Culture,  Identity

Finding Home in My Third-Culture Story

As a third-culture kid, it’s difficult to confidently place yourself amongst one people and say they’re your own. 


In fact, it can even be difficult to confidently call somewhere home. 


This internal struggle can have a subtle but profound effect on what you become as an adult. 


I am a third culture kid because I have never lived anywhere for more than four consecutive years. I was born in Las Vegas then spent infantry in San Francisco, where my father was studying for his PhD. 


At 3 years old, my family moved to Malaysia and Taiwan, staying in each country for a year each. I attended kindergarten through 3rd grade in Orange County, Southern California. To be closer to my father’s work, my family moved to Malaysia again. I spent 4th grade through 7th grade there. I skipped 8th grade and went to high school at an American International school in Taiwan before finally coming back to the US for college. 


Long story short, I was / am always moving. 


Looking back at it now, each major move made distinct changes to my cultural identity, as I tried to settle in and establish myself amidst new societies. The first move I can remember clearly is my move from America to Malaysia. 


When I first moved to Malaysia, I very much identified as American. This was for three main reasons: 

1. I was the only “American” kid in my British International school class. I felt very unique using “-or” to spell color as opposed to “-our”

2. The US culture is more inclusive than others in terms of who can be considered American. Therefore, I was allowed to feel American even with my yellow skin. No one ever strongly refuted my claim to the name. 

3. The US raised me to have a strong sense of American nationalism, which made me reluctant to allow other cultures to penetrate my identity. In American elementary school, I was taught that the US was the savior of every war and while singing “oh, say can you see”, I would look up at world maps with the US’s land size 1.5x enlarged. As a result, I proudly boasted about the US’s “greatness” to my new peers upon arrival in Malaysia. 

As my time continued in Malaysia, I found myself visiting Taiwan and Singapore just as much as I did the US. Without realizing it, I started to feel more comfortable amongst my friends in Malaysia than I did amongst my friends in the US. My school in Malaysia was very diverse (but East Asian dominated) so I fit in better than I did in the US. 


In the US, I was one of a handful of Asian people swimming in a sea of majority white people. Subconsciously, this held me back from ever being able to feel like a “cool kid”. There was always an underlying pressure to be like everyone else and compensate for my differences. 


In Malaysia, I started feeling pride in my differences; my differences made me “cool”. They made me who I was and I liked who I was. This development was possible because with great diversity, being different is normal and thus, easier to embrace. 


Still, there were things I missed about the US but only objects of nostalgia, such as going to DisneyLand every thursday, walking down the pier at Huntington Beach to eat Ruby’s Diner, and listening to the waves crash during drives along the PCH. 


By the end of my experience in Malaysia, I had let go of much of my American identity. I instead called myself Taiwanese. That’s what my parents told me, that’s what I told people at school, and that’s what I visually saw when I looked in the mirror. 


I was really excited to be moving to Taiwan for high school. 99% of the students at my “international” school were born and raised in Taiwan and having considered myself Taiwanese at the time, I anticipated fitting in even more than I did in Malaysia. 


I was wrong. 


Most people at school did not consider me Taiwanese. They said I could not speak the language and that I looked different. I guess my mom being Vietnamese and growing up in the US and Malaysia distinguished my physical appearance? 


Either way, I was not-so-pleasantly surprised. Even if people acknowledged my Taiwanese heritage, I was very strongly distinguished as “fake” Taiwanese or “Americanized” Taiwanese.


All in all, I was forced to crush the identity I had grown to love in Malaysia because everyone told me it was invalid. 


This was all very confusing and frustrating as a developing teen. Often, I felt angry. I hated the feeling of not understanding anything when hanging out with Taiwanese peers. Not only did it remind me of my rejected identity but there were cases through high school when people would intentionally only speak Mandarin as a method of excluding me. Even today, I get unnecessarily flustered when unable to speak and understand others in Mandarin. 


By graduation, I felt pushed away by Taiwan, to the point where I rather embraced much of my prior southeast Asian and American upbringing. I held onto some of my Taiwanese identity because of the influence of my parents, a handful of good friends, and the kindness of general Taiwanese people. 


The attachment, however, was definitely less than when I first moved to Taiwan. 


I ended up attending university in the US. I am currently very confident in my personal identity but I admittedly do still find myself confused about my cultural identity.

I feel Asian culturally when I am with Americans (Asian-Americans included) but American culturally when I am with Asians (born and raised). 


When people ask me “what I am”, my quick answer is Taiwanese but I’m really just referring to my blood ethnicity. I guess if I had to categorize my cultural self, I would say Asian American International. However, this is an intentionally vague and flexible term. In all truthfulness, I don’t hold great importance in having a cultural identity anymore because it is no longer an anchor I rely on.

I rely on people to make myself feel safe and at home. 


I feel the most me I can be when I’m with those I love: my family, my best friends, my girlfriend etc. 


As cliche as it sounds, it’s who you’re with that make the place. Besides, why tie myself down to just one place? In each city I have lived in thus far, I have picked up pieces of the culture and used it to build myself. 


I see places as avenues for opportunity and exploration. 


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Nicholas is a biomedical engineering graduate student at Columbia University. An avid golfer and basketball enthusiast outside the lab, he hopes to enter the biomed tech industry upon graduation.