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.
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.