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From The Issue: Outsider Culture

Illustration by Alexander Pines, CC '16

Illustration by Alexander Pines, CC ’16

Honoring our amorous affair with our mother magazine, The Blue and White, we hereby present an online-exclusive offering from the latest issue, on campus in beautiful blue print now. Staffer Katherine Whatley, BC ’17, gives us this insider’s take on Third Culture Kids (TCKs).

On the first day of the New Student Orientation Program (NSOP), everyone in our orientation group went around saying where they were from; Connecticut, Ohio, LA, New York. There were squeals and high fives when people came from the same place. Then, “I grew up in Tokyo.” Silence and stares followed by, “Wait, what! No way. That is so cool! What is it like in Tokyo?”

When I tell people I grew up in Tokyo, they’re surprised—and that’s not even the whole truth. I was born in San Francisco to an American father and Australian mother, and moved to Tokyo when I was two. I am fluent in Japanese. Mostly, I leave out the Australian part, just so as not to really flummox that girl from Jersey.

Really, every answer I could give to that question other than, “I don’t know,” feels like a lie, or a cop out. I don’t feel like I’m from anywhere.

I’m a Third Culture Kid (TCK). A TCK is someone who spent much of their childhood outside of their parents’ cultures, and thus doesn’t fully absorb any one culture. I feel connected to all the societies and peoples that I was exposed to during my childhood – in my case, American, Australian, and Japanese – but don’t feel I belong to any of them. Truthfully, the community to which I belong is not those who share my ethnicity or nationality, but with other TCKs. Sometimes it’s hard, at least at first, to make deep connections with students who grew up somewhere with one dominating culture and haven’t had the multi-national childhood that I had.

I, along with other TCKs, am not a typical international student. I couldn’t even tell you what my home country was. TCKs even have a term that reflects this sense of rootlessness: we use the phrase “passport country” to talk about the place our passport or passports say we are from—which in my case is not necessarily where I feel most at home.

My first few months living in the United States after seventeen years in Tokyo were filled with constant adjustments. I had to mentally calculate what 45 degrees was in the rest of the world. All the food tasted too sweet and every dessert seemed to have cinnamon in it. People were so much louder, and so in your face, compared to in Tokyo. The subways were dirty, and always late.

I’ve made the pilgrimage to the United States every summer since I was little to visit family members and friends: tasting sugary breakfast cereals, fried chicken and junk food, and overstuffing my bags on the way home with all the things we couldn’t get in Tokyo, like dried apricots and granola bars. I’ve celebrated the Fourth of July with my family in Georgia (though until a moment ago, I didn’t know if Americans usually said “Fourth of July” or “July Fourth”). I voted in the most recent US Presidential elections via absentee ballot in Lombard Street in San Francisco, right near Chinatown (where I haven’t lived since I was two). My dad’s an American and I watch Hollywood-made movies like everyone else in the world. In my international school, I was labelled as an American, partially because I didn’t have an Australian accent, making me “not Australian enough.”

At Columbia, however, I’ve found that I’m “not American enough,” either.

Illustration by Alexander Pines, CC '16

Illustration by Alexander Pines, CC ’16

Wandering around the Activities Fair during the first week of school, I was struck by the rows and rows of tables—many of which distinguished themselves using ethnically associative identifiers: “Asian American Alliance,” “Polish Student Society,” “Black Students Organization,” “Student Organization of Latinos.” It was hard enough to deal with the ramifications of what it meant to be an American college student, I couldn’t imagine picking just one of the cultures in my background. To my surprise, many fellow first years seemed to be doing just that—and it seemed so boring to me. I had expected, coming out of an international school, that Columbia would live up to its advertisements as one of the most diverse universities in America with a multicultural, inclusive, and integrated community. It hasn’t yet.

Frances Mayo, BC ’16, has also found Columbia’s community too dividing and exclusive. Given that she spent her childhood attending international schools and living in countries where she was a minority as a non-Asian person, she says she “looks at race different[ly from] many Americans.” Because of this, the move to her passport country and to New York for college has forced Frances to confront the self-segregating nature of Columbia’s community and America as a whole. It isn’t just the disparity of socioeconomic status that Frances finds shocking or surprising, it’s how connected race, ethnicity and class are to wealth in a country she finds trouble calling home.

Frances says, “I don’t even really identify myself as a college student.” She feels like an outsider or onlooker at typical “college” locales like John Jay or Butler. Though she talks about “finding where I am from,” and “settling in one place,” it’s unclear for her where that place would be, or whether she could identify herself with one place or society for any length of time.

It’s not that I don’t have a cultural identity, it’s that for me, and many other TCKs, I have many and they are flexible, which makes me hesitant to invest too much in them. For Jing Hao Liong, CC ’16, the main reason that TCKs do not associate with one single culture is because they have a more “fluid view of culture” compared to non-TCK students, inevitably leading to an “outsider’s perspective.” Importantly, Jing thinks “the label TCK makes us seem outside of all systems, which stops us from being too invested in any one culture or place.” He hasn’t lived anywhere for more than four years since leaving Malaysia, his passport country, at the age of six, and now feels that “even four years seems like a long time” to be in one place. Though Jing already felt only “nominally related” to Malaysia, it made him even less inclined to associate himself with any cultural groups on campus when he was told “you’re not really Malaysian” by other Malaysian Columbia students.

At first, I was hesitant to speak for TCKs at Columbia. How could I hope to represent the opinions and stories of a group of student students who have had such varied childhoods? Though being a TCK is an identity in itself, it’s an abstract identity, without the tangible ties of ethnicity or shared customs. What I came to realize however, was that despite the vast array of backgrounds we have, one thing remains constant: the perspective of an outsider. Though it may be a contradiction, that’s what TCKs share. Together, we trade stories of attending international school and flying around the world to see our families; we discuss which country has the best candy. When we’re together, being a cultural outsider is point of connection, not a point of division.

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  • Blunts in Butler says:

    @Blunts in Butler Wish I could have afforded to have a “more fluid view of culture” growing up.


    1. seriously says:

      @seriously “so as not to really flummox that girl from Jersey”

      wow, sorry we can’t all be ~world citizens

    2. Concerned Citizen says:

      @Concerned Citizen All of these comments have missed, as I see it, the point of this piece entirely.
      This is what I take away from it: some people, either because of their experience or temperament, relate to identity as a fluid and malleable thing; lending itself to a sentiment of disillusionment when the same sentiment is not shared with others. This is completely natural and not surprising. The degree of which you relate to these sentiments will, in turn, depend on your experience, temperament, and/or constructed self.

      Now, this implies no sense of hierarchy among the notions of identity that exist in the human “bag” of possibilities. I am not sure where some of the commenters of acquired this notion. This topic is not linear at its core: it is rather a multi-dimmensional spectrum comprised of sentimental, sensory, and conceptual entities; in short, it is something to be explored and shared as intimately and as freely as one would share stories or memories among friends. There is no agenda here: it is rather a recognition of shared sentiments. Those that are offended have placed themselves at the center of this narrative, and have demanded a rewriting of the plot to accommodate their experiences: admirable, but mistaken.

      Let’s assume for argument’s sake that notions of identity do exist in a perfectly linear structure in which an irrefutable hierarchy may be established. This is admittedly strange, given that we have not designated any criteria of evaluation, but let’s go with it in order to entertain those that feel marginalized by the “irrefutable” superiority of world-citenzenship and privilege. I’ll have us remember that some felt that the author was exceedingly pretentious in her delivery, and therefore misrepresented the (inferred) humility of the TCK community.

      In closing, there are only two options that I see: A) you conclude that these sentiments can only be achieved by those that have lived a life similar to those of the author and her interviewees, or B) that the TCK community has not been properly represented in this delivery. Blunts in Butler, seriously, and ugh seem to have opted for A, whereas TCK seems to be implying B.

      The A team may resist this grouping and claim that other individuals that have not lived the classic TCK lifestyle can also achieve these TCK sentiments. They would be right to do so, but in that case, their comments are merely unfounded assertions of their own deficiencies (remember the thought experiment we embarked on in the last previous paragraph). They are essentially saying that the author has succeeded in seeing the world in a way that they have been unable to, though if they were clever enough they could also come to share these same sentiments. Rascals! You cleverly disguised a self-deprecating joke as an attack on another’s self-expression. In the end the A team has only two options: praise TCK for their cognitive achievement, or plead indifference on the basis of that the entire enterprise of acquiring this TCK-ness is a lost cause. In either case, there is no room for emotional frustration.

      As for the B team: the idea of getting offended by an alleged misrepresentation of TCK is, I think, a bit strange. The author is simply speaking to an abstract sentiment of estrangement. Some will connect with this sentiment and others will not. You are adding humility to an entirely unrelated topic. In order to alleviate further distress, I propose a subset of TCK: the HTCK (Humble Third Culture Kids). This merely adds a sentiment of humility to the already abstract sentiment of estrangement characteristic of TCK. See, you were talking about something completely different.

      Critics may respond that I have blown their comments out of proportion. They may claim that I have imposed upon them this premise of the hierarchal structure. Remember that it was not I that implied it in calling the author pretentious. If you had thought that the author was merely confused in assuming an air of pretension when in reality no real hierarchy exists, then you should have reacted not with animosity but with openness. Why not just argue for the multidimensionality of identity? No, better discourage it up front and be snarky for the sake of appeasing my own frustrations. Friends, we should be reveling in the experiences of others.

      I also predict animosity towards my manner of writing, the length of this post, and my pretension. I’d advise against reactions of this kind; lest you merely appear to be stating the obvious.

  • ugh says:

    @ugh must be really difficult having such a diverse cultural background. coming from small-town shitsville, i, like blunts in butler, would have loved such a privileged view of the world.

  • TCK says:

    @TCK As a TCK, I am offended by the pretension evident in this article and want to assure everyone that not all of us are like this.

  • 2014 says:

    @2014 Also have an Australian mum and an American dad and get told I’m “not Australian enough” because I don’t have an accent

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