This has been on my mind for quite a while now, so allow me a long-winded rant (though my blog posts are almost always rants).
I was born in Korea and raised in Malaysia. My dad’s Korean and my mom’s Malaysian. My passport’s Korean and my accent’s Malaysian.
I speak Mandarin with my mom, English with my brother, and Korean with my dad (but he usually does most of the talking). I stayed in a part of Malaysia that speaks Cantonese a lot (Kuala Lumpur), so I gradually learned the dialect through listening to my high school friends’ conversations. My mom is of Hokkien descent, so I can understand bits and pieces of that too – though I may mix up some terms.
Unlike other non-local kids in Malaysia, I went to a local school instead of an international one. And so I learned the national language (Bahasa Malaysia), the history, the culture, and even the politics of the nation. Simply put, I’m as Malaysian as it gets, sweetheart.
But where’s home home? I don’t know. My Korean fluency is nothing short of embarrassing but when I go through Malaysian customs during summer break, I enter the country as a tourist.
This is me.
And there are many others out there with much more complicated backgrounds. This video is proof.
People like me usually go through a bout of identity crisis sometime in their lives.
People like me are categorised as “third culture kids”, TCK for short. Cases differ widely and can even be unique. TCK is an umbrella term for just about anyone who wasn’t born and raised in the same country as their parents. And there’re a lot more of us than you think.
It’s quite easy to find us. We’re the people who hesitate when asked, “So where’re you from?” We’re the people who have an accent that doesn’t align with our looks (racist much?) We’re the people who have acquired the skill of switching between languages and accents very quickly and don’t realise we’re doing it (but I get stuck quite often and just sound retarded).
I can’t speak for all the TCKs out there, but I can speak for myself. When I’m asked the classic, “Where’re you from?” I always feel like there’re eyes on me. I can sense my friends tuning into the conversation just to hear my answer. I’m Korean, but not culturally Korean. I’m culturally Malaysian, but not legally so. It’s complicated. I’m not FROM any of these two countries, I’m from BOTH. But it seems like today’s society is still stuck on expecting a one-word answer. Anything more would earn me a confused look.
Curiosity has even brought questions somewhere along the lines of, “So which country do you like better?” or, “do you think you’re more Malaysian, or Korean?”
Does it matter? You’re basically asking me to ‘choose sides’.
I root for Korea in every World Cup, I cheer equally hard for Malaysia when the Thomas Cup dawns. I love kimchi and ddeokbokki and fried chicken with beer, but durian never fails to make my mouth water. I take pride in both nations’ triumphs, as well as feel shame for things that obviously need improvement.
So no, I’m not taking sides. It’s childish. This is me. I don’t represent one country more than the other. I would probably embarrass the country I choose to represent fully anyway.
To not have grown up in Korea has given me a sense of longing for the place only TCKs will understand. A longing to be fully accepted into the Korean community when nothing about me is local except for my blood. Though I try. A longing to be able to talk, eat, think, act like a true Korean. My eyes light up and my ears tingle when I see or hear someone Korean but when I open my mouth in hopes of making a new friend who can teach me more about the place I was born in, more often than not, nothing comes out in fear of embarrassing myself.
A lot of people envy us, thinking the grass is greener on our side, somehow. It sounds so cool, to struggle with our identity, to have an ‘interesting’ accent, to have friends from all over the world, to be flying ‘home’ to yet another country our dads have been transferred to. It’s like a lifelong party at the airport.
It is cool, occasionally, when people we’ve just met shower us with attention like you would gawk at a talking rhino in the zoo because of our seemingly complicated background. But deep down, we envy those who were born in Place A, grew up in Place A, have a Place A accent, and whose parents are also from Place A. To us, simplicity is the coolest.
In my world, the most compliments I receive are about my multilinguality. I usually act cool upon receiving such unfit praise, like I really am fluent in all those languages. No one’s ever really going to call my bluff anyway, since the possibility of finding someone who knows the exact same set of languages as me is next to zero.
In reality, my Korean is so bad I can’t even make Korean friends properly. And for all the other languages, I’m a jack of all, but master of none. But I can detect a Malaysian or a Singaporean accent from a mile away. I can tell if someone’s from Hong Kong, Mainland China, Korea or Japan by just one glance. My accent and choice of vocabulary changes depending on who I’m talking to, yet I can’t tell you what my mother-tongue is.
The snidest remarks I’ve heard are usually about my inability to make homemade kimchi (apparently no one will ever want to marry me because I lack this particular skill), as well as my brains, and my looks. It has gone as far as expecting my behavior and fashion style to conform to the stereotype etched in others’ minds.
We have long been brainwashed to automatically classify others into labelled boxes – Korean, Malaysian, heterosexual, homosexual, middle-class, Engineering student, Asian, white, etc. and then judge them according to stereotypes.
I resent that. Who gave you the right to walk into my life and expect me to jump into one of your many boxes? Did I say you could label me and then judge me? Just because I’m different doesn’t give you the permission to pry, nor demand an answer that matches one of your stupid labels. Despite globalization, today’s society still expects straightforward answers to a lot of questions regarding identity. I suppose the case wouldn’t be too different for someone struggling with their sexuality, which is also a part of our identity.
And so the next time someone asks me where I’m from, “I’m from Earth darling, you?”
For an opposing view, check out a previous hKUDOS blogpost on Third Culture Kids here.