Being Third Culture — A Rarely-Understood Identity

A Symbolic Perspective of My Identity — Sigmar Polke’s Glass Windows in Grossmünster Church Zurich

“Where are you from?”… I have never known how to answer that question. For the sake of flow, I usually just respond with a half-truth the person will understand.

Wikipedia definition of “Third Culture Kid”:

Third Culture Kid is a term used to refer to children who were raised in a culture outside of their parents’ culture for a significant part of their development years… The experience of being a TCK is unique in that these individuals are moving between cultures before they have had the opportunity to fully develop their personal and cultural identity. The first culture of children refers to the culture of the country from which the parents originated, the second culture refers to the culture in which the family currently resides, and the third culture refers to the amalgamation of these two cultures.
Singapore apartment 1992

For my entire life I have had almost no one understand where I have been, how those places have shaped me, and who I have become as a result. You may think I’m exaggerating when I say I have a hard time making sense of myself, but I’m not. This is why kids who grow up abroad are often thought of by native kids to be weird. You may expect me to come up with some rebuttal to that, but I don’t have one — it’s because most of the time we are weird. I’m fully aware of it, I’ve learned not to worry about it, I don’t take perceived judgments personally, I’m comfortable with who I am, and choose to use my weirdness to my advantage in life.

Here’s one analogy I use to explain it: it’s like life is a game of pole vaulting and compared to everyone else’s poles I was given a longer one. I have an increased measure of difficulty added to life but have the potential to see greater results. Thus far in life, I would say I’ve been blessed to see some of those higher returns as a result of my crazy, but beneficial, past. Famous TCKs who made it work in their favor include Barack Obama (Indonesia), Freddie Mercury (Tanzania, India), Kobe Bryant (Italy), Keanu Reeves (half Hawaiian-Chinese raised in Lebanon), Kim Jung Un (Switzerland until 15)… hehe…

Family photo taken after seeing the national team in Argentina. I’m in front. (1998)

Where I Have Been

Considering how many times I’ve traveled and moved, defining where I’ve “lived” is difficult, but here’s my list:

Countries:
Puerto Rico (culturally not the US), Brazil, Singapore, England, Argentina, Taiwan (Taichung, Hsinchu, Taoyuan, Taipei), China (Shanghai, Beijing, Liuzhou), Chile

States:
California (LA, Chico), Florida, New Jersey, Utah, Hawaii, Colorado, Pennsylvania

It may seem like I’m merging “trips” with “homes” by claiming I’ve lived in eight foreign countries and seven states but that’s not really the case. I have had a home with a mailing address in all these places. If you consider a “trip” to be a destination where you exit the airport and spend at least a day then I have traveled 40 countries. (I may have forgotten a couple — it’s difficult to keep track.)

N. America: Canada, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Puerto Rico, USA. S. America: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Uruguay. Europe: England, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Vatican City. Africa: Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Tanzania. Asia: Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand. Oceania: Australia, New Zealand.

Nomadic living has molded me in significant ways.

1. Thinking Patterns

Having drawn from so many thoroughly different places and people and having to speak three languages has made me, by nature, a more analytical thinker. I have lived half of my 27 years of life outside the US. I spent my first six years of brain development in Puerto Rico, Brazil, Singapore, and England. You can imagine this gave my toddler brain no single environment to identify as ‘normal’. Having less of a concept for ‘normal’ wired my brain in a way that has caused me to analyze things people normally feel no reason to. I have innumerable data points to compare and contrast. This is why I, by nature, think through seemingly everything. I can more consciously become who I choose to become and form more stances on more things than may be typical to others. Having gotten so accustomed to nomadic living when my mind is opened the widest and my challenge to grow is greatest, is it any wonder I feel something missing when I return to the US? The brain activity that comes with living nomadically is something I find exhilarating. By extension, I find similar satisfaction from language learning. I know that to some extent learning Chinese and Spanish have made me a better thinker. (I would recommend watching TED-ed’s the benefits of a bilingual brain.)

Walmart China (Shanghai, 2013)

2. Sense of Home

I have no roots anywhere — nowhere to call home — and I will always be eager to experience more. It can be rewarding to go back to states I’ve lived and realize how much I have grown but it’s also lonely. It’s lonely to have nowhere you have a concentration of people you’ve known long-term. Considering the personal development that expat living and traveling (the right way) can facilitate, though, my wife and I are trying to get the best of both lifestyles by designating a US home base where we can always move back to after living abroad for up to a year or so at a time. Securing the kind of career that will allow that is the trick. I’m trying to make this happen but don’t see us putting our roots down in any “home base” for the foreseeable future. For now that’s just a dream.

3. Social Life

I make friendships quickly, but can only deepen a few of them. Nothing illustrates this better, perhaps, than my move from New Jersey. In New Jersey, I was elected class president all four years of high school. From playing Lacrosse and Soccer with the jocks, being in the musical every year with the theater kids, being on the step team with my black classmates, being well-acquainted with the (few) Mormons, and being in bands with the rockers(?) (stoners?) I had an “in” with basically every niche of my school’s social landscape. Being chosen to be Homecoming Prince was the natural by-product. My social life was extremely active. I moved my senior year, though, and years later I am only in close contact with a few New Jersey friends. The good majority of my friendships in New Jersey have vaporized over the years. At any given time of my life I’ve always been on great terms with many people but been close to few. It’s not “expat child syndrome” — the emotional stress of moving frequently abroad — it’s having more points of reference to relate to people than usual while at the same time having fewer people with whom I share the same chapter of life. My life story is not relatable.

4. Sense of Empathy

I feel stronger empathy for immigrants, people in poverty, and issues of humanity abroad. This one, I think, needs the least explanation. I grow closer to people wherever I live. I see and experience their struggles to some extent which opens my imagination to how their issues may feel to them.

Jersey Shore (2006)

This picture was taken at the Jersey Shore during summer of 2006. A few friends and family and I took inner-city Newark, NJ kids to the beach half an hour away for the first time in their lives. None of them knew how to swim. At one point I had to swim out and rescue Jameel, the then-17 year old wearing a do-rag who weighed 250 pounds. It was around this time that our church needed to emergency move his family to a new apartment with 12 hours’ notice due to death threats from a gang in his family’s apartment complex. One of the most moving experiences of my life was witnessing thirty or so Mormon missionaries and members show up at 5:30am to fill a U-haul and move them to their new place. This is one chapter of my life where I gained an enormous measure of empathy by being tuned in to the lives of the local people.

5. Cultural Outlook

I have an enhanced ability to comparatively analyze what are commonly thought to be “subjective” cultural topics. My wife was raised in China, but embraced and converted to the American way of life the way I’ve seen from no other Chinese person. We got married after she spent 11 years redefining herself in the states. This is the third culture relationship I was meant to have. We continually converse about the merits of Chinese and American cultures in a way I cannot with anyone else. We have always been united on which aspects of both cultures we choose to accept or reject. In fact, it is most often the case that she rejects aspects of Chinese culture stronger than I do and it’s certainly me more than she to be up for living in China. The western world would benefit enormously from being able to have these kinds of conversations of cultural cross-comparison instead of having them suppressed.

Our normal selves eating Mexican food (2015)

What My Cultural Identity Has Become

Now I’m going to start sounding a bit like a social justice warrior advocating everyone master the 100+ unique terms of sexual identity, but I’m not. I fully accept the reality that most people will not appreciate the nuances here. Most people have no reason to and to me that’s just fine.

Goofing off at La Moneda Palace near my office in Santiago, Chile (2015)

Having the vocabulary to describe yourself is important — both for others to understand you and for you to accurately think of yourself. Here are three terms I’ve considered:

  1. Global Citizen:
    You could say I’m a global citizen, but not quite, since it’s associated with collectivist ideas. Self-proclaimed global citizens are often in the motivated ulteriorly by being seen as enlightened and have political stances I oppose. Merging countries, counter-productive foreign aid, thousand-page “free trade” agreements, confusing international relationships, and forming big international governments are not what I consider good ideas. I hold the stance that (true) free trade, decentralization, and non-interventionism promote peace more than anything else. I have whole-heartedly chosen America’s founding principles to be the most enlightened the world has ever seen — despite how far Americans has strayed from them. All of this not only makes me an ideological minority internationally, but in the US as well.
  2. Nomad:
    You could say I’m a nomad but it’s too one-dimensional. Also, most people I know who live nomadically do so on a quest for novelty while I see moving to different places as a means to becoming someone new.
  3. Third Culture:
    While third culture individuals typically have ancestral lineage from a country other than their passport country, I feel like “third culture” describes me best. Third culture can manifest itself in so many forms — it’s loose enough to include me and still hit on so many of the themes of my life. To get a better idea of my life experience, scroll through Buzzfeed’s 31 Signs You’re a Third Culture Kid. That list is so accurate. With the in-laws in China and raising our son in Chinese we’re passing this hybrid cultural identity to the next generation. It’s the method I relate to best.
My son with my uncle-in-law. Liuzhou, China (2015)

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