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The fluid identity of a cultural-other

Diploma Programme (DP) graduate Kymberley Chu reflects on understanding how her identity as third-culture kid evolved over time. This is ­­her second story in our graduate voices series.

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By Kymberley Chu

After years of traveling, living abroad and accumulating various residency visas, I realized that my cultural identity is the multiplicity of various cultural elements I have been exposed to. Despite having my Malaysian nationality, I never felt that I had a single cultural identity nor did I feel a sense of belonging in a single cultural place. For instance, the cultural Malaysian notion of “Balik Kampung”, a nostalgic feeling of coming back home and reuniting with family never clicked with me at all. Instead, I realized that my Malaysian parents believed in this notion because they grew up in a single cultural setting for most of their lives.

Who am I? Where do I belong? What can I do to make the world a better place? These are the pivotal questions I ask myself on a daily basis.

However, these same questions surrounding the notion of home and my citizenship made me feel profoundly confused about where I stand as a global citizen and what I should do with my cross-cultural knowledge. Together, these questions, which are minor social nuances, and the IB educational curriculum helped me develop the profound roots to establish my identity as a third-culture kid.

Defining myself

“Having a third-culture kid identity allows me to navigate and appreciate different cultural elements”

Nationally, my parents and I are Malaysian. However, I grew up in New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) throughout my childhood. I now currently go to college at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) in the United States on an international student visa. At the same time, I still have my permanent residency visa from New Zealand and my UAE temporary resident visa expired due to no longer residing over there.

The visa papers are clear-cut rudimentary in the sense that I can easily be classified based on my socioeconomic and educational/work status. However, I struggle with defining my hometown and even feeling a sense of home due to moving abroad constantly. I never felt that Dubai could be my home due to redundantly applying for temporary work residency visas nor did I feel a strong sense of home in Malaysia where I clashed with its collectivist-focused culture and not knowing anyone outside of my extended family over there. I still don’t feel at ease ticking in certain demographic categories in college surveys because I don’t see my own identity in fixed stagnant terms.

After living in different countries and taking classes in cultural anthropology, I reflected on the idea of identity as an unanchored and ever-fluctuating concept in today’s globalized age. For example, both my relatives in Malaysia and acquaintances at UC Davis have asked numerous questions such as “What’s your favorite place?”  and “Don’t you miss your hometown?” By living abroad, I realized each country I lived in had its own cultural elements that I appreciated, such as the UAE’s national diversity and Malaysia’s diverse cuisine. I usually try to explain to my peers that to me, home is a sense of comfortable belonging and involves being surrounded by an open-minded community that supports my self-growth rather than the traditional definition of the single place I grew up.

Being a third-culture kid

“Home is a sense of comfortable belonging and involves being surrounded by an open-minded community that supports my self-growth”

The process of becoming a third-culture kid entailed thinking in terms of fluidity and navigating across my different cultural environments. It also involved the endurance of several cross-cultural/social changes, the ability to understand and learn through cross-cultural lenses and doing the things I never thought of doing.

Having a third-culture kid identity allows me to navigate and appreciate different cultural elements when living in multiple countries while not identifying with one core monolithic and dominant nationality/culture.

For instance, while taking my passport photo, an officer asked me to show her my current student ID and to provide a photocopy of it. This minor bureaucratic and social nuance made me feel like a “cultural other”. I felt out of place and not socially accepted by others due to my lack of understanding of certain sociocultural norms in Malaysia which my parents grew up in.

I currently work as a coordinator at UC Davis’ cultural peer mentor program for incoming international students. Recently, we had a team dinner we played games such as the Human Knot and introduced niche cultural facts at the dinner table while playing Heads Up. This experience has widened my perspective on defining cultural labels and interacting with others by sharing our cultural beliefs. These games and team-bonding activities outside of the classroom provided an opportunity to learn more about various cultures on a micro-level social perspective.

Cultural fluidity

“I realized that my cultural identity is the multiplicity of various cultural elements I have been exposed to.”

I realized that labels shouldn’t be seen as rigid or anchored in meaning. Instead, they show the fluid process of undergoing cultural changes and a flexible self-reflexivity in how we interpret our own identities or set of values over time. For instance, spending time with my friends from ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds in my political science classes, peer advising job, my psychology research lab and job, at UC Davis’ International Center, challenged both my preconceptions and current understanding.

The IB taught and internalized values such as cross-cultural communication and empathy through the instruction of its principles like risk-taking, open-mindedness and being principled. It was further solidified by my high school’s international day parades and continues to spillover to an extent in my college days.

Originally, I struggled with defining who I am with static terms, like my passport country or compartmentalization of my identities, rather than embracing a multifaceted self. For instance, I assumed that identity would mean strictly my nationality and my passport, which both are Malaysian. However, this definition would evolve over time.


Kymberley Chu is a current University of California, Davis second year student double majoring in Cognitive Science and International Relations. She is also a graduate of the Universal American School in Dubai’s IB program in 2017. Kymberley aspires to pursue academic research and PhD programs that examine social issues such as the psychology of racism. She enjoys reading, coding, weightlifting and making mind maps in her free time. You can connect with her on LinkedIn here.

To hear more from Diploma Programme (DP) graduates check out these IB programme stories. If you are an IB grad and want to share your story, write to us at [email protected]We appreciate your support in sharing IB stories and invite you to connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter and now Instagram!

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