As globalization increasingly bridges cultural and physical barriers between countries, experts estimate a growing number of third-culture kids around the world. Third culture kids (TCK) typically entail individuals who grew up in a culture other than their country of nationality during a critical part of their developmental years. While living abroad can render a broader worldview and cultural intelligence, it can also cause significant identity crises and lead to ignorance of home culture. Ewha Voice interviewed three Ewha students, Ryu Seo-yeon, Kim Euny, and Kim Chae-eun, who shared their experiences as TCKs from three different continents.
TCKs fighting alone
Ryu Seo-yeon, a senior from the Department of English Education, has her earliest memories in Bandung, Indonesia. Ryu is a TCK who moved to Indonesia and Malaysia at a young age and spent her middle and high school years there. Coming back to Korea as a college student, and no longer a part of an international community of TCKs just like her, she knew that life was not going to be easy.
“In international schools, even though we were aware of the term TCK existed and that we were TCKs, we rarely talked about it because it was so natural,” Ryu said. “Then we all went to college and realized that being a TCK is going to have an impact on us for the rest of our lives.”
According to Ryu, what makes the life of a TCK challenging is their low representation. For example, for Asian Americans, whom Asian TCKs get mistaken a lot for, it is relatively easier to find representatives in society who share similar backgrounds and struggles. However, that is not the case for TCKs.
“The life of TCKs is a lonely road,” Ryu said. “We are only the majority when we are all in international schools, but once we step outside of that community, we become the minority. It is very hard to find a group of people whom we can share our struggles with. ”
One of those struggles is fighting against the taboo of having lived abroad and being called ‘white-washed’ by society. For instance, Ryu had found a lack of healthy criticism in Korean society, especially at universities, to be problematic as many members of Korean society do. However, it is harder for TCKs to openly criticize specific aspects of their home country because even if they use the exact same word as non-TCKs do, the public is more likely to be offended when TCKs talk about it—often using expressions such as brainwashed or whitewashed to criticize those who grew up in western settings.
Ryu shared her memory of returned alumni that now work as teachers at their alma mater. According to her, a lot of them come back saying TCKs are extremely rare in society and international schools were the only place where they could feel normal, yet special at the same time. It shows how hard it is for TCKs to find a place where they feel like they belong in this world. However, not every TCK can decide to become a teacher and move back to their alma mater.
When asked about the peak of her identity crisis, Ryu looked back at her freshman and sophomore years. At that time, every day was an identity crisis for her. She constantly felt like she is an unaccepted foreigner living in Korea. Her Korean pronunciation was unnatural, and some people even made fun of it. However, she says now it is just a small thing.
“If you’re a TCK, you probably feel like an alien most of the time,” Ryu said. “There were moments when I wished I was not a TCK. I wished to be part of the majority and some cultural clashes made me wish I was just blind to certain knowledge. Instead of trying to cut some part of yourself to force yourself into a certain group, try to find a group that would accept the way you are but also humbles you. Find strong pillars of friends and you will never fall."
Do not be intimidated - go on and be yourself
Before moving to Korea for university two years ago, Kim Euny, a sophomore from the Division of International Studies, lived her entire life abroad. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Kim spent her first eight years there. She then moved to Zimbabwe for three years, after which she finished middle and high school at an international boarding school in India.
Each transition from one country to another had its challenges. When Kim moved for the first time, she was devastated to discover that she had to say goodbye to her friends. Moving from Zimbabwe to India was even harder as she had to deal with her awkward, angsty adolescence in a culturally different environment.
Everything in India contrasted with South Africa and Zimbabwe. Kim recalled how shocked she was with the heavy traffic, towering apartment buildings, and cows on the streets in India. It was also India where she first recognized that she was different as her peers pointed out her distinct accent and height. However, after making her way through a period of adjustment, she came to feel more connected to the country than to any other place she had been.
“I feel most connected to India, which is rather complicated,” Kim said. “My roots are still in Africa, but I forgot some parts of my childhood as I grew up. Even within India, I barely scraped the surface of each culture because it is a massive country. I would say I am most connected to my little warm bubble within India from my school full of diversity.”
COVID-19 made her transition from India to Korea tougher. Due to government regulations, Kim had to move out of her dormitory three months before graduation. Again, she could not say goodbye to her longtime friends, whom she would most likely never see again as they parted ways to different places in the world.
Coming to Korea, Kim was initially skeptical as to whether or not she would fit in. Although she is content with her identity as a Korean, she admitted that she felt like a foreigner at first. There were moments when she questioned her identity including people expecting her to speak Korean fluently to the point where she can perfectly conveys her thoughts.
Kim shared how growing up witnessing poverty and starvation on a daily basis increased her sensitivity to problems in developing countries. She was in utter disbelief during the chaotic scenes of the 2016 Indian banknote demonetization that led to an immense number of cashless citizens on the streets. Such experience has impacted her future dream to settle down in a developing country and partake in humanitarian work to help as many people as she can.
“I had a generally positive experience as a TCK,” Kim said. “One piece of advice to myself in the past is to not be intimidated. Go on, be social, and be yourself. You will not always feel like you fit in, but there is so much a country can offer.”
A struggle to figure out who I am
Kim Chae-eun (Grace Kim), a sophomore from the Division of International Studies, moved to the United States at the age of two. She lived two years in Fort Worth, Texas and nearly seven years in Wilmore, Kentucky. Holding onto the looming possibility of returning to the U.S., she spent the next nine years in Korea.
Her life in Wilmore consisted mostly of fond memories including rolling around in the grass and creating skits with her friends, but little did Kim know that she would leave this part of her life behind after moving to Korea. Contrary to her initial excitement, she had difficulty adjusting to Korea for a long time.
Whenever Kim spoke English to her sister out in public, she could sense strangers giving the side-eye to them. To avoid standing out, she and her sister agreed not to converse in English, but failed every time. Looking back, she mentioned how sad it was that they felt the need to change who they were as not to feel excluded.
To make matters worse, there was a lack of social support around her. Kim described how her middle school teacher told the entire class to not be intimidated by the students who lived abroad because they are not good at Korean and math. That incident made her spiteful to the point where she felt like she had to constantly prove to others that their prejudice against children who had lived abroad was wrong.
“I had an unhealthy hatred towards my situation,” Kim said. “In middle school, I disliked what ‘stereotypical Koreans’ liked because I felt excluded. I am not proud of how I thought at the time, but it took a long time for me to learn from it.”
Kim described how attending a global high school helped her recognize her own biases against people. Surrounded by open-minded students, she gradually grasped the idea that people are multifaceted. She acknowledged that while she struggled to come to terms with her home culture, she felt privileged to hold onto diverse sides of cultures when she returned to Korea.
After hearing that some of her friends had experienced difficulties similar to those she had, Kim mentioned that she hopes TCK student unions will be available at all schools in the future. Such student unions would act as support groups providing guidance to TCKs.
“Before I knew the term TCK, I asked myself, ‘Am I Korean-American?’” Kim said. “I was not born in America, so ‘Am I a Korean wannabe-American?’ Being a TCK in Korea has been an interesting experience that made me grow into a more complex person for the better or worse.”