Life between the ivory tower and a cardboard box

Posts tagged “Travel

I am a Third Culture Kid: Being “The Foreigner”

I love being the foreigner. There is something very exciting about being outside of your comfort zone and being forced into a position where all you can do is learn and adapt. There is also something very reassuring and even liberating about knowing that you can be exempt from the rules, that your social faux pas or bumbling awkwardness in new situations are excused, because you are the foreigner. Anyone who has ever been a tourist or visitor may understand how this feels.

Having lived in different places, TCKs are used to being the foreigner. Living in a new town or country means having to learn and adopt an entirely new set of social and cultural norms, often much deeper and more nuanced than the more immediate and superficial needs of tourists and visitors. More mobile TCKs undergo this process more frequently, many times developing high adaptability skills, while other times developing a resistance to adapting. Either way, a constant state of foreign-ness contributes to the TCK’s cultural identity. Some of my friends and I have talked about how our love for travel and move to other countries is in part related to our desire to, once again, be the foreigner.

Ticket Office for ForeignerHowever, in this particular area, I think that the biggest challenge for TCKs is figuring out when they are the “foreigner” and when they are the “native”. How does one gauge whether he/she has learned enough of the local culture or lived long enough in one place to say that he/she feels like an insider? Is it even OK for a “foreigner” to say they are “native” to a place, even if they were not born or grew up there, or possess the corresponding passport? This all goes back to the root question, “Where are you from?” Because there are so many assumptions that come with one’s ethnic or national background, it becomes hard for a TCK to answer how one feels about any place he or she has lived in.

The tension between being the foreigner and being the native is just as pronounced whether someone is in “at home” or “away”. As a repatriated TCK, I can safely say that I sometimes struggle with figuring out how I feel in my passport country. I have lived here a total of 11 years (and then some), albeit non-consecutively. Most of my family is here, some of my friends are still here, I speak Tagalog well enough to get by, and I care about what happens here. I don’t have any problem with saying I feel at home here.

I recognize that my experience growing up here is not a “typical” experience shared by the majority of Filipinos. I attended an international school for seven years. My teachers were expats, and my friends included Tagalog-speaking Australians and non Tagalog-speaking Filipinos. We spoke a different form of English that was somewhere between American and Filipino, with a smattering of swear words from every language imaginable. Instead of reading Florante at Laura and Noli Me Tangere, I read The House of the Spirits and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Instead of taking Filipino, I took French. Instead of going to college at the age of 16 or 17, I graduated high school at 18, after taking two years of IB. While the school was in the Philippines, it existed within its own, very atypical bubble. Even my friends who had grown up attending only that skill and never left the Philippines felt very different from their university classmates. How different is their experience from a TCK who grew up someplace where they were foreigners by citizenship? Since the school was in the Philippines, could we still be natives?

There have been quite a few people who tried to question whether I am truly Filipino or not. I have had Americans ask me why I don’t speak English with my “real accent”, and I have had Filipinos tell me that I must not really be Filipino because of my opinions. One of my most memorable incidents happened in college, after about three years of living in the U.S. One of my jobs was to call alumni to update our campus records and ask for donations. The wife of one of my assigned contacts picked up the phone and struck up a brief conversation with me before handing the phone to her husband (the actual alum).

“So, Erin, where are you from?” she asked.

“Oh, I am from the Philippines,” was my brief answer.

“Oh, really? Where in the Philippines?”

“Oh, my family lives in [city name]. It’s a part of the Greater Manila area, which is the capital.”

” . . . I see. Hold on while I get my husband.”

Thinking she had the phone muffled, she went ahead and called for her husband.

“She says she’s calling from [college name]. And she says she’s from the Philippines, but she doesn’t have an accent. I don’t think she’s really from the Philippines.”

I was very irritated to hear her say that, though I can kind of understand her doubt. As I have said before, the question “Where are you from?” raises expectations and assumptions about your behavior. Since I told her that I was an international student, a foreigner, living in the United States, she expected me to sound foreign, with “an accent”. When the sound of my voice shattered her expectations, thereby making myself unfit for any of the categories in her head, she instead resorted to doubt. Apparently, people seem to think you can only be completely foreign or completely native, leaving no room for fitting anywhere in between.

Ways To Relate

David Pollock and Ruth van Reken, who wrote the book Third Culture Kids, created this chart to illustrate different ways to relate to one’s host culture (credit to Mr. Atkins for the chart). Each framework is characterized by the individual’s mental and physical similarity to the host culture. As we can see, increasing adjustment difficulty increases as there becomes more dissonance between the two characteristics and that of the host culture, particularly with thinking. Perhaps this may explain why my American accent juxtaposed with my Filipino heritage appears to confuse the American on the phone, or why my inability to get outraged about a couple of TV shows brings Filipinos to question the degree with which I belong to my heritage.

In one of my Anthropology seminars in college, we read an article called, When Anthropology is Home: The Different Contexts of a Single Discipline, by Mariza Peirano. In her article, Peirano discusses the recontextualizing of how we look at people by blurring the lines between traditional dichotomies, such as home vs. abroad, insider vs. outsider, and native vs. foreigner. By doing so, we avoid using a framework of Other-ness, or seeing people as fitting neatly into either native or foreigner categories. Furthermore, she argues that each person must assume multiple roles or identities — both insider and outsider, both native and foreigner — to garner as close a representation of a place as possible, for “‘others’ are both ourselves and those relatively different from us, whom we see as part of the same collectivity.” Basically, to have a better understanding of a place, you must study it from all perspectives.

I completely agree. I have been around and heard from too many people who have preconceived notions or stereotypes about a place they have never been to or only experienced briefly. I have also had enough of people who have hyper-inflated opinions about where they live and do not have experience with seeing it from an outsider’s point of view. It is because of people like this that there continue to be rigid notions of who is a native and who is a foreigner (“either you are with us or against us”). Because TCKs have lived in different places, often away from and moving between “hometowns” or passport countries, they have experienced being the foreigner and the native. As a result, while there is tension and personal difficulties with adjustment and fitting in, there is also the potential for a unique and expanded worldview that may offer unconventional insights into many different issues.

I hope this will encourage TCKs to speak out and be involved in activities or organizations that can make a difference. Your experience and personal insight may be what is needed to help create change.

(to be continued)

Read I am a Third Culture Kid: Introduction


From The Archives: 11 Year Old Erin Writes About Traveling

When I was going to elementary school in Grenada, our teachers had us write in journals about pretty much whatever we wanted. After a particularly eventful summer in the U.S. and Europe, I decided to write about traveling, airports, and U.S. immigration policy.

Oct. 5, 1994

I really like travelling [sic]. In fact, I travel so much, I know my way around the airport. I also know abbreviations like GND means Grenada and LGW means London Gatwick. I also like looking at those T.V. screens and trying to find our gate number. But the best part is being on the plane. I love being on planes because I think it is fun. It gets me excited about arriving at my destination. The bad part about being on a plane, though, is writing immigration cards. I have to write my own. Why do those people have to know where I was born anyway? It’s not like they are going to my birthday party or something. Anyway, another part I don’t like is if you are a transfer or someone on vacation in the U.S. I don’t hate the U.S., but I don’t like the white card, green card, and blue card thing. They are really strict about it. If you are a U.S. citizen, do you have to write in one of those cards? If not, you’re lucky. Well, on to the positive side. I like some plane foods. But for some reason, I’m never hungry on the plane. I also like watching those movies. Over the summer, I saw “Four Weddings and a Funeral” twice, and “Beverly Hills Cop 3” once. They were funny. Gotta go.


I am a Third Culture Kid: Introduction

TCK Book CoverI am a Third Culture Kid.

A third culture kid (TCK) has been defined as:

“A person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership of any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of a similar background.” (Pollock)

What does this mean? It means that my years growing up and living in South Korea, the Philippines, Grenada, and then the United States affected me, my cultural identity, and worldview in ways that make me different from a person who has lived in the same town, city, or country. Not better or superior; just different.

TCKs inhabit a cross-cultural and highly mobile environment. As a result, they are described as culturally sensitive, multilingual, possess high adaptability, and have truly multi-cultural perspectives and thought processes. Many writers and scholars have said that TCKs are the model citizens of the future global society, as they are products of a postmodern world where political borders and cultural differences cease to matter. As a TCK, I believe that being able to understand diverse perspectives can certainly benefit the world and can change how people view things like race, culture, nationalism, heritage, and the general idea of difference. I think that being a TCK is what interested me in majoring in Anthropology. While it all sounds very romantic, TCKs also face some key issues that tend to further confuse their own sense of identity.

One of the biggest (if not the most important) issues TCKs face personally is grappling with the idea of where “home” is. This is especially pronounced when faced with the question, “Where are you from?” I feel that TCKs are particularly sensitive to the implications of the question “Where are you from?”, which exacerbates the anguish of finding an appropriate answer. The question “Where are you from?” is loaded with expectations that wherever you lay your head at the end of the day dictates who you are, what your family is like, what religion you practice, what food you like to eat, and even what color your skin should be. This leads to the deeper assumption that where one lives or where one is a citizen must automatically be one’s “culture”, leading to a lot of stereotyping. Because TCKs grow up with diverse experiences and tend to be highly mobile, where one lays his/her head at the end of the day tends to change and can often be at odds with what kind of person you are. As a result, TCKs will argue that one’s parents’ cultures and one’s host culture are no indication of their cultural identity. Of course, they may be influenced by both, as they will undoubtedly be raised by parents who may identify with their own cultures and will have contact with the locals of the host culture. Nonetheless, because they do not have full ownership of either as a foreigner, TCKs inhabit an in-between space where they are products of both yet do not claim full identification with either. This in-between space is termed the “third culture”, hence the name “third culture kid.”

Plane wingTo illustrate, I don’t have “a hometown” in the conventional sense. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines hometown as “the city or town where one was born or grew up; also : the place of one’s principal residence.” First, since I grew up in many places, by definition, I have more than one hometown. As a result, I feel uncomfortable with the idea that home is just one place. One can have homes all over the world. Second, the idea of a “principal residence” seems to me like a relative term, especially when one is mobile. Up until July, my “principal residence” was my apartment in Des Moines. Obviously, I don’t live there anymore, but does that then stop Des Moines from being my hometown? I feel that the idea of a hometown is another one of those ways to gauge where one “is from.” The conventional idea behind a hometown lead others to believe that, because I was born in Korea, I must speak Korean, or that, since I lived in Grenada, I must have some Afro-Caribbean ancestry and inserted the word “mon” at the end of every sentence. I don’t or didn’t do any of these things, but I did live and go to school in both countries, I ate local cuisine, I was friends with my neighbors, and my family shopped at all the same places that everyone else did. If that doesn’t make a place a home, then I don’t know what does.

The other important issue for TCKs is a sense of unresolved grief. High mobility allows TCKs to experience many different cultures, either through moving or by having friends come and go. While this lends itself to a more cross-cultural lifestyle, it also sets the TCK up for feelings of loss and culture shock that may or may not be addressed fully, due to pressure to adapt to the new environment. Homesickness also pervades as a form of grief, where TCKs often miss their old homes and must deal with the question of whether they will be able to return.

During my teenage years, I remember constantly badgering my dad about when we could go visit Grenada again. To this day, I still have not gone back for a visit. I still think about it a lot. However, I was able to visit Korea when I was 19, right before I started college. It is really funny how a physical place can elicit such a visceral reaction in a person. Little things like a storefront or a street corner brought back so many memories I didn’t even know I had, of afternoon strolls or morning walks to school. I revisited old haunts and was able to go to the hospital where I was born and meet the woman who helped me come into the world. Despite not having lived there in 14 years, in a way, being there made me feel complete and like I had found my way home again. Even just two months ago, when I had a stopover in Seoul, I felt at ease looking out the window and knowing that I was nearer to all the spaces I had once inhabited. I hope to someday go and visit again. I also hope that one day soon, I can feel the same way upon setting foot in Grenada and the U.S. again.

I’m not worried, though. To a TCK, the world is so small that distance is never an issue. When the next trip comes is only a matter of when.

(to be continued)