Helping a Third Culture Child find her way home
It happened in Fuxing Park a couple of years ago.
A journalist from Beijing was interviewing me. She was keen for us to get out of the office, to walk and talk and have “culturally immersive” experiences that we could discuss.
Fuxing Park (复兴公园) lies at the corner of Shanghai’s former French Concession. Older Chinese people gather there early morning to do their exercises and gossip. On this particular day, the cool spring mist gave everything a slightly surreal, otherworldly air. There were all kinds of activities going on: a strange form of choreographed badminton played with musical accompaniment that had a very stylized, balletic feel to it; various groups singing traditional folk songs; a laughing class that had to be seen to be believed; a particularly bizarre hair-pulling-exercise group; top-spinning and kiting; and interwoven through out the park, various dance troupes practicing samba, marimba, jive… and waltzing.
It was the waltzing that really got to me.
I was standing watching with a colleague and the journalist. We heard a slow, evocative Chinese vocal (from the 1930s or 40s, I assumed) and a lilting rhythm. Out of the blue, at least 150 people glided by us in a perfect, synchronized waltz—pairs of people who did not know each other before that day, I later found out—many with their eyes closed. Most were in their sixties, some older. They were beautifully dressed, women in skirts and heels, men in suits. The joyous simplicity and honesty of this moment was pure perfection. Almost without realizing it, I found myself in tears. Turning around, I saw that my colleague Alice was also crying.
Alice Huang is one of my closest coworkers, one who definitely falls into the friend camp. Enigmatic to the point of being an object of fascination; she is intimidatingly articulate and equal parts warm, funny, kind, and shy. Many of us at IDEO joke that she is otherworldly, a Jedi with mind-control powers. I pride myself on being fiercely independent in my thinking, and yet spend inordinate amounts of time seeking Alice’s approval.
Alice was born in Hong Kong to Chinese parents and moved to England in the late 80s to go to college. Thatcherite England was, as Alice says, “racially conscious” back then. Though she had two master’s degrees, her first job was doing credit control for a London photographer, “because it was hard to find any job with a surname like mine.” In the 90s, she was lucky enough to join a company who wanted her because she wasn’t typically English—she was different.
This feeling of duality binds a surprisingly large group of us together at IDEO; the notion of us all being “Third Culture Children,” a term coined by American sociologist and anthropologist Ruth Hill Useem to refer to children “who accompany their parents into another society.” Such deracination—for me, the product of a military background, and for Alice, whose parents wanted her to experience the world—raises complicated issues around identity, home, fitting-in and belonging. We are lucky that IDEO supports and cultivates this shifting identity through its globalism; it promotes transfers to different locations and deliberately creates multinational teams. Go to any of our studios around the world and you’ll hear a mix of local and foreign languages. The differences and sameness are simultaneously celebrated.
Being a global company is something we talk a lot about. As an organization that draws deeply on empathy, how we act towards each other is of paramount importance; and translating those behaviors across 11 offices in America, Europe and Asia can be challenging.
Recently, we decided it was time to commit these values to paper, and The Little Book of IDEO (LBOI) was born. The small, red-linen hardbound book chronicles who we are, what we do, and most importantly, how we should behave towards each other. Values such as “Be Optimistic,” “Collaborate,” “Learn from Failure,” and “Make Others Successful,” take key principles that we share and express them in fun, everyday language.
I was part of the team that put the LBOI together and am very proud of it. We plan on printing it in many languages, and I asked Alice to garner feedback from the team in Shanghai. Would it resonate there?
For Alice, returning to China after over 20 years living and working in England, reconciling her cultural identity has been a hard journey. She moved back almost two years ago, and has had a profound impact on the growth of the office in Shanghai, but I saw that day in Fuxing Park how difficult it has been for her personally.
When I asked her about that day, she told me: “I heard music off in the distance, and people practicing their voices, and I thought: ‘I must not cry, why am I feeling so tearful anyway?’ Then we got to the place where people were dancing, and it was too moving. I looked at them, and I saw their dreams, I saw their hopes, and yet they have had so many years of their lives taken away from them, unspeakable. But the thing I felt most was that I could have been one of them, and if my parents for whatever reason didn’t make the decision to leave China, I would have been. I felt incredibly lucky, but also…deeply entwined. I felt as if that…would have been my destiny too. But what made me cry, was that those people, dancing, would not have known that’s how I was feeling…I felt for them, and yet I knew they’d treat me like a stranger.”
I know what that feels like. I’ve worked in China alongside Alice and our Shanghai team. It’s an intoxicating market, vibrant with possibility. Chinese clients are learning the value of different behavioral norms and processes, of designing their own future. It’s not easy, as new things rarely are. During my time there, we discussed how Chinese we needed to be in our mix of people, our approach, our culture. The office itself spans many cultures: mainland Chinese, Singaporean, Hong Kong Cantonese, Taiwanese, expats—everyone bound together in their desire to see China grow. But still the conversation hovered around our degree of Chinese-ness. Alice felt it acutely. She told me one story—one of many I assumed—about living in Shanghai.
“I was in a local supermarket and as I approached the cashier, she looked me up and down, which I have come to expect; they can tell from my clothing that I am not local. She refused to make eye contact, then slammed my food through the scanner. When I handed her the money, she literally threw my change across the counter at me. Do you know how I felt? I felt that she had thrown the money on the ground. She wanted to make the point that I had abandoned China, when I had not. And that is why I felt so deeply in the park, because I felt that if you would just give me a chance, that although I was not there with you, I am not a stranger.”
Feeling trapped in this duality, Alice has fiercely maintained that it is our shared values that hold us together as an organization, that “IDEO is the country.” I was expecting pushback on LBOI, to hear that it wasn’t Chinese enough. I could not have been more wrong. It turned out that everyone in the office loved it, felt it to be part of something universal—that while it differed from the Confucian mindset in nuanced ways, the overall spirit of who we were collectively was the same.
We set out to not just translate it, but to trans-create it. The Little Red Book, as it will be cheekily renamed when it is printed next month in Mandarin and English, side by side. “This document lays out who we are.” Alice told me. “It has not just changed the perception of who we are. It has changed our confidence. No more debate about how Chinese or not.”
Why am I telling Alice’s story? Third Culture Childhood hit me hard, too. I’ve struggled for years to understand my identity, where I am from, and where home is. I regularly go back to Singapore where I grew up, and the warm fragrant air wafting through the doors at Changi Airport instantly transports me back to my childhood. New York, where I spent my formative years as a designer, still feels like home. Montauk, the seaside town where I have an actual home, is my spiritual home of sorts. I can still walk from one end of London where I went to college to the other with my eyes closed. Like so many of us, I take pride in my nomadism, but also need to feel rooted.
Codifying and committing our cultural values to paper has been both a symbolic and clarifying act—something to anchor me and those like me while things around us continue to swirl. Having colleagues like Alice, who give you windows into those feelings is a gift that deserves to be commemorated in a great book.
Hopefully, a great Little Red Book.