Coming Home: Cinthy
A Third Culture Kid Comes Home after 21 Years
I met Cinthy on a gray and drizzling Sunday morning — typical weather for Taipei in the winter. She was already waiting inside the cafe, and seeing her was a reminder at how fast time has passed. The last time we saw each other was three years ago in Cambridge, where our high school principal organized a Boston reunion. Before that, we had known each other in high school through working together in student council, and I always regarded Cinthy with the familiarity of one of the rare families at SSIS, our international school in China, that stuck around for at least 10 years. It was the first time I’d ever seen her in Taiwan, our home country, one where we never quite grew up in.
My relationship with Taiwan has grown deeper and richer over the last four years, nevertheless it has been a relationship that I’ve often grappled with. When I learned Cinthy returned to Taiwan post-grad, I was intrigued. Both of us grew up in China, going to international school. Both of us chose college in Boston. Both of us would go home — to Taiwan — twice a year, over the holidays. Now, she has chosen to come back to Taiwan, full-time. I wanted to know — why return? What is it like, coming “home?”
A quick peek at articles and blog posts about Taiwanese folks who’ve returned after studying, living, or working abroad reveal two major sentiments — lamenting the fact that an overseas degree is no longer the golden-ticket guarantee to higher salaries back home, and reminiscing the freedom and optimism in work and life in the West that is counter to the more traditional work culture and societal values of Taiwan. One headline in Business Weekly reads: “Received her Masters in the UK, returned to Taiwan to a 24K salary.” 24K does not mean a US$24,000 salary. At NT$24,000 a month, it adds up to less than US$10,000 a year. That doesn’t even pay one semester’s tuition. Another blog post recounts the deep disappointment of a Taiwanese grad who studied abroad at Hong Kong University and exchanged in the US for one semester. “I can’t stay in Taiwan anymore,” she writes, it’s a place where “young people can see no hope.” Scattered in between are stories of those who realize life abroad is not all that it’s cracked up to be, and return home.
In 2018, over 20,000 Taiwanese students studied abroad in the US alone. I imagine for each of them is, too, a series of decision — Stay? Leave? — motivated by anything from careers to family to money, and more. Yet, for me and Cinthy, we never quite left home, since we never quite grew up here to begin with. Returning “home” as a Third Culture Kid who never had a clear-cut idea of home — those are the nuances and stories that I wanted to hear about.
Cinthy shared with me where she is at, currently, with work and life:
“I’ve worked for two and a half years in Taiwan and it’s my first job. I have actually switched between departments within the two and a half years. So at Ogilvy Taipei, I began as an Account Executive in the account management department and then a year into it I switched to the social media department and then, as of September, I just got promoted. So now I’m the Social Media Planning Manager. So right now at work I’m dealing with new challenges because I’m actually in a leadership role now and our company is going through mergers. I’m going along with the changes and then just trying to do the best I can at my new position and I’m looking forward to 2019.
I live in Ming Sheng She Qu. My parents are from Taoyuan but it’s such a commute to come to work every day from there so I just rented a place here. The office is in Xinyi District but by bus, it’s about like 20 to 30 minutes. By MRT is about 40 because I have to walk to the MRT station and then, you know, the walking. It takes a long time.
I have two roommates and I found them online. We’ve been living together for about two and a half years now. Although they were strangers to me, they’re super nice and they’re both in their thirties and I get along with them pretty well.”
While I wanted to know why Cinthy came back to Taiwan, I realized I first needed to take a step back. Throughout SSIS, Cinthy always knew she would go abroad for college, she told me, only she did not know where. Many students from SSIS choose universities in Canada, Australia, the UK, and Europe — the US has never been quite the go-to destination as it is for other international schools. Her sister, older by four years, was already studying in the US at the University of Washington. Cinthy eventually landed in New England, at Boston University.
“So after I went to the US for college, like junior, senior year, I was thinking about jobs and stuff like that and I wanted to stay in the States for my first job. But when I started applying, doing internships, I realized that it’s actually harder to stay in the States if you do a major like Advertising. I was an Advertising major and for non-STEM majors it’s really hard to stay in the States unless you do something that’s still STEM-related within your field. For example, I know people who have stayed in the US within the advertising field doing research, stuff like that, statistical stuff. But usually, for people like me who want to do more client-facing and soft-skill driven positions, it’s really hard to find a position in the States because they can easily find someone as good as you that is an American citizen. So when that option kind of started falling off, I started looking at Asian positions. I think the funny thing is because I’ve never really lived in Taiwan as a conscious human being, I never said no to Taiwan when I was looking for my job because I always wondered what it would be like to actually live here.
I didn’t close Taiwan off, I didn’t close China off. I didn’t close both places off, actually. I didn’t close China off because I grew up there so I think it will be great if I can work there, and also because I know it’s the rising economy. But then when I started looking for jobs in China, I have visa problems too. So, in the end, I was just like, you know what, I would just go back to Taiwan. People before me who went to SSIS, a lot of them actually came back to Taiwan for their first job and even went to Ogilvy, too. So I was like, it’s a great opportunity. And I think for our skillsets, it’s more valuable in Taiwan compared to the US or sometimes even China. So that’s why — I didn’t think it was really bad to come back, you know, ’cause some people think it’s bad to come back and work here. I don’t think so.”
I asked Cinthy what she meant, that some people think it’s bad to come back. On the one hand, there are plenty of students who treat education abroad as precisely that — education abroad, from which they would return home to begin living and working. On the other hand, for many, college in the States makes a new home, a new lifestyle, a new set of ambitions. Obviously, it is not quite so straightforward. Cinthy’s sister, for example, worked in Seattle after undergrad before pursuing her Masters in New York; she now works in Shanghai.
“When I first started at Ogilvy all my colleagues are like, Oh my God, you went to college in the States, why didn’t you stay there for your first job? — stuff like that. They didn’t understand why we might want to come back to Taiwan and what our struggles are and what we think.
I think Taiwanese people think that Taiwan is such a bad place to work and live in, and I think it’s just hard for them to comprehend that people who have not lived there before are curious about what it’s like living and studying here.
I think it was a bit different in BU because a lot of my friends actually have to go back to China or Taiwan because of their family business. Another reason is some people just like to be in Asia. Some people just like to be in a place that they feel safe and confident. Some people don’t really care about the green card or whatever, you know.
When I first got into Ogilvy, people are so curious about you because they’re like, Oh my God, there’s another kid that’s studied abroad and come into our company. They’re asking you all these questions and I felt kind of different in the beginning because they’re like, oh 你美國回來的 —you came back from the US.”
It was a friendly teasing, but something Cinthy had to get used to. With her transition, she easily felt different, a little out of place. Apart from the attention and curiosity she drew at work, there were also transitions in day-to-day life.
“In terms of living here, I think the first thing that I was not used to was the climate and diet. In Boston, it was so dry and cold all the time, but it was super hot and humid here and I couldn’t find the food that I want to eat here in the beginning. When I was in Boston, I loved to eat Greek yogurt. In the beginning, it was so hard to find it here, but in recent years local Taiwanese brands started making Greek yogurt. But when I first came back they didn’t really have it — I had to go to organic stores to get it, you know?”
I laughed out loud as I listened. Funnily enough, for our chat we had both ordered a breakfast set: coffee, croissant, and a small cup of yogurt with granola. I saw myself in her mini-struggle. It was recently over the summer in San Francisco that I picked up my own Greek yogurt habit, which I had previously rejected as being “too American” of a breakfast, whatever that meant. “It’s just so funny because it’s so trivial and so bougie,” I said, “but also so real.” I think of expats in Taiwan who stuff their suitcases — or ask their moms to stuff their suitcases when they visit — with quinoa when they return from the US. Sometimes it’s something simple like yogurt that makes the subtle disconnects visible.
“I still know how to speak Chinese, I still know how to write Chinese and I came back twice a year, so I don’t feel like I’m thrown into a completely unknown world. But in Chinese, I would say, 最熟悉的陌生人 — the most familiar stranger. You know, you feel like you know it so well. But you actually don't.”
The most familiar stranger — that struck a chord with me. Taiwan, to me, is homey, is home. Yet I wonder how much that feeling is contingent upon my family — the most intimate proxy through which I experience Taiwan and become Taiwanese. How much at home will Taiwan feel after my grandmother dies — which is no longer in an unimaginable future? What about after my parents? With her sister in Shanghai and her parents in Shenzhen, Cinthy is the only one in her nuclear family to return to Taiwan.
“Moving back to Taiwan, I think the best thing was being close to my family — not my immediate family — but like my grandparents. But now I can actually be really close to them and see them whenever I want to when I have time. I felt like the family part — it’s missing for a lot of Third Culture Kids, spending time with family that’s not your immediate family.”
It’s something that I’ve always found funny and paradoxical — the acknowledgment that getting a work visa in the US is not a straight, easy path but also the faith in one’s own children that they are smart(er), (more) capable and therefore able to stay. The desire on the parents’ part to have their working children nearby, but also the off-handed comments suggesting those who’ve come home — and it’s always other people’s children — working a 32K job in Taiwan couldn’t “make it” in the US. Yet, family and work, international and local, are not simply calculated trade-offs, but complex sites of differing values and different valuing.
“When I came back it was just great to kind of move that level of closeness even deeper. And what was pretty pivotal was last year, 2017 — both of my granddads passed away within a year and for me to be able to be in Taiwan and be there firsthand was, I feel, really valuable to me. Although sometimes, I have to say, a bit burdensome because my family, my dad and my mom, on both sides, they have five siblings, including themselves, and I would always have to represent them to be at those family occasions, including funerals and hospital visits, hospital runs. Although it was burdensome, for me it was just nice to be able to spend the last few days of my granddad’s life next to him. I think being back to Taiwan, being close to family, I think it’s a thing that some people sometimes oversee, overlook. But for some people, like for me, I think it’s valuable.”
I nodded in empathy. I could see myself and my family in this — it’s a recurring fear that death would reach me via a distant phone call, 6,000 miles away, rather than something I could witness and share in the last moments of life.
“For some people, they might not put family in such an important position. Or some people they were just never close to their extended family so they don’t feel the need to be back here to be close to them. Some people might still feel, Okay, I’m young, I just have to do something with my career — I don’t need to be at home, I’m going to go to Singapore, I’m going to go to Hong Kong. For me, it’s important to be career-driven but I also appreciate the time that I can spend with my family. Maybe it’s just — in Asian culture, people value career success as such an important thing. I think people are trained to not think about personal relationships as important as their career — maybe. I don’t know.”
If being close to family is the best thing about being in Taiwan, I asked what the worst thing is.
“I think the worst thing being back here is, I know that Taiwan is such a small market, so in term of work experience, I know I may be limited. Ogilvy has tons of offices around the world and we have connections to the China office too. For example, in Taiwan, for a case, 幾百萬台幣 — a few million Taiwanese dollars — is a lot, even 幾千萬台幣 — a few ten million dollars — is a lot. But in China they’re like, We won’t take it if it’s not at least 幾千萬 or 一億 — a few ten or hundred million Taiwanese dollars. So in terms of that, you know, I may be missing out on some big opportunities. Second, I feel like Taiwan is such a stable society — you know, there’s not a lot of rapid changes, so you become stagnant easily. You feel like this is a great state to be, you know, I don’t have to move forward, I don’t have to — I’ll just stay here forever. And that kind of frightens me sometimes because I’m a competitive person — I’m not like super competitive, but at least I’m driven. So I feel like, Oh my God, when I see people doing all these things abroad, I’m just like, Oh my God, am I missing out? Should I do something, too?”
Taiwan is sometimes nicknamed a 鬼島 — ghost island — referring to the fact that it can sometimes seem too bubbled in its own concerns (local politics, motorcycle accidents, street food features), out of touch and unsynchronized with rest of the world (all the while being a developed country that would rank in the top 20 in the UN HDI, if Taiwan were recognized by the UN). The Taiwanese market is just too small, we say. At a population of 23 million, the entire island of Taiwan has fewer people than Shanghai, population 24 million. In comparison to our mainland neighbor, we are laughable in scale. Perhaps, however, it is a kind of arrogance and complacency to dismiss Taiwan merely as such. After all, at 23 million, Taiwan is more populous than Singapore, Hong Kong, and Israel, places where we’ve ourselves drawn comparisons to as being small and mighty. Yet that national self-consciousness of being too small can sometimes creep inward — is my life too small? Am I living and thinking too small? At its worse, it manifests into judgments towards localers for being too small-worlded and narrow-minded, as if our experiences abroad preclude the possibility of our own small-mindedness.
I shared with Cinthy my own experience dealing with ego before my very first internship in Taiwan. My biggest fear had been that my ego would get in the way of me learning, despite my best intentions. “Prior to college, pretty much every time I came back I was like, ‘I can’t be friends with these people, I don’t know who my friends will be in Taiwan, I won’t find any people that I’d love,’” I told Cinthy. The internships and the active desire to connect deeper with Taiwan and its people have been crucial for me. “It was humbling to be like, wow, these are really cool local people who are doing really cool things. I can learn from them and they’re beautiful people,” I recounted.
What you just said now, I can relate to so many of them. When I actually first started working at Ogilvy, I was like, Oh my God, all these people are just gonna be hard to get along with, we don’t even speak the same language. Langauge not as in Chinese, English language — but our perspective, our perceptions are different. Like, Oh my God, I won’t get along with them — I had those worries as well. But a lot of the employees at Ogilvy, they’re from 清大, 台大 [two of the premier universities in Taiwan] as well — and it really struck me that they actually have a much bigger world view than I expected they would have. They have ambitions too. They have travelled a lot, too. They have their own independent thinking as well, although not everyone does in Taiwan, but at least they do and we can still connect on some level, which was pretty nice for me. I think being humble was very important.
But the fear of missing out on something bigger outside of Taiwan still sometimes creeps in.
“I think it frightens me. For the past few months, I’ve been thinking about new job opportunities outside of Taiwan. On the other hand, I also kind of value, you know, this stable state that I’m in right now in terms of my job because, for example, the thing that I’m doing today in the afternoon is volunteering at the art museum, which is something I don’t think I’ll be able to do if I put myself in a completely new environment and a much more difficult job, a more demanding job. I actually get to explore my interests now, outside of my work. I might give off a feeling like I’m doing good at my job right now, but if you pushed back in time and then see me like a newbie in 2016, I was not like this at all. For my first year as an Account Executive, my life was shit. I had so many ups and downs. It was super challenging, it was super demanding and I had breakdowns. But I think the thing about being in Taiwan is people are very nice — at least at Ogilvy people are very nice and they’re forgiving and they have a big heart. So I think for a newbie entering the workforce, it’s nice to be in Taiwan because of the people here. Because I can totally imagine myself being in China, people just like, Oh my God, why the hell is she crying at work? Just like, Get her act together, you know, stuff like that I can imagine because it’s so competitive there that people might lose the sense of warmth, you know? I’m just guessing. So I guess for my first year here when I was just trying to put myself together, trying to get used to working in a fast-paced environment, I think Taiwan was a nice place for me.”
On multiple occasions I’ve heard of expats refer to the “black hole of Taiwan”- that they first came with the intention of traveling and teaching English for a short stint, fast forward 10 years, they are still here. Others have built their careers and multi-racial families here, and Taiwan is home. The comfort and convenience of Taiwan is something held with incredible pride (friendly folks, accessible health care, great public transportation, 24-hour convenience stores, the list goes on), but also something held with caution, for fear of one’s own stagnancy.
This comfort, however, can be contested, as an expat friend once argued. Is it really comfortable in Taiwan when young people are living in small apartments with their parents, in their 20s? Is it really comfortable when the base salary for many college grads is 23K or 32K — the equivalent of US$767 or US$1,067 a month? Returning home as a Third Culture Kid, what is also made apparent is not merely the cultural but also socio-economic difference. K-12 in international school and college in the US is an incredible privilege that has masked the economic realities of our local peers and the local job market.
“Just by the fact that I come from a very — in terms of income, I think we both come from very stable families compared to a lot of people here. So you know, I was super — Okay, I guess just a super, super little story. I was so stupid. When I first went to work, I used a branded bag, like 名牌包. Then people started talking and then I was like “Hmm?” What’s going on? I didn’t know it was wrong. So I toned down that a little bit. And then people ask you, Oh, 你們那邊大學一學期學費多少錢 — how much was your tuition? — and then I was just like, 這我不知道 — I don’t know — my parents take care of it, I don’t know. I just try to blend in with them sometimes. But that definitely was something that I had to constantly remind myself that, you know, not everyone has — because in SSIS, as you know, people usually have similar backgrounds and when you say something you feel like people can understand you on the same level. I mean, socio-economic. For example, we have 員工旅遊, like company trips, and then people are like, Oh my God, it’s kinda expensive. But I was like, oh I think it’s okay. And then they’ll be like, but it’s so expensive. And I’ve learned to just say nothing.
I think mostly I’m supporting myself financially but for bigger spends, I still rely on my parents. I think it’s, first, how you want to live. Second of all, how willingly your parents are willing to support you. Because, for example, for me, I try to support myself as much as possible. But in terms of life experiences, for example, this year I went to Thailand for my company trip — because we had a lot of options — I went to Thailand and my parents were like, Yeah, sure, we’re willing to chip in a little bit for your trip. And just like my daily life, I don’t want to be so 省 — frugal — until the point that I can’t have a life, you know, like some people actually have to avoid after-work social, like dinners with friends or bars, they have to save the money but I don’t want to be like that. I still want to socialize with people, still want to have the experience. That’s how I think — it really depends on what you want. But also, honestly speaking, for the first two years in your work life in Taiwan, you really can’t save money because the income here is so humble, so minimal that you can’t — it’s hard. 就幾乎打平 — it practically evens out.
Our salary, I think it’s about a little bit above [average] but we’re definitely not 20K — definitely not. But in terms of our work hours, when you divide your monthly income by my work hours it’s definitely not enough because we work like 12-hour work days on average. Sometimes even like 16, 17, 18. I’ve slept at the company before, I’ve slept at the office before and also worked on weekends. You don’t get 加班費 — paid overtime — at all so although the number may seem better than most people, like a little bit, if you split that within your work hours, it’s not — it’s not justifiable. A lot of my coworkers, they live at home in Taipei, so they can save, although they still chip in for 買菜錢 or 電費 — grocery or electricity — stuff like that. But it’s still much less than my monthly rent.”
With a crazy work schedule and the challenges of transitioning, I was curious what Cinthy’s communities are in Taipei.
“Most of my colleagues are around the same age as me because we have like a super crazy work schedule. We hang out at work, we hang out afterwards — which was really nice for me because when I first came back I didn’t really have a lot of friends. Work aside, most of my friends now in Taiwan are from SSIS or BU. Two of my super close friends in Taiwan, I was super close with them since SSIS days and they’re both working in Taiwan now, which is really nice for me because sometimes when things get hard at work, you can’t really tell your colleagues sometimes, but they’re always supportive and there for me and they also understand the cultural struggles, moving back from the States to Taiwan. And then apart from that I think being a part of the art museum community now also gives me another sense of belonging outside of work and outside of normal friendships. It is just nice to sometimes zone out from work and then just immerse myself in art, which is something that I really like. The art museum experience right now is helping me to extend my community.
I asked Cinthy if there was anything she misses or feels nostalgic for, after having moved back to Taiwan by way of Suzhou and Boston.
“For SSIS, I miss being in a very international and diverse cultural background, because I think at SSIS the most valuable thing is people embraced differences and I think that’s a very valuable thing. I mean, not everyone embraced differences but at least the mission for the school was to embrace differences. I learned so much about different cultures. Also, when I was in Suzhou, I was with my family, and all I had to do was study. So life back then was, I’m thinking back now, it was worry-less, more or less. But yes, I think that’s what I’m missing about SSIS. And the thing about college — I think I miss the freedom — it was a sense of freedom for me, and being able to think about my future as this super hopeful thing because I don’t know which direction I’m going into — although sometimes I feel lost but on the other hand, also very hopeful because my future is not set yet, you know, I think that’s what I miss — ’cause in the States nobody is around you and you can do whatever you want, be irresponsible. I think that’s what I miss the most about those two periods.”
I asked if she still feels the same hopefulness.
“I still feel the same way because I’m young, I’m only 23. I graduated within three years for my college degree. I graduated when I was 21. So, I mean, I still feel hopeful for my future because I’m young and I have good work experience, but on the other hand, I feel less hopeful in a way because, you know, your past work experience definitely defines your future career options. Maybe someday I want to do X but I’m doing Y, so I might not be able to diverge into X as easily now because I have these past experiences helping me but also kind of tripping me sometimes, maybe. Now I’m kind of in an awkward position — a manager now, but I’m not as experienced as other people, so they don’t know whether to give me a junior level position or — you know, the little tiny struggle.”
We wrapped up before Cinthy had to leave to volunteer at the art museum. She left me with these words:
“The last wrap up thing I want to say is, for people who are graduating, like you, don’t be afraid, just do it and then you’ll know. I think for people who know what they’re doing and who have specific skill sets, you won’t fail anywhere. You always find a place for yourself if you know what you’re doing and you feel grounded.”
This is the first conversation of hopefully many that will come with Taiwanese folks who have returned home after living, studying, and working abroad. Shoot me a message for feedback or suggestions for who I should talk to next.