“Third-culture kids struggle to figure out their identities due to having such unusual backgrounds.”
Whenever people ask me where I’m from, I never know how to answer. What seems like a very common and easy question to answer to others, is difficult for me. To me, this question has at least three answers. I am born in Manhattan, New York City, in the U.S., but I moved to Tokyo, Japan and I lived there for 9.5 years before moving to Singapore. My father was the branch manager of a Singaporean bank and was assigned to the U.S. and Japan. I am Singaporean, of Chinese descent, born to Singaporean parents, but I only lived there for two years before I moved to Melbourne for university. According to my passports and citizenships, I am Singaporean-American. However, because I spent the majority of my life in Japan, I am very familiar with Japanese culture and many of my friends call me their ‘token Japanese friend.’ As a result, whenever people ask me ‘where’s home?’, I never know the answer. This is very common for people like me—third-culture kids. Third-culture kids struggle to figure out their identities due to having such unusual backgrounds.
“Third-culture kids exhibit certain characteristics that identify them, as such the ability to speak multiple languages”
Third-culture kids are people who grew up in a country that their parents did not come from. For example, both my parents are Singaporean, but I grew up in New York City and Tokyo—therefore I am a third-culture kid. Third-culture kids exhibit certain characteristics that identify them, as such the ability to speak multiple languages and having a strange accent.
My first language is English. I spent my early childhood in the U.S. and my parents speak to me in English. Since I was young, my dad taught me basic Chinese and I took up Chinese tutoring until I left for Japan. So now, I can converse in Chinese at an intermediate level. Since I grew up in Japan as well, I also learned Japanese in school and can converse at an intermediate level as well. I can also write in both Chinese and Japanese. When I was doing the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (DP) in high school, I learned Spanish, so I can also speak basic Spanish as well. However, because my parents speak Singlish, a mixture of English with Malay, Cantonese and Hokkien, at home they engage in a lot of language mixing.
I can understand Cantonese but if I try to speak it I will sound foreign because of my strange accent. This is also a common trait among third-culture kids. Wherever I go, people always ask me about my accent because it sounds so unusual. I originally had a typical American accent since I grew up in the U.S. and I went to an international school in Tokyo, where most kids had the same accent as me. After I transferred to the Australian International School in Singapore to finish high school, I still had my American accent but there were traces of a Singaporean accent in it as well. I have maintained this accent in university—now, I just call it an ‘international accent.’
“I’ve found that international schools also emphasize learning about different cultures”
Many third-culture kids can be found attending international schools in the city they live in. International school students are very different from local school students as most of the students come from a variety of countries and many people are also of mixed descent. A lot of my friends in my international school in Tokyo were half-Japanese and half-American, were bilingual and often intermixed their languages. Furthermore, international schools encourage students to look at things from different perspectives. I’ve found that international schools also emphasize learning about different cultures through events like bazaars and festivals that offer cuisines from different countries, showcase traditional performances and allow people to mingle with friends from different backgrounds.
Witnessing different cultural practices is also a new experience for many. The annual Festival of Nations in my international school had performances of Japanese Taiko drumming as well as Hawaiian hula dances. Each year on November 3rd, my international school in Tokyo celebrated Japanese Culture Day. As students, we got to experience pounding rice cakes (mochi), listening to the Japanese flute (shakuhachi) live and drinking authentic, traditional green tea complete with a tea ceremony. This kind of unique experience allowed me to fully involve myself in the Japanese culture, which would not have been possible without being in an international school.
Part of a diverse community
“Hearing about other people’s backgrounds and experiences is so interesting as you can relate to them and bond over similar experiences.”
I have gained so much knowledge about topics by learning about them from different points of view and have gained a global outlook in general. Because my friends came from different countries and religious backgrounds, they allowed me to observe issues from their perspective. For example, my close friends who were Muslim told me about their experiences living in their home countries compared to the discrimination they faced when they moved to Japan. I also completed the DP, which has helped to cultivate my global mindset. At university, I find it easy talk to local and international students alike due to the influence having a global mindset. Most international schools in the world offer the DP and it also serves as an effective conversation-starter with people at university. Hearing about other people’s backgrounds and experiences is so interesting as you can relate to them and bond over similar experiences.
Third-culture kids also constantly feel the urge to travel to different places around the world. When you hear your friends talking about their countries and how beautiful it is, you want to experience that beauty yourself! Since all my friends are from different racial and religious backgrounds—I grew up in a multicultural community where I was able to learn about different cultures and religions through interaction with my friends. If my family was planning a trip to the U.K., I would ask my British friends for recommendations on places to visit in their home country. I was able to experience this situation multiple times with many of my friends, who came from different countries that I have had the privilege of visiting in my lifetime.
Global outlooks help at home
“My background and past experiences have allowed me to have opportunities that I would otherwise have only dreamed of.”
Third-culture kids are usually globally-minded, which proves to be valuable for the future. When working with people in the workplace, those with a global outlook will have more empathy and understanding when interacting with others than those that aren’t as open-minded or culturally aware.
Even though I feel extremely lucky that I am able to have such an unusual but enjoyable lifestyle, sometimes I feel out of place whenever I’m in Singapore. I do not identify with local Singaporeans. I feel like my values and principles are different due to my international background and I am one of the few Singaporeans who does not speak Singlish. I also do not understand a lot of the local lingo and slang, so sometimes it is difficult for me to converse with other Singaporeans. Nevertheless, I am so fortunate to be a third-culture kid. My background and past experiences have allowed me to have opportunities that I would otherwise have only dreamed of. So, when people ask me what I identify as, my answer is ‘global citizen.’
Hailing from New York, Tokyo and Singapore (it’s complicated), Lindsay Wong is a history and Asian studies double major at the University of Melbourne who has a passion for words and keen interest in journalism.
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