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.
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.