Figuring Out My Cultural Identity



Hi everyone, my name is Emily, and I am first and foremost a Christian believer. As I was writing this piece, I felt a strong conviction that no matter who or where I am on this earth, Taiwanese, American, female, rich, English-speaking, or Chinese-speaking, I am first and foremost a child of God. Although I did not exactly grow up in many different countries, the frequent transitions between Taiwan and the states have definitely engendered numerous questions and mixed feelings regarding my self and social identity.


Before I list all of my questions, let me dive into my cross-cultural childhood background a bit, so that you have a better idea of it. I live in a family household of five, two Taiwanese parents who grew up in Taiwan locally, two older twin sisters, and I who all had similar cross-cultural development experiences. However, differently from my sisters, I also grew up with my grandma for one year when I was very little. My mother could not take care of all three of us at the same time. Even though I was still in Taiwan, Ruth Van Reken would agree that such also constitutes a cross-cultural childhood experience. Later on, I moved back to live with my immediate family, and we would go to summer camps in Seattle when we were in elementary school. Then suddenly for some reason, my parents decided to put us into American schools in Taiwan. These are almost like international schools, but they use American textbooks and curriculum. We studied there for one year, and once again my family decided it was not enough and we had to move to the states. We then moved to Seattle for two years with my parents on tourist visas, which were rejected in our 2nd year in the states and resulted in us going back to Taiwan.


After finishing high school at the American school, I went to an American university in Los Angeles, California, and did a one-year internship before going to Taiwan again. I worked in Taiwan, teaching English at an international school for 2.5 years, and now I am packing my bags to head to the states again to get married to my beloved fiance as well as to obtain a master's. While growing up in different places, I had questions like, “Should I be more extroverted?”, “Should I take my shoes off when I enter someone’s house?”, “Should I help wash the dishes as a guest?”,“Should I have known my Taiwanese history better?”, “Should I watch ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Crash Landing on You’?”, “Should I hang out more with Americans or Taiwanese?”, “Should I show my boobs or cover them?”, “Why don’t I have bigger boobs?”, “Should I insist my teachers learn how to pronounce my Chinese name?”, “Should I work harder or smarter?”, “Should I be good at math and science or English and history?”...etc.


As I tried different options, I had some successes, but I felt like most of the time I failed to “fit in” to any category. Part of the reason for the failures is I am personally a competitive person, but another part is that I was and am never fully American or Taiwanese.

Some people would argue that Third Culture Kids are only those who physically grew up in different countries, but I would say to them that even though I was still studying in Taiwan, attending an American school in Taiwan can be just as cross-cultural as moving to and studying in America (Long, 2016). Some may also have the thought that Los Angeles has too many Asians to count as a different “country.” Once again, I would beg to have a different opinion regarding what exactly constitutes a different “culture” for anyone to be identified as a “Third Culture Kid”.


I would define “culture” as a part of any group or environment with shared language, values, rituals, lifestyles, or beliefs. For each new “culture” one encounters, one would need to learn and adapt to fundamental differences such as the ones mentioned above. For example, moving to live with my grandma meant that I had to learn a new dialect and lifestyle. My grandparents and where they live all spoke Taiwanese (very different from Mandarin Chinese). Although I was only in kindergarten, I must have learned and spoken Mandarin with my own parents first. The place that they were living in was a rural area. Everything was way more simple than an urban lifestyle. Everything was close in proximity and slow. There was also no entertainment, except televisions. That differs drastically from the urban rush, entertainment, and personal transportation to get to different places.

Amongst all the transitions, some were easy to adapt to, and some were hard, but most of them came as a coin with two sides.

At this moment, you might say to yourself, “What? How?”. Let me give you an example: My command of English isn’t exactly native, but it still convinces pretty much everyone I have met that I am a native speaker, except I am not. Only the Caucasian friends that are pretty much non-existent in my social circle can kind of sense the tiny almost non-existent accent. Anyways, in a sense, I am a passing Asian American, and no doubt I have had a lot of privileges that come with such social identity. In high school, I was deemed as one of the elites who would succeed academically and presumably in life (I wish) because I speak “perfect” English (plus I study hard of course). Then when in the states, all Americans (both Caucasians and Asians) would be impressed by my English, which made me the token international friend to tell them about Asian cultures and Taiwan. Yet, the more I interacted with my local American (still mostly Asian, but second or more generations), the more I sensed my failure to meet their expectation of what a local (Asian) American is like.


Compared to them, I am still very very very Asian. I don’t know all the American slang or pop culture stuff, so they constantly had to explain to me (but it’s also not like I speak with Taiwanese slang or know a lot about Taiwanese pop culture either anyways, so the interest was never really there nor was the motivation to remember). On a deeper level, I was taught to not trust strangers or boys. The more traditional gender view has passed down from my “locally-grown” parents until I took Gender Studies 101. I also hold my negative emotions and hint my discomfort indirectly (or as Americans like to phrase,passive-aggressively,” but guess what? There is definitely beauty in the art of indirect/metaphorical speeches that traditional Chinese or Taiwanese really appreciate). Last but not least, I value work, self-sacrifice, delayed gratification overplay, or self-fulfillment.


So there it is, my “American dream” to become an American finally broken, and then the idea “Third Culture Kid” was introduced to me. It answered a gazillion questions I have had all this time and still is from time to time. I am not fully American, nor Taiwanese, because when I went to Taiwan after college, all of a sudden I became American, again. My Taiwanese friends would always call me an American because my Chinese has died slowly due to the lack of usage, or because I know so many old English songs from the 80s and 90s that were always played in American movies. My teaching style was more democratic, and people thought I had given my students too much freedom. I speak to the elderly like I am speaking to friends. Then who am I??? Because I am apparently neither, and I soon started to see that I am not just “both” either. I mean I am bilingual, open to differences and new ideas, I can understand more complicated concepts more easily compared to other people of my age, I love jumping into deep conversations with new acquaintances, and I can be extroverted for a few hours even though I am by bone an introvert. That explains why the researchers coined the term “Third Culture Kid”, not “Bi-Culture”, not “Mixed Culture”, but “Third Culture.”


Finally, I have a label that describes my ethnic or cultural background, “Third Culture Kid,” and I can be proud to tell people and educate them about it like I am doing right now with my writing.

This identity crisis definitely did not take almost a decade to figure out… but all these labels regarding ethnicity, in the end, all can be traced back to humans and how we view differences. Back then, gender used to be a binary concept, and now people say it is a spectrum.

Who knows if culture or ethnicity will also change as our intellect progresses? The quest to seek one’s social identities thus seems never-ending, but just like what I said at the beginning of my writing, I will keep reminding myself that whether or not I belong to any social group, I will always belong to my heavenly father. That is a never-changing social identity I can always rely on and go back to. God bless!


SUMMARY

Cross-cultural background:

  • Grew up with grandma for 1 year. Ruth Van Reken agrees such also constitutes a cross-cultural childhood experience.

  • Summer camps in Seattle + English TV shows and movies.

  • Entered American-system school for 1 year, then moved to Seattle for 2 years before coming back to Taiwan and returned to the American-system school for another 3 years.

  • 5 Years at UCLA. 4 Years of undergrad and then 1-year post-college with a research internship.

  • Past 3 years in Taiwan, teaching English at an international school.


Define Culture:

  • Any group or environment with shared language, values, rituals, lifestyles, or beliefs.

  • This means I have had multiple long-term cross-cultural experiences, from all the house and school moves. Each one of them means that I had had to learn and adapt to fundamentally different cultures.

  • For example, moving to live with my grandma meant that I had to learn a new dialect and lifestyle. My grandparents and where they live all spoke Taiwanese (very different from Mandarin Chinese). Although I was only in Kindergarten, I must have learned and spoken Mandarin with my own parents first. The place that they were living in was a rural area. Everything was way more simple than an urban lifestyle. Everything was close in proximity and slow. There was also no entertainment, except televisions. That differs drastically from the urban rush, entertainment, and personal transportation to get to different places.


Amongst all the transitions, some were easy to adapt to, and some were hard. So who am I?

  • My command of English isn’t exactly native, but it still convinces pretty much everyone I have met that I am a native speaker, except I am not. Only the Caucasian friends that are pretty much non-existent in my social circle can kind of sense the tiny almost non-existent accent. Anyways, in a sense, I am a passing Asian American, and no doubt I have had a lot of privileges that come with such social identity.

  • In high school, I was deemed as one of the elites who would succeed academically and presumably in life (I wish) because I speak “perfect” English (plus I study hard of course).

  • Then when in the states, all Americans (both Caucasians and Asians) would be impressed by my English, which always allowed me to be the token international friend to tell them about Asian cultures and Taiwan.

  • So evidently, it was easy for me to almost believe that I was an American and should thus ditch my Asian roots. However, the more I interacted with my local American (still mostly Asian, but second or more generations), the more I sensed incongruence between us.

Compared to them, I am very very very Asian.

  • I hold my negative emotions and hint my discomfort indirectly (or as Americans like to phrase, “passive-aggressively”).

  • I don’t know all the American slang or pop culture stuff, so they constantly had to explain to me (but it’s also not like I speak with Taiwanese slang or know a lot about Taiwanese pop culture anyways).

  • I was taught to not trust strangers or boys. Yep, the more traditional gender view has passed on until I took my gender studies 101.

  • I value work and self-sacrifice overplay or self-fulfillment. Oh, and that delayed gratification.

Then after I returned to Taiwan, I became… American?

  • My Taiwanese friends would always call me an American because my Chinese has died slowly due to the lack of usage, or because I know so many old English songs from the 80s and 90s that were always played in American movies. My teaching style was more democratic, and people thought I had given my students too much freedom. I speak to the elderly like I am speaking.

Written by: Emily Chuang, 26, Indonesia

Instagram: @emilychuang3 | Facebook: Emily Chuang | Email: emily60626@gmail.com


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