It’s not my fault.
That was what I wanted to tell my mum when she accused me of always devising ways to leave Hong Kong. “You never want to just stay put,” my mum said hesitantly, as if she was breaching alien territory, “You always want to leave.”
I think what she wanted to say was, “You always want to leave me.” Mother of an only child, I suppose it makes sense she might naturally assume I’m trying to evade her, even though I’m not.
I was born in 1986 in Hong Kong, but I lived in Sydney from 1996 to 2004, and now that I’m back, I don’t always fit in. For a long time, I felt like I should feel as though it was my fault. But then I learned that I’m not that special and I’m not the only one with this dilemma. I’ve never been happier to discover I’m just another statistic.
According to Return Migration and Identity: A Global Phenomenon, A Hong Kong Case by Dr. Nan M. Sussman, nearly 800,000 Hong Kongers emigrated to countries such as Canada, the U.S., U.K and Australia between 1984 and 1997. And since 1997, an estimated 500,000 immigrants returned to Hong Kong as citizens of the abovementioned countries.
The Third Culture Kid Experience, Growing Up Among Worlds, by David Pollock & Ruth Van Reken, describes a Third Culture Kid (TCK) as “a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any.” At the risk of sounding melodramatic, when I was flipping through Dr. Sussman’s book, I found myself crying with relief. I’ve always understood how I felt and why I felt that way, but I never had a term to attach to it, and have always felt a bit lost as a result.
Kate Hawkins can relate to this. Hawkins is a 24-year-old Australian Caucasian whose parents are expatriates in Hong Kong; she was born in Australia but raised here, and later attended high school and university in Brisbane. “I never understood it, because it was never pointed out to me that there was such a thing as TCK,” she said, and it wasn’t until she was in university that she Googled “expatriates”. When she did, she came across a link to a website about TCKs.
“I sat there and cried, I bawled my eyes out and had a breakdown,” Hawkins said, “I called my mum and said, ‘I’ve found myself!’”
To realise I’m part of a growing demographic in Hong Kong made me confront the central issue: the lack of understanding between TCKs like me, and our parents.
For example, some of the biggest arguments between my mother and I come from my seeming inability to connect with my local peers, who have not had my experience of growing up outside of Hong Kong. Perhaps my mother interprets what she sees as anti-social behaviour to be arrogance, or a stubbornness to remain in my own little bubble. And if I’m not making friends among those with whom she’d effortlessly connect, it must be because I’m not trying hard enough to accept them as friends, even though it was sometimes the other way around. It was difficult to connect with those who mocked my poor Chinese reading skills, having a laugh at every character I failed to recognise from something as simple as a take-out menu. Or with those who treated me as a human dictionary, to be consulted without a word of thanks. To be fair, often it is simply because we have nothing in common.
Another difficulty faced by TCKs is the feeling of not having a home. In the first few years of moving back to this city, I would always refer to Australia in terms of “going back for a visit,” or, “going back to Sydney.” My mum would say, “You’re not going back anywhere, you’re going to. Sydney isn’t your home, Hong Kong is.”
Samantha Vaughn, a 20-year-old Bachelor of Journalism student at The University of Hong Kong, has had an even more diverse upbringing. Vaughn is a Eurasian with an American father and Chinese mother. She was born in Taiwan but has lived in Korea, India, Egypt, America, China, and is now in Hong Kong for her studies.
“Technically, I don’t have a home since I’ve grown up everywhere,” she said, “So for me, it’s where I live at that time that becomes my home.”
The dilemma remains: if it’s taken us TCKs this long to understand the way we feel is valid, and to accept our ambiguous cultural identity, how long will it take our our families to acknowledge our elastic character? Will they ever? My own family have called me “gweipo”, a slightly derogatory term for foreigners that translates to “ghost woman”. As a result, I’ve felt if I cannot help the ones closest to me to understand how I feel, I might as well seek out those who will. Therefore, non-locals and other TCKs form my network in Hong Kong.
Before going to Dr. Sussman’s book launch, I never came across a service that helps TCKs with their experiences. At the event, I met Lesley Lewis, an executive coach, education psychologist and counsellor who heads Culture³Counsel, a counselling service for TCKs living in Hong Kong. Her presence and practice reassured me that the mental and emotional anguish experienced by TCKs is not all just in our heads. It’s a legitimate challenge we need not feel guilty for.
Vaughn’s, Hawkin’s and my experiences as TCKs are so specific those who aren’t may find it very difficult to understand why we feel the way we do, but we each possess a flexibility that we can see in each other, and understand. And to Hawkins and me, it wasn’t being different from our peers that bothered us. It was understanding how we feel but not having the words to express it, and not having a term to identify ourselves. These are things many TCKs relate to, which makes each of us feel more connected and less alone.
So surely, if there can be counselling offered to TCKs to understand who they have become as individuals, there can be counselling for their parents to help them understand the transitions their children have gone through and a mutual understanding can be achieved.
Because, as a TCK, the way I’ve turned out is not my fault. But my mum’s inability to empathise with me is not her fault either.
(Note: This piece was written early 2011.)