Cold, glazed eyes march their way to mine as an immigration officer at O’Hare International Airport questions my American passport, accompanied by my Chinese accent, as I flew alone to Hong Kong and Singapore with an Alaskan driver’s license – “What exactly are you doing abroad?”
As my 16-year-old lips move but no sound travels…he asks, “Are you returning home? Traveling for leisure? Are you flying to meet your family overseas?”
Searching for oxygen to prompt a calm and accurate response, I utter, “All of the above and none of the above, sir.”
For I am a third culture kid – a culturally confused American with an Asian heart that is decorated with travels across 18 countries by the age of 18. The 32-hour travel journey from the United States to Hong Kong to Singapore that I embarked upon alone was not only easy, but a comforting, familiar ascent to ‘home.’ Sacred and priceless, travel is my sanctuary.
Airports are like play-dates at my childhood best friend’s house, close to home and a source of solace. For in the hustling heat of panicking strangers in pursuit of their next destination, I am at peace in the arms of the premise of change.
My identity is a melted mix of contrasting cultures in which can only be explained with a deep breath as a preface to my complicated creation of self. I’ve celebrated 38 percent of my birthdays at soaring altitudes. I’ve been enthused by over 300 hours of international flying, sometimes solo. With 68 stamps declaring my adventures in my worn and torn passport, I am left with more than just physical evidence that my identity is speckled across the globe. My lust for learning abroad glows within me, as my heart for a culture that is not mine by blood is radiantly deep.
I have trekked Thai mountains with a monk who has since gone missing among the jungle that he calls home (note the present tense, as I believe he is alive and well, even close to the earth in his search for sanctity). I have snorkeled over the fluorescent kaleidoscope that is the Great Barrier Reef, only to dive in the chomping shark waters of Malaysia. I adopted a brother while in Beijing and joined the Chinese National Honor Society while living in Singapore. I rode my first camel in Dubai, after exploring the ruins of Cambodia. I even have a friendship necklace created out of a selected piece of the Great Wall. Everything I own is a personal picture of my travels, my search for identity. As a small town Indiana-USA born “American by passport,” I combat the culture that runs in my veins with the ones across the oceans that raised me as their own. Who am I, you ask?
I would answer you if there was in fact a definitive, entirely English answer – considering the time I spend thinking and speaking in Chinese, Chinglish (Chinese English), and Singlish (Singaporean English).
The complex identity that defines and distorts TCK’s can lead to difficulty in forming peer relationships and academic stability with the frequent changing of countries and homes. Restlessness and rootlessness ravage a sleepless, time-zone wrecked child ‘nomad.’ Furthermore, TCK’s are confronted with the turbulence of powerlessness, the inability to control one’s geographic, social, and educational paths. Most deeply, TCK’s are handed an identity crisis that can only be solved with perhaps more travel, meditation, and self exploration.
Understanding TCK’s and their role in society is essential to the modern political, business, and journalistic era. Adult TCK’s are leading authors, academics, and leaders. President Barack Obama is an adult TCK who perceives home in Indonesia, Hawaii, and Kenya, in which exemplifies cross-cultural ties that make him relatable, a comfortable minority, and an image of diversity. Latin American novelist Carlos Fuentes moved across Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile, allowing his interpretations of Latin culture to be rich and honest. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour is the Chief International Correspondent at CNN, where her background with Iran, England, Tehran, and the United States led to a successful journalistic career and lasting friendship with John F. Kennedy. As one examines some of the nation’s leading politicians, artists, and journalists, one can only wonder how the experience of childhood relocation has contributed to the shaping of these people and their careers. Third culture kids have the unique capacity to think creatively for engaging in business in a globalizing world and cross cultural climate. Some 85 percent of TCK’s speak two or more languages, while 47 percent speak three or more languages. Further, 93 percent of TCK’s in a 2014 Denizen Magazine survey claimed that they found themselves more open to other cultures and customs than those who have lived in only one country. Thus, the integration of TCK’s into society is not only essential in creating compassion for foreign cultures, but for shaping the industry of international relations.
While TCK’s may appear to have their lives together as trilingual, well-educated, enlightened students of international schools and travel, they do in fact face some of the deepest issues of transitioning. Often, TCK’s like myself who return to their ‘passport’ country for college are rattled by isolation, and a longing for those who dream of their home abroad and afar.
Identity is a passionate struggle all will and do face. Whether you’ve never left America, whether you’re an immigrant, a migrant, a refugee, a third culture kid, a gypsy, a nomad, or one who works a 5-7 office job – your identity is at the mercy of your interpretation of triumphs and tribulations.
The necessity of defining identity is not a struggle singled out to the international third culture kid community. Even today, masses of migrants and refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Kosovo are overwhelming border authorities in several Balkan countries in pursuit of Western Europe. In the wake of this massive migration, children will walk far from home, some won’t even survive the journey. As years will pass, and they face life in a foreign country, they will endure a timeless struggle of creating identity in a cross-cultural climate. Does your location of residence determine how you define yourself, or do your origins and nationality shape you more deeply? Identity is a processing of the past, a look at who one wishes to become, and a battle with who one is in present time. Is your identity defined by your financial success? Your race? Gender? Faith?
What is it that we should root our very conceptions of ourselves within?
Is our identity based on how many people we can support? The languages we speak? Those that we have loved?
Perhaps identity is not meant to be known, solved or built. Perhaps the purpose of identity is to leave pieces of oneself across the lands one travels, the people one meets, and the airports that lead one to all expeditions of epic proportions.
As my China- born brother, adopted by Americans, raised in Singapore and Midwestern America grows up geographically far from the culture that runs through his blood, he will question who he is and who is intended to become by the God that created him for my very family. My identity is in my love for the trails of the globe I haven’t trekked, my Chinese brother who is a walking illustration of my Asian home and heart, and in the cultural complexities, heartbreak, change, and joy that encompass the turbulence of a TCK in a traveling world.
“Was it hard?” they ask. “Hard to move? Hard to learn Chinese? Hard to change schools?”
“Not as hard as life could be had I been raised ordinarily.”
Today I am tattooed with an unquenchable thirst for adventure. Hesitation no longer chokes me when a gentle grin bears the quintessential question – “where do you call home?”
For am I from the crevices of the Great Wall of China, the depths of the Thai jungle, the waters of the Australian outback, and now, within the walls of Fischer Hall as a Wheaton College student.
There is a grand difference between simply surviving and deeply living. In near-death, thrilling moments within my travels, I have grown a wild, untamed will to know the pleasures of living boldly and dying fearlessly.
If the attainment of your identity is an essential part of life, are you truly living – or only existing?
Featured photo credit: Lisa Rassi