Comments 8

A non-American American

I don’t think anyone ever saw it coming. The creation of a non-American American.

In other words, me.

Third Culture Kids often mock Americans for thinking that they are the center of the world. But few will admit that the statement is absolutely true.

American dominance is prevalent in every corner of the globe. From Microsoft to Britney Spears to Barack Obama, the rest of the world is indoctrinated into American culture. But while the lasting value of American cultural exports is difficult to measure, their international institutions offer a very quantifiable example of their influence. As a consequence of this globalization, you don’t need to set foot in America to be an American.

My family is from Hong Kong. I grew up in Singapore. I spent less than three months in America before moving to Chicago for college four years ago. Yet, “I thought you were American!” was one of first things Americans would say to me. That usually came after an introduction (“Hi, I’m Steph”) and a qualifying statement (“I am from Singapore”).

It all starts with the economic institutions. My dad worked at McCann-Erickson for thirty years, and as a result, he became an expat, moving from Hong Kong to Taiwan for business reasons. The American company paid for our family’s travel expenses, home, driver, and tuition fees.

Economic institutions breed social institutions. The company paid for me to attend Taipei American School, which was created for Americans abroad. In kindergarten, I celebrated Halloween and read Green Eggs and Ham. I learned to count in nickels, dimes and quarters. Eventually my family moved to Singapore, where I attended the Singapore American School. I studied Thomas Jefferson and the Civil War in class, and attended the “awkward middle school dances” of American lore. By the time I was 12, I had a full-on American accent, and a set of American values preached to me by American teachers… though I had never set foot in the country.

My own, very Cantonese family, had taken to calling me a “guai lo,” a derogatory term for white person. I think they were confused as to what was happening to me. By the time I graduated high school, almost all of my friends were American expats. I went to senior prom. I scored a “5” on my AP US History exam, but knew very little about Asian history. I aspired to become a writer, mastering the English language while never learning to read in Cantonese. In fact, I’ve met first-generation or second-generation Chinese immigrants in the United States who are more connected to their Asian heritage than I will ever be.

And here I am, a recent graduate from an American university, having studied in the ways of American journalism, or the “fourth pillar of democracy.” A girl who has volunteered on a political campaign, invested in the methods of American politics.

This story could not happen anywhere except for America. America is amorphous. There are no national or regional boundaries to its culture, and its value set is incredibly inclusive. It preaches hard work, achievement, over-consumption, faith, and the belief that anyone can achieve anything. And I got sucked in. Because of the institutions and cultural indoctrination.

But there are consequences to America’s export of culture, lifestyle and institutions. Because now America is going to have to deal with me. More specifically, America’s immigration officers.

I am trying to come home, and stay home. Because even though I’m “American” in almost every way imaginable, it doesn’t mean much without a passport. I will have to complete hours of paperwork, find a sponsor, get a visa… and in the end I might have to leave anyway.

Even though America’s cultural borders are amorphous, its national boundaries are not. I’m American, but that doesn’t mean anything unless it’s on paper. In fact, existing in America on a student visa just reminded me how much paperwork did matter. I didn’t qualify for scholarships or grants. I was only allowed to work in unpaid internships. I couldn’t work off campus. Around November 4th, I knocked on doors encouraging people to vote, but couldn’t vote myself.

But I really learned the pains of American immigration once my student visa neared expiration.

Trying to deal with American immigration is like jumping through hoops, but you’re only allowed to even try jumping once you win the lottery. Navigating terms like F-1, OPT, H-1B and TN became a daily ritual. Employers avoided me like the plague. Now that I’m employed, my visa will become completely dependent on my employer. If I quit, or they fire me, I’m out.

America, you created me. It’s a consequence you didn’t expect, when building all of these institutions abroad. Now it’s time to take responsibility. There are, and will be, more people just like me. We are your citizens, so let us come home.

An edited version of this column appeared in the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye.


  1. I share your pain with all the paperwork. I’m switching visas to become an extraordinary “alien” on O-1 visa so I have a ton of paperwork to deal with. Even the thought of being called an “alien” is derogatory, we are all human beings. The message seems as though everyone except Americans (w/ American citizenship) are signs of “other life”. Anyways… enough ranting now. I love the showcase section you put up.


  2. If I may zoom out from the American-centric plea to add that ALL nations need to deal with TCK’s. We are the next generation of leaders and influencers, because we can navigate cultures as easily as breathing. I call my self a chameleon because I slip into the cultural stream of wherever I live enough to get mistaken for a local in Manila or Reykjavik.

    The difference is that I can shed that skin at will to get that “inside outsider” perspective that I believe makes TCK’s more tolerant in every sense of the word. We inherently KNOW that there is a different point of view, equally valid even if it’s not our own.

    ALL nations need to recognize this “brain fund” and capitalize on it. The first ones that do, will lead the world towards greater understanding and… (allow me to dream a little) world peace 😉


  3. That’s a great point, Natalia! I love your use of the word “brain fund.” TCKs really do have a lot of talent and perspective. Their lack of tie to any one country, or many ties to many countries, should be seen as positive, and capitalized upon. Instead, countries and immigration departments are treating them like aliens, and making their lives and contributions to society generally difficult.


  4. Miguel says

    Interesting story you have, sounds similar to mine. My father worked for an American co. for 40+ years before retiring, he was a local hire in S. America where all of us kids were born. Due to events out of our control we left our home country in 1970. I attended American schools Kindergarten-12th grade, even spent a few years myself at SAS like you (’75-’79). What is different w/ me is that the co. sponsored us for a Green Card which I obtained just before 12th grade. This saved me from having to deal w/ student visas etc. & greatly simplified my life. I agree with you that there needs to be a mechanism such that non-American “Americans” can live & work in the US if they want to.


  5. Mars says

    The non-American American. hehe Don’t I know it well 🙂 I’ve been reading many stories tonight, and I feel like sharing mine in a nutshell. I was born in Lima Peru in 1985 to two diplomatic parents, in 1990 at age 5 I moved to Ottawa ,Canada and lived there till 1993, 1994 I lived in Cuba, 1995 in Santiago de Chile, 1996-1997 aka Middle School in Los Angeles California, 10 months between 1997-1998 in Peru, 1998-2001 in New Jersey all through high school, in the middle of my senior year I moved to Egypt and graduated at the pyramids. Freshman year of College: American University of Cairo, Sophomore through senior year at an American University in Switzerland. Then 6 months in Ukraine (2006) followed by 6 months in Spain (2007 internship) and now I’ve been living in Amsterdam for 2 years… that’s 11 countries of residence by age 22, yikes now I’m 24 and stuck in a European Union loophole. I’ve a peruvian passport yet never really lived there. Lucky for me, the Dutch make it possible for skilled foreign workers to find jobs… but it’s not that easy!


  6. Pingback: Haiti earthquake: why should citizenship matter? | Denizen

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