An Open Letter for Third Culture Kids | The American Word

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An Open Letter for Third Culture Kids

Izzi McDonnell | 4/18/16 12:53pm
| Updated 4/21/16 2:48pm

Jaclyn Merica /
American Word Magazine

Have you ever been asked the question, “Where are you from?” and felt immediately uncomfortable, deciding how exactly you should answer? What if you answered and the person who asked it looked at you in a peculiar way, or simply said, “I don’t believe you.” What if that question made you have an identity crisis for the rest of the day, and you started to feel confusion and slight hatred when looking at yourself in the mirror later that night?

You’d start to get really sick of that question.

I have many uncomfortable memories of answering this question. I have fervent memories even in preschool of having to physically point out on a map where the Philippines is.

When people ask me this question, and probe my identity with further queries, it feels like a game of Matryoshka dolls: deciding what exterior I should mask, and what interior opinions I have to hide within myself in order to adhere to that person’s expected idea of me.

I, like many others on AU’s campus, define myself as a third culture kid (TCK), which refers to children who were raised in a culture (or multiple) outside of their parents’ cultures for a significant part of their development years. This term is also applicable for adult TCKs. My mum is from the Philippines, raised in the U.S., my dad is from New Zealand, and I was born and raised in England, the Philippines and Italy. Since birth I’ve had a mixed American-English accent.

The term TCK underlines an amalgamation of cultures that blurs lines between cultural identities. TCKs may see the entire world as their home or may see nowhere as home. They can often connect with people who have had utterly different upbringings to their own. They do not see difference. They do not see “other.”

But, when it comes down to it, society tends to make individuals separate themselves rather than unify with others. It is a key facet of human nature: tribalism. I never had a “tribe” of my own. Growing up, and even now, I could never see myself as fitting into one friend group, and had, instead, a small collection of individual friends whom I felt strongly connected to scattered across the world. While it often makes me crave a sense of community, I sure as hell would rather spend time with people who loved me as Izzi (who were all the way in Canada or Australia) rather than people who deem me as the “British girl” or the “mixed girl,” which trivializes my identity. I guess that’s why I always gravitated to people through music, as music can illustrate how connected our hearts are despite being from wildly disparate places.

TCKs view themselves as perpetual travelers. The sense of movement itself feels most like home, most like actualizing yourself. That’s why TCKs feel so “at home” in airports or train stations – places of the in-between. We define ourselves through transcendence. The people you end up connecting with the most are those who share a part of that spiritual journey with you.

In America, I’ve found that cultural difference is considered a good thing when you look different, but if you start talking about ideas that are contrary to others’, that’s when you begin to feel isolated. It is a subtle process of alienation.

However, when English people have told me they “didn’t even notice I had an English accent at all,” that hits my heart like knives, reminding me of the sense of ostracism I felt growing up, especially during my formative years. It is only when I decided to ignore the stereotypes, to just be myself, and only try to connect with people who truly saw the beauty in my heart did I then start to make meaningful connections with people that added true value to me.

As TCKs, we can tend to feel isolated from most people as we could never describe ourselves as belonging wholly to one place. I tend to think of people as novelistic: as stories to be read. You wouldn’t want to guess what happens in a book, but instead, prefer to see how the story beautifully unfolds before you. Trying to pin me down to one “culture” undermines my identity: it glazes over the intricate story of who I am. This is also true for others.

We are not products or stereotypes of where we “came from.” We are beautiful collections of our experiences gained over an entire lifetime. We are all the things that we love. We are the causes that we care about and fight for. We are how we make others feel. You should choose to surround yourself with people who make you feel something and not just surround yourself with cultural images to feign a front of diversity. A problem I have had with American culture is this obsession to compare: “I prefer the coffee there but hate the coffee here.” “The metro system is so inefficient here – it’s so much better in New York.” It should never be about comparison, but rather accepting that things are different and that’s what makes them wonderful.

My life story and worldview can never be encapsulated in the simple, humorously-toned phrase “Oh, you’re so American,” or “You’re so English,” or “You’re so Asian,” because I am none of those things, yet I am all of them at the same time. The sensationalization of an accent doesn’t make me feel “special”; it makes me feel as if I have to adhere to a preexisting idea of what my identity should be, instead of who I really am.

My issue is that when I make a point to use American vocabulary, I’m deemed “not English enough,” and when I use English vocabulary, it gets pointed out, and people are no longer actually listening to what I’m saying and instead a conversation starts about how funny that is.

I get told by English people that I sound “too American.” Glazing over my life experiences; seeing what I learnt from the places I’ve been to as a white-washing or Americanization of the identity they had chosen for me, rather than understanding how identified myself. And don’t even get me started on how out of place I feel among the Asian American community, because I “look too white” for them and can’t speak my mother’s tongue of Tagalog. You should see the look on my Filipino friends’ faces when I say I can’t speak Tagalog. It breaks my heart, even though they don’t intend it.

My mother whitened and Americanized herself growing up because she felt completely ostracized being the only Asian girl in her high school. My grandmother moving the family to Queens to find prosperity and the American Dream meant that all the intricate beauties of that culture had to be tossed aside in a place that objectifies cultural differences, instead of truly embracing them. She had to become “American” in order to be accepted, and even today, she talks about how she considers herself as American more than anything else. I think this is a huge part of why she never spoke Tagalog to me growing up: American society conditioned her to hate her mother tongue. It has made me despondent being a young adult now, because the casting away of her culture has led to me feeling as isolated from my roots as I do today. My father, alternatively, felt stateless his whole life – he felt as if he didn’t belong to the country he was born in whatsoever and felt such isolation growing up, and because of all the places he’s lived in throughout his life – London, New York, Hong Kong, to name a few – he has what I would call a “nothing” accent when I was younger. His “accent” sounds as if it were cleaned of all cultural pinnings.

Being in a long-term relationship with someone from the Philippines provided me a way to reconnect with my roots, but also always made me feel separate from them. Because in his eyes, I wasn’t Filipina, I was “so English”: too Westernized to be considered part of our blood country. I was “too difficult,” once again, because I didn’t have beliefs or opinions that fitted into his restrictive boxes. He expected me to look “white” on the outside but have the same Southeast Asian ideals on the inside.

Next time you come into contact with someone who doesn’t identify themselves by one place or country, don’t ask them about where they came from, but instead listen to what they have to say about the world around them. Ask what their observations are. Use them as a bridge between you and other cultures, rather than empty Matryoshka dolls that don’t quite fit the mold that you previously had in your mind.

I’m not saying I dislike American culture because that would be untrue. There are aspects that I’m in love with and feel closely connected to: the drive for people to do something bigger than themselves, a positive outlook, a sense of openness to meeting new people. I’ve constantly felt that way when moving around: deeply connecting with some aspects of a culture on a spiritual level and simultaneously feeling isolated from other facets. The fact that I can feel so intimately connected to another culture I’ve never experienced before just illustrates the malleability of the idea of “culture.” Once you humanize the whole idea of it and don’t turn it into this sensational image, you preserve the beauty of these cultures.

Being a TCK, for me, has meant that my sense of self-love was diminished growing up. When I was younger, I felt like I was being conditioned to hate myself. To hate my appearance and the way my voice sounded to others. To hate how my voice changed and adapted when I was around different groups of people. Now, I’m a strong advocate for self-love and self-preservation. It is by no means a process that happens overnight. It has taken a long time for me to diligently analyze every aspect of myself that I had been taught to hate, and to learn to love those aspects of myself again. I know I’m not the perfect TCK advocate, but I’m certainly learning. There is debate among these communities saying that the term “culture” in itself is detrimental and that we shouldn’t view people as belonging to any particular culture at all.

I wanted to write this piece as I felt I needed to free myself of this story, and by letting it go, I can truly accept and come to terms with my authentic self, and to not let people’s responses to how they see me affect my mood that day and onwards. Sharing our own stories, no matter how “insignificant” they may seem, helps to empower us. I am not trying to generalize my experience to everyone else, but simply trying to share my own personal opinion in the hopes that it may offer solace to some.

What I really care about is providing support for people who go through similar situations. I’m not trying to victimize myself, but I only want other TCKs to remember that it’s OK to not feel connected to one culture or feeling out of place within another. Your identity is as fluid and beautiful as a raging river. Do not restrain yourself and try to reflect the image others impose (albeit subconsciously) upon you. It is a magical thing to be as transcendental as you are.