For a Third Culture Kid (TCK) like me, there is no simple answer to the question, “Where do you come from?”; Like, I come from Japan, but I don’t think that that answer solely would define my cultural identity. I grew up in international schools surrounded by people of different race, custom, belief, and ethnicity. This experience enabled me to explore opportunities beyond those of an average Japanese teenager. Although this privilege came with some disadvantages, the confidence and flexibility I gained as a TCK certainly outweighed the costs.
I was born and reared by a Japanese family in Tokyo, but after going to a Japanese public kindergarten, I was put in an international school. Although Tokyo is a big city, I live in a suburban neighborhood, and the average income level of the families in my neighborhood isn’t very high. Private junior schools, hence, weren’t popular choices amongst the parents of my kindergarten classmates. In fact, some people had never even heard of an international school. As a preschooler, I still remember the awkwardness I felt telling my preschool friends that I was headed for an international junior school. When I came home one day, I confronted my mother with the absurdity of the idea of putting me, a non-english speaking six-year-old, in an international school. She explained to me, however, that international school was a better option, because there was bullying in the public junior school around my neighborhood. At that moment I knew my mother had won the quarrel; I did not argue any further.
“Good morning!” The bus attendant smiled at me as she led me to my bus seat on the first day of junior school. As the bus started moving, and the figure of my grandfather faded outside the window, I suddenly panicked. I looked around and saw kids my age bombarding each other with an esoteric language. It took me a while to recall that my mother had told me that I would be studying in English at my new school. The bus was filled with joyful children reconciling with their peers after a long summer. I, on the other hand, was left in solitude, completely alienated from this English-speaking world.
At school, I was assigned to an intensive English class. My first teacher, Ms.Piamonte, was a benevolent Filipina. The first thing we did in class was to introduce ourselves to our classmates:
I could not.
I did not know how to speak English and I was intimidated. In fact, this was the first time I learned the significance of a language barrier. Once we reach a certain age, we are not able to communicate nor are we even able to express our frustration towards the fact that we cannot convey our emotions without a common language. As I came home that day and explained to my mother, she promised me that she would help me learn English. From them on, at school I tried my best to learn the most while not humiliating myself. On the weekends, I sat with my mother at a desk for a very long time, and scribbled the alphabet in a notebook repetitively. As a matter of fact, I got better at it with time. By the end of first grade, I had already taken the first steps into a new culture.
I made a lot of friends in junior school. Most of my friends, however, were Japanese: they had either lived in Japan their entire life or were born in Japan. At home, I spoke Japanese, and at my cram school, I spoke Japanese. Everywhere I went, except school, I spoke Japanese. Although my school strictly enforced the English speaking policy, I could not completely abandon my Japanese origins. As a result, my friends and I had formulated a new language: Jenglish. In Jenglish, we often used English nouns in Japanese sentences. Despite the fact that we felt most comfortable speaking Japanese, English also became an essential part of us.
I moved to another international school in sixth grade. Although it was a transfer from one international school to another, my new school had an unique atmosphere, and I felt extremely foreign in the new environment. Students already belonged to their social groups, and thus making new friends was a challenge. I ate lunch by myself for the first few days, and I would return home crying. My experience may not sound as bad as those of others who moved to a new country. For me, however, assimilation to my new school was one of the pivotal transitions in my life.
After I got to know the school better, I was able to make friends. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but the few friends that I made were mostly Japanese speakers. At ISSH, I felt a further changes in my identity. For example, although my friends and I spoke Jenglish, we started to use English more often than Japanese: I used Japanese nouns with English sentences. In addition to that, I had stopped learning Japanese, and quit a lot of my activities outside school predominantly due to the increasing academic work at school. Consequently, I lost more and more contact with Japanese people and Japanese culture. Also, I had started to seriously consider my future career in America. My identity shift was evident: each passing day, distinguishing English and Japanese became harder. English became the requisite rather than a supplement. In class, I unconsciously mixed Japanese with English. My tenth grade history teacher made us donate 10 yen (≈8cents) to charity each time we spoke Japanese. As you could probably guess, by now, the number of starving children I saved should corroborate my position as a third culture kid.
My friends remind me of my cultural transformation. According to them not only my language, but my personality had also changed. Compared to the Japanese students, I am more gregarious and “American”. Interestingly, however, when I go outside Japan, people appraise my oriental identity. Though speaking two languages has led me to save many children from starvation, it has also caused me insecurity. I can no longer define myself as a single character belonging to a single culture. Sometimes, I fear this fact of not belonging anywhere. Which country do I support in the Olympics? Which country would I side for during World War III? Random worries, although some fictional, pass through my mind once in a while.
Being a third culture kid, however, has also broadened my horizons. In the midst of the clashing cultures, I have found my own equilibrium; for example, I love the sensitive flavor of onigiri (Japanese rice ball) but I also cannot resist the tasty hamburgers. Also, by combining the best aspects of both Japanese and American cultures, I am able to create something better. I became more open too: I now understood, resonated with, and sympathized with people of different backgrounds. I have learned to respect the personalities of every culture. In the 21st century, where the world is connected extensively, I feel that this acceptance and flexibility that I’ve acquired will be my strength.
Growing up in an international school has changed me from a timid Japanese kindergartner to a confident third culture teenager. My life has been an accumulation of assimilation, but through these experiences, I have learned to establish my own unique niche. I can be confident anywhere I go. Therefore my TCK identity is certainly one that I will embrace throughout my life.