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Juggling cultures – immigrants, TCKs, and blended backgrounds

I read this article recently and it got me thinking. The TCK author considers the label “Asian American” and the way culture changes over time.

I consider myself Asian and American, but not Asian-American. What’s the difference? Asian-American is itself a culture, especially for the second-generation Asian-Americans, who are the first to be born in the United States, whereas their parents are the first generation because they immigrated there. Calling their parents non-Americans would be an insult to their struggle to adopt the values, practices, and sacred blue passport the crossed oceans and borders to obtain.

I know so many kids who can claim both “Asian” and “Amercian” for various reasons, but who are culturally quite different to each other.

I know kids who were born in the US to parents of Asian descent.

I know kids who were born in the US to first-generation immigrants.

I know kids who were born in China (for example) to Chinese parents, moved to the US where they gained citizenship, before returning to China as expatriates.

I know caucasian kids who are American citizens but who were born and raised wholly in Asia.

I know kids who were adopted from Asian countries and raised in white American families – either with all adopted siblings or a mix of biological and adopted.

All of these kids are influenced by both Asian and American cultures, but the term “Asian American” does not adequately describe them, and wouldn’t be applied to all of them.

In the past year I’ve spent a lot of time considering the differences between the “expat Chinese” kids I work with in the youth groups here. I was first intrigued to consider this following the comments of a teenage girl who had recently moved to China having spent all her time in a predominately white area of the US. She had been adopted from China as a baby and looked similar to her Asian-American classmates, but soon realised that she was missing something they had – there was a cultural difference she hadn’t expected. She found that she felt more “at home” with Caucasian American teens, even those who had lived in China long term.

I think it’s important to understand that the “Third Culture” of a TCK is not one great shared cultural experience. It is the place of overlap, where various cultures converge. TCKs are not able to relate because they have the same culture(s), but because each of them is juggling the effects of several cultures. They all live the balancing act between citizenship, familial cultures, and geographic cultures.

I sometimes think that a TCK experience (when the kids are exposed to a diverse expatriate environment) can be quite a positive thing for kids who are second-generation immigrants. It gives them an opportunity to mix with a range of people who are also juggling cultures. I think it makes it easier for them to really own and enjoy the cultural traditions of all the peoples that have affected them when everyone around them is doing the same thing. There is a freedom in being one of many.

Anyway, here are some more excerpts from Johnny C’s original article

I recall my sister once said that Americans have no culture of their own because they are just a mix of different European immigrants in one country. It is not just the fusion of cultures, it is the environment that helps birth a new culture, or in this case, cultures. Using the faulty logic of not having any culture, that means jazz music is just a mix of African rhythm and English folk music, which is not even close to what jazz is as a distinctly African-American-originated musical genre. In other words: cultures evolve. . .

As a Third Culture Kid and activist for the Asian-American community, I’ve grown to love them and have a special place for the Japanese-American and Chinese-American communities. When I look at these communities and at the Third Culture Kids, I feel what we have in common is both the struggle for identity and acceptance. Second-generation Asian-Americans in the 1980s and 1990s really had a lot of trouble wondering just who they were, with parents imposing old values onto them, being raised to be individuals with American perspectives, yet being seen as forever foreigners by their fellow citizens, to the point of being denizens.

Third Culture Kids would be lucky to have this, because at least the Asian-Americans have a place to call home, even if their neighbors don’t welcome them wholeheartedly. One day, they can dream of being accepted as fellow Americans in spite of the prejudices felt, but us Third Culture Kids usually need to be told that we are TCKs before we can establish a community of sorts, and even then, what draws us together besides our common experiences?

As Third Culture Kids, as global citizens, as individuals, we need to think of new ways to define and redefine ourselves. A fellow TCK, Brice Royer, told me that he doesn’t define himself based on his ethnicity, his nationality, or the country he lives in, but by the values and dreams he has; and the people he calls his own are people who share those values and dreams, not passports or ethnicity. . .

Culture is not an exclusive club that one can not partake in just because of race or nationality, nor is it something we should shun or see as something the allegorical Other has that makes us different from them. It is also not something that limits us, it is a set of guidelines and foundation for values, morals, practices, norms, ideas, and more. It changes over time, and it has a personal element to it which is why people call it “their” culture as something they can call theirs like a prized possession, for it is a part of how they define themselves. Here’s something we often forget: we can choose whatever we want to follow. We don’t have to do things because everyone else does it or our parents tell us what we have to do. But it is something to celebrate when you understand just what it means to you, which is hopefully more than just the skin color you were born with and the stuff your parents and society tell you to follow.

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Posted by on September 26, 2011 in Expat Life, TCKs

 

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Violence among youth – how does it affect TCK ministry?

I took a course on trends in violence as part of my post-grad course on urban youth ministry (through Fuller). In order to research the trends in violence among expatriate youth in Phnom Penh, I interviewed two administrators of international schools in Phnom Penh.

Both schools serve international populations of largely middle to upper class families. In both these discussions the issue of violence was treated in a general sense, including neglect and self harm. One school reported concerns about self-harm among younger girls (13-14 years old). The trends they reported were similar. Overall violent occurrences are rare. While they admitted there are occasional issues, these tend to be isolated and short term.

Some thoughts that came out of these discussions:

  • Most violence arises among the boys, often related to aggression that comes up during sporting events. It is therefore important to have men model healthy ways of handling aggression on the sports field.
  • Cyber bullying is a larger issue than face-to-face bullying. It’s important to be aware of cyber bullying and teaching media awareness (and the importance of integrity). This includes teaching responses for teens to use if a friend is being cyber bullied.
  • Important to be aware of cultural differences – some Asian families would consider “acceptable” what some Western families would consider “neglect”.
  • Helping parents network – where discussing challenges would be possible (this may apply more to schools than a youth ministry setting)
One of the schools is a Christian school. We discussed what violence could look in a Christian setting. Isolation can make it easier for a family to disguise domestic abuse issues. There is an assumption of health among Christian families (particularly among missionaries) which make this sort of disguise easier to maintain.

I also attempted to gain a better understanding of issues of violence in Khmer families. I spoke to someone familiar with cultural trends contributing to violence within families. Khmer cultural attitudes to be aware of include that boys are expected to get into trouble, while girls should be kept at home. Often in incidents of rape, the woman is held accountable and brings shame on her family. Women have an attitude of “deserving” violence. Better understanding the cultural attitudes towards rape and violence helps me better anticipate some of the identity issues raised in or adopted from Khmer families may deal with.

This conversation brought home to me the importance of understanding trends of violence among youth and differing cultural attitudes towards violence. This knowledge enables me to better serve the teens I work with – it gives me an idea of what they may be struggling with, helping me read between the lines of their stories and predict possible future issues (that I can then help the youth deal with).

All of this shows the importance of fostering relationships with teens where there is safe space for youth to share difficulties.

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2011 in Leading Youth, TCKs

 

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Impossible Choices

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.

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2011 in TCKs

 

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