Opinion: It’s Okay to be Third Cultured Kids

Third Culture Kids (or TCKs), for children who spend their formative years in places that are not their parents’ homeland.

By Joon Kim

Taipei-“I AM a South Korean high school student at an American-based educational institution at a Taiwanese city,” lays a description that could, and would, fit my cultural, educational, and linguistic identity.

But within it lies an unsettling truth that continues to awake me overnight.

Indeed, I was born in South Korea, and I lived there until I was 6. I do have a South Korean passport, was taught the Korean language, and (used to) take classes at a Korean-based lower school once every Saturday.

But I am the outlier: I cancel all these qualities altogether. I sometimes do think as if I was not genuinely Korean. Because, as you may have already noticed, I was taught my native language at an entirely foreign environment.

My mother, a former preschool teacher, taught me Korean as soon as our family arrived at Taiwan, and I do still remember. But, in the digital era, I grew up to self-teach myself by reading books and newspapers, watching television programs, and, most recently, listening to the radio — all in Korean.

When I speak formal Korean across the dinner table, my parents, both who were born and raised in South Korea, would interrupt me if I make a trivial mistake or a grammatical error. One evening, I was outside, on my way home.

“I’m coming home,” I called to my mother on the phone.

“It’s ‘I’m going home,’ not ‘coming home,’” she replied. “You’re not here.”

I flinched. “I get it, mom,” I said. “I do get it.” But I didn’t, really.

At the end of next June, I will graduate at Taipei American School, and go back to South Korea. But my parents and my sister are worried, whether I could adapt to a completely new environment. My answer? I agree.

Indeed, it’s my home country, but at the same time, it isn’t. I may as well be alien.

If being a “third culture kid (TCK)” was counted as a privilege, I’m certainly not idle, sitting quietly halfway. At the top, I’m proud of my multicultural identity, but below it, I’m confused, frustrated, and utterly in angst, of how loosely my identity is set in stone.

ONE DAY, my mother asked me a question. “Which is more convenient, Korean or English?”

I said, speaking English is much easier. At our home, Korean is the first language, but for me, English is ‘the best.’

Because it’s… everywhere.

I speak English all the time. I speak English with my friends, with my teachers, with my counselors. I think in English. (I even write in English.) I see it everywhere, from car labels to ads sticking out of buildings, from laptop keyboards to video headlines on YouTube. No surprise there; English is one of the most widely spoken languages worldwide, after Mandarin and Spanish.

At our school, an unofficial policy states that students and faculty members should only speak English on campus, but not everyone complies with it.

I’d think this ‘policy’ — or norm — is virtually impossible.

Life as a TCK can create a sense of rootlessness and restlessness, where home is “everywhere and nowhere.”

Our school contains “an international population most of whose members are already multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic searchers of the best of internationalism,” writes Dr. Sharon D. Hennessy, the school head, in our school website. And that extra array of multiplicity in linguistic, cultural, and ethnic diversity would’ve already made school life much more difficult.

Except it really isn’t.

At our school, we use English as a universal outlet to socially connect, built trust and bond with, among ourselves, despite all the distinctive backgrounds we all have there. So, I’d have to admit that I unconsciously admire English, just for the fact that I use it ever so often all day.

THEN, WHY does it — being “third cultured” — frustrate me?

Because I can’t answer it.

Perhaps the only way to be grateful is to be part of it.

Recently, I’ve developed a sudden obsession for Japan. And that adds to the list of cultures I’m affiliated in. If I’m still loitering around, trying to figure out who I really am, I will probably say, “I’m Korean, then English, and, at last, maybe, Taiwanese.”

Oh, and yes, a bit of Japanese. The more, the merrier.