5 years ago, I was riding on a 6 train in New York City when an eclectic lady in her mid-40s settled in the seat next to me. Without hesitance, she turned to me and asked, “Where are you from?” Pause. Maybe it was the international vibe of this city, or the repetition of hearing this question so many times, or the fatigue of a long day’s work… but I didn’t know how to answer her question. Born in New York City to a Japanese family, I spent my childhood in the Republic of Congo, evacuated to France at the outbreak of the First Congo War, spent a while in France and Switzerland, and the rest of my life up to college in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. My parents speak Japanese, my older sister speaks French, my younger sister and I speak American English and my uncle speaks Burmese. Despite being born in the US, my first American experience was at 17 when I stepped out of JFK airport. Born and raised in between cultures and languages, I never associated my roots with a set location.
I could have brushed off her answer with a simple place, but honestly, I was too egotistical to say that either. I didn’t want to become a statistic; I wanted to stay different (just like how I felt the need to explain my personal background to you in the first paragraph). Seeing that it was my only chance to prove myself to this stranger before we reached 14th Street — Union Square, I narrated my life and explained why I couldn’t say I was from one place. Surprisingly, she broke out into a smile and replied, “Me too!” She illustrated her own colorful history, and I was captivated yet envious that she had experienced things I hadn’t. Nevertheless, in that brief time, we shared a moment of mutual understanding and belonging, like two strays finding temporary solace in each other in their individual journey. As the train approached my stop and I readied myself to leave this somewhat reassuring yet discomforting place, I told her, “Well, I guess we are our own cultures.” She gently shook her head and told me,
“No, we are just our own person.”
Years later, I am reflecting on this conversation as I lament on how the static idea of culture has become a setback to personal identity and social progress. Culture is defined as a collectivization of characteristics, habits, taste and manners, and so forth. This definition of culture is static because it is unmoving in its expectations and expects conformity. In purely analogical terms, it’s like expecting the black sheep to assimilate when integrating into a flock of white sheep. In the grand scheme of things, these cultures end up defining a people, a religion, a race, or a country. They can build divisions where there doesn’t need to be and damage those who don’t fit in the privileged categories. It can bring people together but equally separate them; in which case, creating an “Us vs. Them” mentality. It is often that we see one-culture triumphing over another in equality, human rights, economic standing or conflict. Race, heritage, and poverty — these are just a margin of the conditions in which “culture” can be associated positively and negatively. Society’s perception of people boils down to the cultural stereotypes each person is associated with, hence empowering or crushing a person’s possibilities in life from the moment they are born into this world.
So then let’s take a look at Third Culture Kids, those who hold their own international culture. For the most part, TCKs have the versatility in sharing, communicating and accepting others who come from different backgrounds because of their constant international exposure. Most have a depth of social understanding and empathy built by having to accept and respect differences in the world.
Frankly speaking though, I don’t like the term “Third Culture Kids” because it is arrogant and elitist. Being a TCK is associated with having the privilege of being able to leave ones home country and being different from everyone else because one has racked not one, not two, but three! cultures. The more cultures you’ve experienced, the more you qualify as the ultimate TCK. There is always this invisible competition surrounding the title, of who has the most cultural exposure (just like how I was envious of the wise lady on the train).
However, the TCK no longer applies in the real world with the introduction of the internet and the surmounting numbers of migrants, nomads, travelers, and expatriates — whichever term you want to call a border crossing person (even by name only, like a 10-year-old sitting in front of an internet encyclopedia discovering the world). I think it would be safe to say that the majority of the world has been exposed to and/or affected by a third, fourth or fifth culture other than theirs, and it has become a normalized part of being a 21st century citizen. I originally thought that In-Between Kids were the next alternative to the TCKs, but I came to the realization most people today were in-between cultures — each with their own set of human experiences and emotions. In the early 2000s in Myanmar— before it was an open country and I used dial-up on the reg— I went to a rural village without Internet, regular electricity or clean running water; yet some of the kids were familiar with Michael Jackson. Even the last untouched tribes of the Amazon shown in Human Planet have seen a helicopter.
Despite the elitism of the term TCK, what is interesting and telling about the concept of the TCK is that it tackles the idea of belonging and how diversity can be shared (if not singularized into one identity). During the time spent writing this piece, I was browsing through Medium to see if anyone else shared a similar sentiment in deconstructing the TCK and discussing personal identity. I came across Adriano Massou’s Let’s Stop Calling Ourselves Third Culture Kids. He describes poignantly why the TCK had fallen “victim to the urge to singularize our diversity into one cohesive identity” (Massou). His essay greatly advocates why it is necessary to deconstruct the TCK culture and recognize an inclusive community with the other as-worldly-non-TCK-grouped citizens of the world, living as differently and diversely, and as equally human. He wrote that identity is like a fashion trend:
Develop your own style. Wear it out. Change with the seasons.
It’s true. We have to adapt constantly to other societies, people and cultures without questioning whether we are losing our self. Instead of being confused about the collective experiences we each hold and how we are defined by it, maybe it is time to demonstrate how it empowers us as individuals of today’s world. With the introduction of the Internet, the dots connecting humans from different backgrounds have multiplied, laying out a giant web of overlapping customs, ideas and interests that blur the lines between the archaic ideas of culture. Culture and community are no longer static; they are flexible and built by each person.
When I was looking through HONY this morning, I saw a very relevant post on two eye doctors. On eyesight, they said:
The eye doesn’t see. The brain sees. The eye just transmits. So what we see isn’t only determined by what comes through the eyes. What we see is affected by our memories, our feelings and by what we’ve seen before.
Everyone is characterized by a different life, but those differences are what equalizes us, connects us, and lets us connects others.
As we shift our homes and embrace new experiences, our personal versatility will allow us to move seamlessly between societies and find a sense of belonging in each. What seems more necessary than ever is a pluralist society, celebrating the diversity of each person and interacting with each other as individuals rather than as cultural representatives. The global community needs to transform into social spaces that allows each individual to freely embrace who s/he is without fear of isolation or insecurity.
To go about transforming how people approach cultures and differences, we have to change the way we educate our students and inspire others to follow suit. At the same time, current mentalities towards stereotypes and static culture need to be broken. How can we? More on that soon…