Third Culture Kids

Spring 2018
Jenna Nicole Smith

“Where are you from?” is the question I have the hardest time answering when I introduce myself.

I usually respond with “San Jose,” but that’s never a complete answer.

I am a United States citizen born to Taiwanese immigrants, but I spent the majority of my formative years in China. My father worked as an engineer in Shanghai during much of my early childhood. He lived alone there while my mother and I lived in San Jose, California – until my parents decided to relocate the whole family to Shanghai when I was halfway through third grade.

After I was forcefully plucked from my elementary school and established social circle in the middle of the school year, my 8-year-old self vowed to never accept China as my home.

However, as I established a new life and developed friendships with fellow children of expatriates, I realized that I could not definitively call a single location “home.” I had developed roots in three countries at once: the U.S., China and Taiwan.

After moving back to California in my junior year of high school, I couldn’t help but feel disconnected from my peers at school, many of whom I had known in elementary school before I moved to Shanghai. They had spent their entire lives in one place and had grown up around the same consistent group of people.

This is a common dilemma that many third culture kids face as they grow up, and even throughout their lives. Third culture kids, a term coined by American sociologists John and Ruth Useem in the 1950s, are individuals who have grown up in one or multiple countries other than their parents’ or their own country of citizenship. Many are the children of expatriates who travel to – and often establish lives in – foreign countries because of their work.

When I spoke with other third culture kids at UCLA, I found they too have dealt with the inevitability of change in our lives, from lost friendships to places we call home.

Nichole Chen

As a first-year student at UCLA, Nichole Chen eagerly joined all the student organizations of cultures she identified with: the Association of Chinese Americans, the Taiwanese American Student Association and the Korean American Students Association.

However, having grown up in China, she said she felt their members were too Americanized for her to relate to.

Chen, a third-year political science and economics student, is Taiwanese-American and was born in Southern California. However, she attended an international school from kindergarten through high school in Tianjin, China. She said she has struggled with cultural identity her whole life; she felt she could never fully identify as being Chinese, Taiwanese or American. She also grew up around Korean culture because many of her peers at school were Korean, but never felt like she could fully identify with it.

“Even though I grew up in China, I never really felt Chinese,” she said. “I still feel more connected to my Taiwanese roots. Also, Korean culture was the only culture I was surrounded by … so none of the cultures are ones I can fully claim.”

Chen’s feeling of never belonging anywhere became most evident during taxi rides in China. Taxi drivers always asked her where she was from, but were never satisfied with whatever answer she gave. If she said she was American, they would point out she was not blonde-haired and blue-eyed. If she said she was Taiwanese, they would refuse to acknowledge Taiwan’s status as a sovereign nation. At one point, she just started saying she was Korean to avoid further questions.

“I always feel like it’s this little dance of white lies,” she said.

When she moved to the United States for college, Chen found herself facing a similar conundrum when people asked about her origins. For a while, Chen decided to give a different answer whenever a new person she met asked her where she was from, just to see how their responses differed. However, no matter what answer she gave, people would notice she didn’t display all the characteristics associated with that culture.

When she said she was from Brea, California, which is where her family currently lives, people noticed she did not fully understand American culture, despite being an American citizen. For example, she did not understand certain slang terms like “Netflix and chill” or references to American pop culture. When she said she was Chinese, Taiwanese or Korean, people would see that she wasn’t completely fluent in Mandarin or Korean.

Aside from cultural identity, Chen also struggled with the constantly changing social dynamics of her school as friends came and went throughout the years.

She knew people for an average of four years at a time, she said. Her graduating class consisted of 27 people, only one of whom had been there since kindergarten.

“Being at an international school is sort of like being … on a bus ride,” Chen said. “People get on and off the bus, but for some people like myself, the bus ride just lasted a really long time. When I realized it was finally my turn to get off the bus, it was an odd thought, because I was the one who watched all these people come on and leave – I could have been the bus driver.”

There was a period of time when she felt numb to change; she became accustomed to people in her life constantly moving around. Even now, she sometimes struggles with not wanting to invest in relationships because she feels like everyone will eventually leave.

After seeing friends come and go, she has developed a sense of urgency about relationships that drives her to make the most out of every moment with the people in her life.

When making new friends, Chen prefers to first dive into deep philosophical discussions to see if they are compatible on a more personal level, then proceeds to talk about more surface-level topics if there is an established connection. She was at first surprised to see how most of the people she met at UCLA approached friendships from the opposite standpoint, preferring to initiate friendships with shallow small talk and taking their time to probe for a meaningful connection.

“I was just so used to the feeling of, ‘No we don’t have time,’” she said. “When I first (came to UCLA), I was like, ‘We only have four years here. Everyone in my life leaves after four years. This is going to be a real short time.’”

Chen has been trying to embrace the scattered nature of her identity. She likes to say she is “not fully anything, but partially everything.”

“When you translate that into home, I don’t think I have one location as home,” she said. “I think every place has the potential to be home if you make it. I wouldn’t say home is anywhere else but here at UCLA for now – but that’s temporary, and I’m okay with that.”

Hyuna Lee

Hyuna Lee’s four years at UCLA have been the longest she has ever stayed in one place. Lee, a fourth-year psychology student, grew up in five different countries, following her South Korean diplomat parents wherever they led the family.

Jenna Nicole Smith
/ daily bruin

She was born in South Korea, but moved to Japan at 1 year old, Germany at 4, South Korea in second grade, Nepal in fourth grade, back to South Korea in seventh grade, China in her freshman year of high school and back to Japan in her senior year.

Constantly moving made it hard for Lee to maintain lasting relationships, leading her to view friendships as shallow and centered on surface-level interests and inconsequential activities, such as talking about school or gossiping. She never felt supported or encouraged by her relationships with her peers, as she never talked to them about more meaningful topics like personal hopes and struggles.

However, being in college for four years and simply having friends around for a longer time than usual has helped her learn how to put effort into maintaining relationships.

“I never had to deal with longer friendships, so it is hard,” she said. “It’s also a lot more rewarding to have people who really know me.”

She appreciates how college has given her the time to settle down and explore.

“It’s like a break,” Lee said. “I’ve had so many experiences, and now I get this break where I can learn about different things in the world and about myself.”

Lee said she wants to keep moving around after she graduates and does not like the idea of staying in one place. She is not afraid of change when it happens and thinks change, whether good or bad in the moment, is beneficial because of the lessons she learns from the experience.

“Change was something normal for me,” she said. “Initially I thought I wouldn’t like change, but it has shaped me into a person that wants change.”

Laura Yee

Laura Yee renounced her Malaysian citizenship to become a Singaporean citizen in summer – a formal declaration that Singapore is the home she feels most connected to.

Jenna Nicole Smith
/ daily bruin

Yee, a third-year ethnomusicology student, was born in Penang, Malaysia, but moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, when she was 9, and then to Singapore when she turned 14.

When she moved to Argentina, Yee did not know any Spanish and could not understand anything in the local public school she attended. However, the first friend she made at school – a girl who had moved from Ukraine at 6 years old – helped Yee practice speaking Spanish. By the end of her six months in Argentina, Yee had become so fluent in Spanish that when she transferred to a new school, kids thought she was originally from Buenos Aires.

One night, when Yee’s father picked her up from the train station after she got off school at 10 p.m., he told her they would be moving away from Argentina with a shaken expression on his face.

Earlier in the day, Yee’s parents and two brothers had experienced a traumatizing robbery in which they were threatened at knifepoint and tied up in their own home. This incident, along with the 2008 financial crisis, prompted Yee’s family to move back to Asia. She had seven weeks to say goodbye to her friends and prepare for the move.

“It taught me to appreciate my life at that moment. You never know how your life is going to change … how you’ll never see (your friends) again, never keep in touch,” Yee said. “Value the relationships you have, even if they end. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just the course of life.”

Having grown up immersed in Argentina’s open and friendly culture, Yee experienced culture shock when she moved to Singapore, which she feels is more conformist and conservative. She had trouble re-adjusting to accommodate the more reserved and subdued personalities of many of her new peers.

In Argentina, it is customary to greet everyone with kisses on the cheek. However, Yee forgot that Singaporeans do not greet each other in the same way, and she would almost kiss people when they hugged her.

People in Singapore sometimes assumed she was lesbian, she said, because they thought she often behaved in a very touchy manner with her female friends.

“I came from a Latina culture where I learned to be more extroverted and friendly, and yeah, a little touchy,” she said.

As a result, many kids at her school in Singapore thought she was too extroverted and flirtatious, and laughed too much.

Yee did not recognize Singapore as her home until she left the country to go to college.

“While I was in Singapore, I really considered Argentina (was) where I felt at home, but when I left to come here, I began to recognize … the cultural traits I had developed in Singapore and a certain sense of pride,” she said.

For Yee, change has become a constant, and her experiences moving around have taught her to accept that she cannot control when relationships form or end. She thinks people who are not used to moving tend to get upset when friends stop staying in touch, but she understands that she cannot keep in contact with everyone – even if they mean a lot to her.

“I may have a good relationship with you now, but if it ends because I move away, I won’t blame myself or them,” she said. “It’s just life.”