I definitely owe you one.