“Where are you from?”
Although the motive behind this question is genuine curiosity, this is one of the most frustrating questions I face. It makes me hesitate – what should I say?
This is a familiar scenario for many third-culture kids. The term third-culture kid, or TCK, refers to children who grew up in countries other than their parents’ native country. These children are exposed to multiple host countries, and therefore have a unique cultural identity of many different cultures.
The life of a TCK is always marked by multiple beginnings and farewells. As a TCK who has grown up in four different countries, attended six different schools, and lived in thirteen different houses, the tearful goodbyes and awkward hellos are something I always go through. The simple question of my origin requires much thought, however, and my answer varies depending on the scenario.
When I first came to the United States two years ago, my new friends would ask me where I was from. I would give them the short answer – “I am from Korea.” When they hear my non-Korean, American accent, they would enthusiastically compliment, saying: “wow! You’re English is so good. How do you speak English so well?” Then, I would awkwardly thank them, and explain how I grew up in Singapore and Malaysia. This answer would lead to either of the two possible questions: “do people speak English there?” and “out of all the countries you’ve lived in, which one is your favorite?”
Although I am used to meeting new people, talking about my cultural history is always frustrating. While most people can give simple, one-word answers, I can never give a clean-cut answer. Seeing the confused expression on people’s faces, I always feel the need to clarify, or even justify, my racial background.
Life as a TCK can often be difficult. Although most third-culture kids seemingly blend into new environments, just like a chameleon, they can never fully identify with or adapt to a single culture. While my friends tease each other by bringing up embarrassing seventh grade drama or awkward fourth grade crushes, I simply laugh, not knowing what to say. Due to the constant mobility, I do not have true “childhood friends” with whom I share multiple years of memories.
I have always wondered: which society do I identify myself with? The United States? South Korea? Malaysia? Singapore?
While many TCKs go through a similar process of identity crisis, they also benefit from living in different countries. Many third-culture kids pick up two or three languages, and learn how to effectively socialize with others from a young age. Many TCKs tend to adjust to new environments fairly quickly, and are generally more accepting of new or different cultures.
With friends all over the globe, I can confidently say that I have a broader perspective in viewing the world. Despite difficult transitions, I have learned to love all the countries and cultures I have been exposed to. In the end, I always have the most interesting stories to tell.