Prior to attending Taipei American School, Korean and Taiwanese cultures were the only ones I knew.
On my first day of 9th grade, my Asian values were challenged. I had been taught the virtue of obedience, but at school, it seemed like the kids who were more “Americanized,” those who were more assertive, daring and funny had a much easier time making friends and succeeding academically.
So, I watched what they did closely, how they dressed and the way they talked. I tried to imitate them. I strived to be more Americanized because that seemed like the “cool” thing to do. However, the harder I tried to become Americanized, the clearer it became that I was not one of them, which made me feel ever so inferior, or “un-cool.” While singing the anthems of both the United States and Taiwan at school, I felt discouraged by what it said on my passport: The Republic of Korea.
When I moved to the U.S. for college, it felt like I had grown up in this country all my life. It was strange to me how people, including my roommate, were surprised by my fluency in English. Paradoxically, this was also the case when the Koreans I met started complimenting me on my fluent Korean. Sometimes, they would look at me skeptically and carefully ask, “Do you speak Mandarin, too?” I would try my best not to look vain and say, “Yeah.”
“Dialogue provides the means by which a person’s self is created or revealed: It is the ground on which the self is constructed,” Connecticut College professor Sunil Bhatia wrote in American Karma: Race, Culture and Identity, and the Indian Diaspora. “That is, a person creates and transforms the properties of his or her self by engaging in dialogue with others.”
Different cultures vocalize different values and expectations. As Third Culture Kids, we are torn between divergent voices from all types of environments – most likely in all different languages, too. These dialogues provide the means by which our self-images are constructed.
Everyone interprets these influences in their own way, shaping and creating their own identity. For me, the conflicting cultural voices of “It’s cool to be assertive, funny and act like an American” and of “Do not question the authority; do not try to stand out” both coexisted in my head. As a result, I had a tough time responding to social situations and had to shut myself out for quite awhile.
When my peers spoke to me, I sometimes didn’t know what to say back to them. I just smiled and said things like, “Yeah,” and “Mmhm.” I wanted to share a fun story with them but did not know what was funny to them. Even in classes, I had hard time asking questions and engaging in class discussions because I was so afraid of being rude and making inappropriate comments. My diary was the only place where I could really count on myself to write about my true feelings. In my diary, I often wrote down the names of the people I missed, how life was so difficult, and that I couldn’t wait until I got out of this place.
I continued this routine until it became unbearable for me to live alone in my own little world. I finally decided to come out of the cave. I intentionally tried to stay longer at school to interact with peers, joined the cross-country team and worked harder to fit in. Consequently, I rejected my “old Korean self” and tried to conform to the majority American culture.
It was not until I met other TCKs who shared similar experiences outside my high school that I began to question and understand what was going on inside my mind all this time. I could finally see which voices influenced my values, worldviews and biases, and started to realize that no one culture is superior to another. I became cognizant of the fact that I was subscribing to all of these confusing messages without deciding which ones were good for me and how to embrace them as mine.
As I got older, I engaged in education and research that showed what influence various cultural settings such as family, school, peer groups, economy, religion and country had on identity development. I also grew in spirituality, gaining solid ground to stand on while processing the voices and messages swirling around me. Now, I feel more equipped to select which cultures to expose myself to and try not to blindly subscribe to the voices that I once believed to be the absolute truth.
As part of living in this world, exposure to different cultures is unavoidable. However, one cannot simultaneously subscribe to all cultures in its entirety without conflict. Our task as global citizens is to discover the fine line between respecting the cultures that are a part of us and questioning their validity in shaping our identity. This way, the cultures that we obtain from different environments can be transformed into useful resources both for ourselves and for the world around us.