Until recently, my life followed a predetermined roadmap. It began with a comfortable, chronicled progression of attending an international K-12 school in Japan, and each year followed a definitive pattern of learning new things, strengthening friendships and cultivating my identity. These were all done within the nurturing (and protective) environment that a school provides, and life’s variables, while bountiful, were managed within these confines.
In college, that roadmap ended. It was a new start, and I was suddenly thrust into unprecedented ground as a Japanese national living in the United States. Having been educated at the American School in Japan, I thought that my edifice of life in the U.S. would mesh with the reality of living there. Yet, these dual realities coincided less often than I had imagined they would. Why did I feel disconnected from the collective American experience? Why wasn’t I forging stronger ties with my American peers?
It wasn’t until I watched Neither Here Nor There that I was able to make better sense of this strange quarter-life cultural crisis.
Released in March, Neither Here Nor There examines the minds of six people who grew up as Third Culture Kids. The filmmaker, Ema Ryan Yamazaki, weaves her own journey of traversing between Japanese, English and American cultures as the backbone of the short documentary. Produced as her senior thesis film at NYU, Yamazaki endeavors to make sense of perennial TCK questions: Who am I?
Growing up, Yamazaki never really felt conflicted by her multicultural identity. Born to a Japanese mother and a British father, Yamazaki attended both Japanese and international schools and spent summers visiting family in the U.K.
“I was a baseball fan, and I listened to music from the States,” Yamazaki told me Skype, as she explained that she felt that her upbringing—immersing in Japanese, British and international school realms—prepared her for college in the United States. “I don’t really consider my first two years as different from anyone else’s. Every freshman has to deal with moving away from home and going to college.”
But when Thanksgiving came, Yamazaki recalled feeling unexpectedly unfamiliar with the American holiday. Like attending Catholic mass for the first time, Thanksgiving was beset with foreign traditions and customs. Was it appropriate for her to accept an invitation from her roommate to spend the holiday with her considering she had only known her for a short amount of time? Was she expected to cook something? Resisting to admit the cultural unfamiliarity associated with the holiday, Yamazaki politely declined the invitation.
“I wanted to pretend like I knew everything,” Yamazaki conceded. “But it really hit me when I was walking down Broadway and nobody was on campus. Everyone had gone home and I was alone in my dorm.”
It wasn’t until the summer going into her junior year that Yamazaki began confronting her cultural discomfort. Until then, Yamazaki never really approached TCK-dome as an affinity beset with obstacles and disadvantages. She lived a culturally rich, jet-setting lifestyle. Where then, did the discomfort come from?
Neither Here Nor There takes this question and illuminates different facets of TCK life through interviews with TCKs in all different stages of their multicultural reckoning.
One of the most compelling facets the film examines is the feeling of being part of everything, but never really entirely a part of one thing.
“It was really weird meeting people because they just didn’t get it,” explains Michelle Sammons in the film, a TCK who spent most of her life traversing cultures completely unrelated to those of her family’s.
Having hopscotched from Tehran to California, and then to Colorado for college, Sammons found it difficult to find a core group of friends in the U.S. who truly embraced or understood her background. While she didn’t entirely mesh with her American peers at college, she also resisted being tokenized as the “international kid.”
Yamazaki compared Sammons’s observation with her own sentiment: “I’m part of four worlds now (Japan, U.K., America, international schools)… I relate to all of them, but not quite fully to any of them.”
Teresa Ardhana Hinds, a community organizer, also describes this confusion of cultural loyalty in the film. Born in Trinidad, educated in the United Kingdom, and currently working in New York City, Hinds described how at university, the administration and her peers were confused by how to categorize her enrollment status.
“My parents actually had to bring in my birth certificate to prove that I was a national! But even then they were just kind of like, ‘You’re West Indian but you’re not West Indian.’ So there was always that confusion of what was expected of me.”
But both Hinds and Sammons have embraced their multiculturalism as part of their identity, which doesn’t necessarily have to be defined or narrowly articulated.
“A lot of people struggle with identity at that time and in college,” Sammons said. “And a lot of my friends…also had horrible experiences in college. And they grew up in one place… For me, this is who I am and this is where I come from, and I don’t need to put a label on it.”
The film closes with Yamazaki’s introspections of all her interview subjects’ stories. Like Hinds and Sammons, Yamazaki approaches her multiculturalism now not as forces that compromise her identity, but as an evolving impetus that drives Yamazaki’s undulating identity.
“It’s okay to not know everything in each culture,” Yamazaki observes as I conclude my Skype interview with her. It reminded me of some of the last few lines Yamazaki delivers to close the film.
“If people asked me, ‘Who are you today? Who are you in this moment?’ Who I am is that I’m an evolving person depending on culture.”
In the midst of my strange quarter-life cultural crisis, that made sense.
Ever had a quarter-life cultural crisis? Share with Yumi your experiences below.