Table of Contents
I moved to America when I was 11 years old from Taiwan, and I never found it easy to fit into the society here. Even though there were Asian kids at my school, cliques were already formed and I belonged to the Fresh-Off-the-Boat camp. Twenty five years later and after traveling the globe (50+ countries) and working in different continents, I still don’t feel I completely fit in. Is my third culture background a handicap that will forever prevent me from finding a place to fit in?
When the US went into lockdown in March 2020, I witnessed scenes that I’d thought you’d only see in Hollywood zombie movies. People were fighting each other tooth and nail over food, supplies, and toilet papers. Toilet papers! This was what people are bruising each other over. As I watched hysteria and chaos engulf my city and the world around me, deep down I was glad that I didn’t put myself in that position. I was well stocked and well prepared, and I had my third culture experience to thank.
In early Jan of 2020, before China shocked the world and locked down Wuhan like Raccoon City from Resident Evil movies, Taiwan was the first to alarm bizarre activities in Wuhan and thus had taken cautionary stances. Inadvertently I was tracking news in Taiwan because I wanted to monitor the situation around the protests in Hong Kong and its effects on Taiwan. I picked up the news around Covid around the same time but I didn’t pay close attention to it. When China locked down Wuhan, the Taiwanese news went into a frenzy and covered everything, and I knew this was serious.
This is confirmed to be a highly transmittable airborne disease. There’s thousands of planes flying from Asia to the US. It is just a matter of time before the virus gets into the US. It is only a matter of time before things turn upside down here. I thought in my head. In the US, you saw CDC, WHO, and mainstream media tell a different story. I was seeing different realities right in front of my eyes -- governments in Asia went into lockdown one after another, while the US government was welcoming the virus with their arms wide open. I started stockpiling and preparing while everyone in my environment behaved otherwise. My third culture identity spidey-sense were tingling, and it was telling me to prepare for the worst.
Growing up as TCK can be difficult. I’ll use colored lenses as an example. You grow up in a culture that only wears blue color lenses. You grow up in blue, you see everything blue. And blue becomes familiar to you. Blue becomes your identity. Then you leave your world of blue and you enter a new world that only wears yellow lenses. In order to fit in, you put down your blue lenses and picked up the yellow lenses. Seeing the world in yellow is uncomfortable. You still have the blue identity in you, but you try harder to get used to it because everyone is wearing the yellow lenses and you don’t wanna be the outcast. You struggle with the yellow lenses because deep down you still liked your blue lenses. This becomes a question for you -- do you put on the yellow lenses or the blue ones?
To make things even more confusing, after a few years you go back to the world of blue. You feel ecstatic to put on your blue lens, but as you put it on proudly, you realize your blue lenses don’t quite fit with everyone’s blue lenses anymore. Your blue lenses are not as blue as theirs; yours is faded, with some hints of yellow on it. Now you are conflicted -- you are not quite yellow, and you are not quite blue. What are you?
This is a story that many people go through when they move from culture to culture. They may feel like outsiders. Outcasts. This can be a serious issue -- they may have a hard time forging an identity, feeling of belonging, and may feel restless. They feel like they don’t belong to either cultures. They feel like they are alone on a lifeboat between the seas of the two cultures. (BL: redo the pronouns for this part)
But this is an opportunity in disguise. An opportunity to develop and create your superpower because now you have the opportunity to see the world through multiple perspectives. This superpower allows you to see the deficiencies of each culture and identify unique viewpoints. By combining your blue lenses and your yellow lenses, you’d see a new color of green. This new color is uniquely yours and is something that neither lens can see by themselves.
This third color lens is something that the world sorely needs. Those who possess it can wield it to break free from cultural dogmas. Take the topics of marriage, family, bearing children for example. In modern Taiwanese culture and society, it is the norm to not have children. As my mom tells me, marriage in our culture is done not for love but for moving up the social-economic ladder, and today having children is too costly for the general population. In Asia, people work long hours for relatively little pay compared to their western counterparts. This is an issue prevalent across many Asian countries and results in low birth-rates. In the US, the birth rate is still healthy. But in this culture, the divorce rate is at an all time high. It is ok to make babies, but building and maintaining family is the issue. One culture tells the tale of “don’t have children as they are economic burdens”, while the other one tells the tale of “do make babies, but prepare for divorce and child alimony''.
What if there is a third option? Is it possible to obtain values where family unity, marriage, child-bearing are possible? Siloing in each individual culture may not provide an answer, but by combining the two it becomes possible to obtain this outcome. These were the options presented to me from each culture, and by embracing the third culture lens I can choose this third option that is deemed impossible for my mom and by mainstream American society.
This third culture identity is a superpower. It allowed me to clearly see alternate options during the onset of covid chaos. It also gave me strength to seek new values for family in lieu of the ones provided by the dominant cultures. I used to blame my TCK background for making me an outcast in society, but after all these years it slowly molded me to develop the third lens and liberated me from cultural dogmas. The more you embrace your TCK identity, the more unique perspectives you can form. This is the beginning of the fun part, because the world is full of siloed cultures, and the third culture lens can shatter the walls of culture to form new borderless ones. You can be at the forefront of it.
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