About six years ago, I was changing in the men’s locker room when I overheard a younger student telling his friends a story. I don’t remember what he was talking about, but it ended with something like this:
“…and then I told that Filipino, ‘Shut up, man – I’ll have you clean my toilet for me.’”
Filipinos constitute the largest racial minority in Hong Kong, and many of them work as domestic helpers. I’m also Filipino.
In an uncharacteristic fit of rage, I wheeled around, grabbed him by the collar, and pushed him up against the wall. “What the fuck did you say?”
I don’t really ever fight, but I was taller and older than he was, and as he joked around I felt an uncontrollable anger surge through my veins. I grabbed my things and stormed out, as if I had just made my point. What just happened? I thought to myself.
That was in high school.
Fast forward to about three years later – I’m at a crowded family reunion in Manila. I was on my winter break, midway through my sophomore year of college in Portland, Oregon.
One of my cousins turned to me and asked, “So, what’s it like to go to college in the U.S. as a Filipino?”
That question completely threw me off because it never crossed my mind. When I thought about it some more, I realized that I could count the number of Filipinos at my college on one hand, and there were only a few more than that at my high school in Hong Kong. Despite that, I had never thought of myself as a minority before.
How do I reconcile this tension? On one hand, I rarely identify with my racial background, or even think about it on an active basis. I’m not at all involved in any international or Asian student organization at my college. On the other hand, I was willing to threaten a person who made fun of Filipinos with physical violence.
I don’t have an answer that resolves this tension for me, nor can I pin down an exact definition of how third culture kids make sense of their racial identity. But I can say this: I view my cultural identity through the lens of my current location.
When I’m in Hong Kong, I feel like a Filipino and an American. When I’m in the U.S., I feel Filipino and Chinese. And when I’m in the Philippines, I feel like an American. My self-perception constantly shifts, even if I remain ethnically Filipino regardless of where I am. The interesting thing about all three of these examples is that I never identify as a Filipino and nothing else. Sometimes, my Filipino heritage doesn’t even enter the realm of small talk; because I have comparatively lighter skin, most people assume that I’m Chinese-American.
If I were born 100 years ago – or even 50 years ago – I would have been born and raised in the Philippines. If I went to school, I would have gone to a Filipino school with Filipino friends. And if I were to encounter other cultures, I would likely view them from a Filipino perspective, no matter where I was. Instead, I was born in the United States, raised in Hong Kong, and sent to an international school with people who didn’t look like me. I have never lived in the place of my racial heritage.
As a TCK, I pride myself (sometimes excessively) on my cultural adaptability. But with race, I run into the limits of that adaptability. The way people see me, and the way society treats culture and race, defies the most basic inferences I have about the way I look and the way I’ve been brought up.
That’s the difference. I will always be Filipino, whether I spend the next ten years of my life in five countries or one country. And that sense of permanence, the feeling that this aspect of my identity will remain constant no matter how I feel about it, is unsettling. At times, I feel Filipino, and at other times, not at all. There will always be friction between how I identify myself and where I came from. I’d like to think my identity is completely under my control, but we can’t control where our family came from.
I don’t mean to say that I’m ashamed of my racial heritage or that I wish I could change it. On the contrary, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I will never feel at home in the land of my ancestors. I’d like to think that, in a totally evolved 21st century way, the fact that I didn’t grow up in the Philippines shouldn’t bother me at all. But the truth is, I’m most comfortable when I’m surrounded by either Chinese people or white people, and I feel weird when I’m surrounded by Filipinos.
So in that sense, being in the Philippines is disconcerting because I feel like I’m silently lying to everyone around me. Nobody knows I’m a foreigner unless I open my mouth and say something. As long as I don’t let anyone hear my American accent, people will think I’m one of them. And while our unique TCK backgrounds should be celebrated, sometimes I’d like to feel a part of my racial heritage. I’d like to fit in, and stop feeling like an alien in my own culture. But then I’d have to change who I am.