Impossible Choices

26 Jan

I put on a DVD the other night and a line in one the previews grabbed me:

“Make a choice: you’re either Korean, or American.”

Now, I have no idea what movie it was from – I wasn’t paying that much attention – but the line really struck a chord with me. Maybe it was in part because the day before I’d been helping one of my kids prepare college applications.

Pauline was born in America, to Korean-born parents, moved to China at the age of 10, attended a local Chinese school and then an international school; she speaks three languages fluently. Were she forced to choose one piece of her heritage, her culture, what makes her, well, her – how could she?

When Pauline and I go shopping at a local Chinese market we both speak to vendors in fluent Mandarin. They often ask us where we’re from. When I say I’m Australian they nod and smile and maybe say something about kangaroos. Should Pauline say she’s American, she is met with confusion and many follow up questions. If they accept that she has an American passport, they’ll still insist on asking where she’s “really” from. They see my white face and think the label “Australian” fits. They look at her Asian face, however, and think the label “American” doesn’t fit. So Pauline usually answers, after a short pause, that she’s Korean. It’s a good compromise – still a foreigner, but with a label that “fits” an Asian face. It’s not a lie, really, and it’s definitely a lot simpler than explaining a more complicated truth to someone who will struggle to accept it anyway.

Ting is another kid living between labels. She was born in Taiwan, adopted at age 9, lived in the US for two years with her new family (white parents with two older biological sons and three younger daughters adopted from China), before moving to a town outside Beijing. Her US passport lists her name as “Ruth” (with Ting as one of her middle names) but as a newly adopted child who spoke no English, she refused to answer to it. Ting has a US passport, but has lived there only two years of her life; she speaks excellent Mandarin, but with a Taiwanese accent. Ting is American, but that label only tells part of the story.

Ting, Pauline and Tanya eat squid at Nanhu market in 2008

Ting, Pauline and Tanya eat squid at Nanhu market in 2008

Pauline and Ting are just two of many, many kids I know who have struggled with multiple labels, none of which fit them completely. The term “TCK” can be very powerful, and empowering, because it is a category in which a mix of countries, nationalities, and languages makes sense.  When one TCK asks another “where are you from,” they generally aren’t expecting a one word answer. The “third culture” of a “third culture kid” is all about living between labels.

Owning the TCK tag sets kids free from having to make those impossible choices. It’s easier to choose to label yourself differently for different audiences when you have something else to hang on to – a deeper label that is more meaningful, and more accurate.


Posted by on January 26, 2011 in TCKs


Tags: , , , ,

6 responses to “Impossible Choices

  1. Amy N

    January 26, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    This was my first time reading your blog and I LOVE this.
    Labels were something I struggled with a lot, especially when I first got here. I’ve learned to love that look of confusion people get when I say I’m from Beijing :P

  2. Tanya

    January 26, 2011 at 10:16 pm

    Thanks for coming by, Amy! I remember many a week at youth group where some new person would say they were from Taiwan and everyone would wonder why on earth the white girl (who couldn’t *possibly* be from Taiwan) was cheering!

  3. Danica

    January 27, 2011 at 3:20 am

    Hi Tanya! I followed you over here after you kindly commented on my blog. :) I can really relate to what you’re describing in this post — when somebody asks me where I ‘come from’, my answer usually goes something like this: “Well, I moved here from Lubbock, TX, which is where I went to college and met my husband, but before that I went to high school in Austin, TX, and before that I lived overseas.” To which the person asks *where* overseas, and I reply: “The Solomon Islands … ” (confused look) .. “You know, Guadalcanal … ” (more confused looks) … “WWII battles were fought there …. ” (the person politely smiles, nods, and pretends they finally know where it is, while inwardly regretting asking me the question in the first place!)

    • Tanya

      January 27, 2011 at 10:32 am

      Thanks for coming by, Danica! I imagine it gets trying when people you meet haven’t even heard of the place that is so dear to you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: