What It’s Like To Lack a Cultural Identity — My Life As A Third Culture Kid
Since moving to Chile, I’ve become more of an outcast.
After living in a residence full of Europeans and Latin Americans, I’ve found that each and every one would fully embrace their nationality and proudly reassert where they came from. Especially if they met another person from the same city, they would all jump up in excitement and spend the rest of their time together. From that point, they would stick together like glue. You’d see all the Mexicans together, the Chileans, the Colombians, the French, the Germans, Italians, British — there’s this recurring pattern that I see wherever I travel, and it’s that people find it comforting to stay with their own people who speak the same language, because it feels familiar.
This is how groups form quickly.
Everyone from the same cultural background would cook their national dishes together, support their country’s national football team, proudly sing the national anthem in loud voices whilst unabashedly wearing their country’s painted flag on their faces.
And this happens everywhere I go. At university, in school, during my semesters abroad… Everywhere. This shared connection of having the same cultural identity is strengthened especially when people go abroad.
Let me tell you where I am placed within the frame of this picture. For me, I knew that having no place in this was normal. I’ve never been able to share the cultural bond that people have. It’s something that I’ve had to go through my entire life, of never being able to belong to any cultural group because of my upbringing — and it has created a lot of feelings of insecurity as well as personal and psychological trauma.
Third Culture Kids are people who have spent an important part of their childhood and adolescence in a country that is foreign to both of the parents’ home culture.
It makes me feel very insecure not knowing the full answer to where I come from, where’s home for me or what national beliefs I uphold the most. It makes me feel insecure to not feel grounded. I’ve never known what it’s like to hold up my flag proudly and assert my country’s values, food and fervently describe my own country’s customs and traditions.
But this is who I am. I am half British, half Chinese, never lived in the UK (only moved there for university) nor in Hong Kong, never spoke Chinese, and grew up in a country that is totally different to where both of my parents are from. I’ve spent 14 years of my life in Ho Chi Minh, the South of Vietnam, and it’s a place that I’ve never fully understood or been attached to. I didn’t even know why we had to grow up there. I hardly know its history, am still not familiar with its culture and didn’t have fond memories there. Everything I’ve experienced there, I’ve seem to have forgotten. It’s as if there was a big blank in my childhood. These are the things that I don’t want to remember, because I was an awkward, outcasted and miserable teenager. I’ve never had a strong cultural identity, and this, as you can imagine, has led to a lot of problems.
There were times where I really felt out of place. Coming to university in England made me feel I was a complete foreigner. Because I haven’t lived there, I was totally unaware of its culture. It was hard for me to connect with British people. I was technically learning about half of my race, where my Dad was from. And when we were growing up, he didn’t really teach us what it was like to be ‘British’ except for the fact that he showed us Monty Python skits on TV and Only Fools and Horses when we were younger (which every British person knows about and watches religiously). Other than drinking tea and eating baked beans, I didn’t really know what being ‘British’ stood for. I’ve never seen it, acted like it, and when my grandparents came over from England, I didn’t share that special bond with them either. I was too different from my grandparents for them to understand me. Even having a British passport doesn’t reinforce my ‘nationality’ in any way. I’ve had to physically move to England to better understand what the other half of my cultural background was like.
In terms of my Chinese side, my mom taught us about her Chinese cultural habits such as celebrating Chinese New Year, eating homemade Chinese food and teaching us about the Zodiac and strange superstitious habits. I’ve obviously adopted some of them, but this didn’t make me fully feel Chinese. I felt even more distanced from my Chinese grandparents and I have this one memory of me crying in front of my grandfather, because there was a language barrier between us as I couldn’t speak Mandarin and he didn’t speak English. My mom always had to be with us to translate, and I felt extremely guilty and regretful for not having learnt the language due to a lack of interest.
This moment really marked my life. It was a reminder of who I was, an outcast. Would I always lack a sense of belonging, a sense of home and identity? I wasn’t even able to connect with members of my own family. I wanted to be like other people, who had a normal upbringing, so I could be fully included in their group and understand everything they were talking about.
Would I always be an outsider wherever I go?
I didn’t want to ask myself these questions anymore: Who do I support when I watch a football game? How do I explain my nationality to people? Why don’t I feel British? Why don’t I feel Chinese either? Why wasn’t I invited to that? Why am I not being included in the conversation?
Like I said, it can be seriously isolating. But it’s something that I’ve had to accept. It’s an internal battle I fight with myself often. People would obviously praise how many languages I can speak, and the experiences I’ve had such as traveling around the world, but there are a lot of psychological wounds that still need to be resolved. I remember crying over the phone to my mom because I wasn’t included in the group I was in, and she repeatedly said that ‘I’ll never be able to fully feel part of any group’.
Not belonging to any cultural group is frustrating, but as a Third Culture Kid I have a lot of advantages. For instance, not only can I speak different languages, I have greater cultural awareness and empathy, and I’m able to jump between groups.
Maybe I don’t have to tell you where I’m from. But there’s this inherent need in our society to constantly label people and where they come from, but there shouldn’t be anymore.