Third Culture Kid

By Seong Min Kim ’18. Art by Haysung “Grace” Yoon ’17.5.

Art by Haysung "Grace" Yoon ’17.5

Some of us have multiple passports. Some of us lived in several countries across the world. Some of us are fluent in many foreign languages besides our native tongue. Most of us have to take seconds to think before responding to the question, “So, where are you from?” when people generally expect a one-word answer.

If you have ever felt this way, you’re likely a Third Culture Kid.

The term Third Culture Kid (TCK) is used to describe children who grew up in a culture not native to them or their parents.

There are so many variations in the definition of this term, it’s difficult to pinpoint what the exemplary TCK might be, nor do I consider myself the epitome of a TCK. But, as a child of Korean parents, born in Seoul, Korea and having grown up in Singapore since I was 20 months old, I would say the multicultural experience has become an integral part of my identity.

I attended an international school in Singapore from second grade to graduation, where I was surrounded by students of similar multicultural background. While most of us stayed in the same school, a handful of students came and went each year. Even so, while none had the same TCK story, we all understood each other’s background. We developed a culture of our own due to the shared ability to build upon what we knew ourselves as well as what we learned from each other as outsiders of our native cultures.

As my friends were from various countries, with no high representation from a nation in particular, I had an eclectic experience from visiting each friend’s house and adjusting to the cultural customs of each. In this way, being a TCK and an international student really shaped me to be adept, to be more careful and polite when entering new situations. Singapore is, in my opinion, the cultural melting pot. A lot of my friends here laugh when I say this, retorting that the U.S. is the world’s cultural hub, which may be true. But this country that is much smaller than the U.S. yet has as high, if not higher, concentration of cultures really forces you to experience an amalgamation.

One of the most awkward feelings you could ever have is not feeling like you belong in your own country. Even though I have lived in Singapore and, when asked, answer that my home is Singapore, if I think about it, I can’t help but question how true that answer is. I never had Singaporean friends in Singapore because I went to an international school and only mingled with other international students. I never really experienced a real typical Singaporean life because that’s just not what I had. I was, and still am, technically a foreigner in Singapore and don’t eat, breathe, live a Singaporean life.

I don’t know if I can identify with my native country, Korea, either. Even though my first words were in Korean and I only spoke in Korean for my first years, even though I went to a Korean kindergarten and only communicated in Korean with kids there, and even though I primarily communicated in Korean with my parents, who had only studied and worked in Korea prior to the move to Singapore, once I transitioned to the international school, I picked up English really quickly and suddenly became more comfortable in this foreign language. While I wish I could say I was equally fluent in both languages, I find myself referring to English as my first language and Korean as my mother tongue. I would say I am fluent in Korean, but only on a conversational level. Structuring my sentences and using proper grammar comes naturally to me. Ask me about foods, clothes, music, or anything in daily life, and I will have no issue in giving a response. But ask me about politics, global issues or economics and I will remain silent because whether or not I have an opinion, I don’t have the vocabulary to verbalize my thoughts. This obstacle becomes more apparent when I’m watching the Korean news after dinner with my parents. As sad it is to say, sometimes I don’t feel educated in my native language. When I’m in Korea, I sometimes feel like a foreigner there, too. Sure, I get to go through the Korean passport lane at immigration, but do I feel confident that I could live and work there in the future? Not really. The work and societal cultures for both countries are not only different, but also completely unlike the culture I had as a TCK.

It’s weird to think that you belong everywhere, but also nowhere.

While this may sound like an identity crisis, I could also say that I’ve embraced this ambiguity as my very identity that has given me the strength to easily adjust to new settings. My foreign life helped my transition to life at Brown.

While there were cultural differences that I had to pick up on, nothing seemed like too much of a shock when I was exposed to it for the first time. I think it had to do with the fact that, at this juncture, I have become used to accepting things that I didn’t necessarily identify with or had a connection to. I wasn’t immediately welcoming to everything that crossed my path, but I found it interesting to compare them to what I had experienced or seen before. Some things included the difference in certain terminology. For example, I usually called the “trash can” a “garbage bin,” or pronounced the word “literally” as “lit-tra-ly,” instead of “lit-er-al-ly.” My international accent is amusing to a lot of my friends, but I’ve also seen them starting to refer to or say things the way that I do. This identity has basically made me more open to the differences I come across. It has also made me want to focus on the present and near future. There is a large possibility that I’ll work in a country that isn’t native to me, or that I might not be able to see a lot of the people I am closest to for extended periods of time. I have become more appreciative of the opportunities and resources available at Brown, whether or not they are academic, social or general lifestyle factors. The lingering thought that I might be uprooted again truly helps me realize the insignificance of petty disputes or clashes. As cliché as it may sound, my TCK-ness really pushes me to make the most of what I have now.

During the semesters I have had at Brown, I’ve noticed that only a handful of people had heard of the term Third Culture Kid. It was surprising yet empowering to know that this identity of mine was fairly unique. A lot of people dedicate their time in college to finding themselves or establishing their own identity, but it was comforting that I had part of mine already. This certitude has made me more independent and mature, especially since I am so far away from my family. I still think it is perfectly acceptable and smart to rely on parents when needed. But, while I don’t have the option to call my parents whenever for help, it has taught me to become a better decision maker, weighing costs, benefits and consequences of choices wisely.

There are times when some people will assume TCKs are arrogant or living in their own bubble. To be honest, while some TCKs can be like that, most of us recognize and acknowledge the certain privileges and opportunities we have had. If my parents hadn’t decided to move and raise my sister and me in Singapore, it is unlikely that I would even be at Brown today. If they hadn’t taken the risk and valued the importance of a multicultural experience, it is unlikely that I would have been able to live in a different country or experience a different culture almost every year. If they hadn’t sent me to that international school, it is unlikely that I would be who I am today.

Granted, I’m still only 19 and have many more years of life that will shape who I am and who I will become. But being a Third Culture Kid is currently the biggest part of my life.

—interested in talking more about this topic?  Join us for an IWB luncheon! Details below—

Third Culture KidsRSVP – Thursday, April 28th 12pm JWW 203

Lunch, conversation, and people who call home many places at once!  Join us as we explore the experiences of third culture kids.  This luncheon is based on the post “Third Culture Kid” by Seong Min Kim ’18.  All are welcome!