In Defence of ‘Expat Brats’

Over the past week I’ve been watching the train wreck known as Jason Wordie’s column on expat brats in the South China Morning Post explode and then implode from Brussels, where — perhaps Wordie already knows — I have been dousing myself with bottles of Moët and feeding my drug addiction while judging the world on transient values and daddy-name-dropping on my job applications.

Having decided to take a three-hour break from my drunken rich kid stupor today, I thought I’d add my two cents to the conversation.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, the column appeared on June 14 in Post Magazine. Basically, according to Wordie’s portrayal, we are the “pitiful,” “sad by-products of colonial Hong Kong society” with zero discipline. Having grown up with people constantly leaving, we make little investment in others, caught forever in a trap of “emotional shallowness”. The Post followed up with reactions from adult third culture kids (ATCKs) a few days later, and another reactive column from Wordie today.

The reactions to the initial column ranged from outrage to agreement, apparently.

If Wordie or the SCMP thinks the column attracted readers because it hit some mysterious kernel of truth, they should stop flattering themselves. What Wordie wrote was blatantly one-sided, and for someone with 30 years of experience in Hong Kong, utterly unfair and blind regarding the third culture kid community.

Yes, it’s true, there are some things that we as “expat brats” observed and did that would shock and appall. You won’t get us to raise an eyebrow with the stuff on the Rich Kids of Instagram. Horses, holidays on the yacht, private villas, the size of the ring, etc. are topics that may sometimes enter the conversation. It was not unusual for our classmates to arrive at school with security personnel in tow or to have a cavalcade of service staff. Many of us do speak Cantonese and Mandarin with an accent and are a little more detached from the local community. And yes, we could probably tell you at the drop of a hat which hotel washroom you could go to on a busy Sunday in Central when you don’t want to line up for the public toilets, because we might have hung out around these places when we were kids.

But the conclusions that Wordie comes to based on these markers is totally off the mark. Is it wealth that he has a problem with? Then welcome to Hong Kong. The structure of our city is geared toward the accumulation of wealth. I won’t defend the excesses in TCKs’ lives, but if you’re going to hate us just for that, you’re going to have to do a whole lot better.

No one likes to hear an expat brat talk about their problems, but these are exactly the things that are skimmed over. Our friends did leave and so did we. When I was five, I left my kindergarten in Hong Kong for a totally new kindergarten in Vancouver. When I was nine, I left all of my childhood friends in Vancouver for completely new set of classmates in Hong Kong. The best friendships I developed in secondary school did not last long enough for us to graduate together. Before I was 18, I had developed a network of people I loved and missed, spread out across three continents, and this kind of dynamic is true of all my TCK friends at international schools, not just in Hong Kong but the world over.

At my parents’ home in Hong Kong there are boxes of letters from my friends, dating back to 1990. The earliest specimens are in five-year-old scrawl with felt-tip pen and crayon and stickers and all colors of the rainbow. Before Facebook, email, the Internet and cheap calling cards, my friends and I were already posting updates and photos to each other on a weekly basis, via snail mail with a big ‘ol stamp and “Par Avion” sticker.

These experiences did not stunt us emotionally or make us utilitarian in our relationships, or if they did, we came out of that eventually. Ultimately, it has made many of us aware of just how little time we have with the people we love, and to treasure them that much more. We dive deep and fast into friendships and relationships, knowing they may not last, but also aware that it’s possible they can be revived when we come together again — because, given our track record, that is always a possibility. The prospect of departure may lead some of us to be more cautious about making an emotional investment, but for others, it’s exactly the reason to do it. Invest heavily, because the window of opportunity will close before you know it.

Expat brats are some of the most generous, open-minded, passionate thinkers I know. They would think nothing of going to the Myanmar border to treat sick patients, personally flying to the Philippines with relief supplies for victims of Typhoon Haiyan, fishing out used taxi seat upholstry from recycling stores to fashion into eco-friendly bags, climbing to base camp on Everest, starting a Hawaiian food truck business in Philly, hiking 100 kilometres for charity, traveling by cargo ship from Sydney to Stockholm. These are people who can talk high-brow wine and private jets, but also know exactly where to get the best streetside oyster pancake in Singapore and how to bus it from Kazakhstan to China. They are also people who would throw themselves into both kinds of lives with equal verve and gusto.

As I’ve been reminded, not all expats or TCKs are brats. All too often the discussion about TCKs gets conflated with wealth and privelege. Certainly we were priveleged for having so many cultural opportunities, but there are many of us who didn’t grow up in an environment where private jets and silver spoons were the norm.

Adult TCKs are also — by dint of now being adults with hindsight — trying to correct the problems in their closed-off upbringing and reintegrate to local society. It is not always easy. By the time we were 18, we had spent our entire childhoods speaking English or French or German, and with the need to get into foreign universities of a ranking that would justify the price tags of our educations, we also spent every spare minute outside of school doing activities in those languages. The fact that international schools sometimes forbade students from speaking Cantonese and placed a low premium on local topics did not make it easier to assimiliate — something that theoretically should have been easy. This is not an excuse, but an explanation. I know very few TCKs who do not regret the opportunities we missed in connecting with Hong Kong and the people around us. It’s a bit too late in our 20s, 30s and 40s to start, but most ATCKs I know are trying.

The standard wisdom on stereotypes is they are true at their core. Another thing about stereotypes is they are for lazy people. I guess if you want to, you can keep believing I’m sitting here with my champagne and and Louboutins and label it “general social-history commentary,” whatever that is. But then I guess that would be a pity for you, because you’re just too close-minded to acknowledge who we TCKs really are. And close-mindedness is exactly what we TCKs have learned to avoid.

Dating a Third Culture Kid: What’s It Really Like?

(Credit: Martin Schoeller)

Welcome to this week’s cross-post with my friend and fellow blogger, the lovely Marghini from The Love Blender. Marghini and I thought it would be fun to tackle a topic that comes up a lot — dating and cultural backgrounds — from opposite points of view, me as a third culture kid, and she as someone from a monocultural background. What’s it like dating a TCK as someone from a monocultural background, and vice versa? Get both sides of the same coin here: Marghini’s is below, and see mine at TLB. While you’re there, be sure to check out TLB’s awesome new look!

Dating a Third Culture Kid is a lot like a roller coaster ride: it is great and so much fun, but right when you least expect it a free fall is going to shake you up. That is why dating a Third Culture Kid requires steady nerves, a strong mind and a whole lot of patience.

A Third Culture Kid is by definition a person hanging in the balance between different cultures, for example someone who was born in one place but grew up somewhere else. As a person who was born, raised and educated in the same small Italian city in a very Italian family, the concept of TCK was totally obscure to me until I had a chance to date one. I just assumed that identity, citizenship and culture were just the same thing and could never diverge from one another. It turned out I was so wrong.

When I first met my boyfriend I guessed he was Chinese; hey, he had Asian eyes and black spiky hair! “He surely must be Chinese” I told myself. Then we talked a bit and I thought he was American because of his thick American accent. I started to get confused by the time he said he grew up in New Zealand, but the real disorientation came along when he mentioned his British passport. I didn’t dare to voice the question that I had in my mind: “Wait a second, so what are you?”

Three years later, I still struggle when I am asked where my boyfriend is from; should I say he is from Hong Kong? Chinese-American? Asian-Kiwi? British? Hong Kong-Kiwi-British but speaks-like-an-American? Don’t get me wrong, I know him inside out and more often than not I can guess what he has in his mind. I just don’t know how to describe his multiform identity to people that are not familiar with him or with the concept of TCK.

Dating a TCK is a very rewarding yet demanding experience that requires a lot of flexibility and patience: Challenging your own concept of culture and identity is just not for the weak of heart. I believe that being involved in a relationship with a TCK presents a specific set of perks and problems that are very unique to this kind of situation.

Thanks to their ability to juggle between cultures, TCKs are usually extremely adaptable and open-minded. They are open to try new things and don’t get stuck in stereotypes or prejudices, because they know that labels are a very relative concept and that things come in shades, rather than absolute colors. This means that as partners they can be more willing to compromise and understand your point of view rather than getting stubborn on their own. Definitely a plus in my book!

(Credit: Michael Dales @ www.flickr.com/photos/mdales )

Their adaptability lets TCKs feel comfortable very easily, in fact nearly everywhere. When you grew up all over the place, speaking lots of languages and immersed in multiple cultures, you develop a special ability to feel at your ease and fit with the context. As an Italian living in Asia, this is a skill I am especially jealous about. It is so hard for me to fit well with local culture and people and I feel like my Italianity follows me everywhere I go, holding me back at times. Cappuccino after 10am? No way. Wearing flip-flops at work? You gotta be joking. Eating chicken feet? I’d frankly rather die. TCKs don’t have these problems: they don’t mind changing their habits and trying new things, because that is how they grew up with.

As they are open to explore new places and immerse themselves in foreign cultures, TCKs also make great travel companions. It is just great to travel with a TCK. They navigate the local subway network like a pro, while you scratch your head trying to decipher unknown alphabets. They manage to communicate with taxi-drivers even though they don’t speak a word of the local idiom. No matter how weird street food they are offered, they nod in enthusiasm and actually enjoy it while you sit in a corner looking at your sad bowl of white rice. They just seem to be meant to travel.

To top it off, TCKs can be extremely fascinating thanks to their uniqueness: Because of the fact that they are the product of a cultural and sometimes racial mix, they don’t fit in any stereotype. There is something extremely attractive in what you can’t easily understand or label and that is the charm of TCKs: They are just special. They march at a different drum and hang in the balance between different worlds.

Now let me be honest about it: Dating TCK is not always a piece of cake.  Sometimes things get confusing and you feel like your partner may very well be an alien from Mars. Sometimes you just don’t get it, because you didn’t go through a TCK’s upbringing.

If you are interested in a TCK and intend to start a courtship with him/her, fasten your safety belt.  At the beginning it will be incredibly hard to understand who you have in front of you. As someone in between cultures, often TCKs adopt one mindset in some fields of their life and another one in others. For example: An Indian-American TCK could be completely westernized at work, but have a traditional Indian mindset at home with family and friends. When you interact with a monoculture person you have at least some information to refer to. With TCKs you just don’t know what culture you are dealing with. All the small non-verbal signals and hints that you are used to and take for granted may not work with this person. It is a whole new place you have to explore blindly.

Assuming you managed to go past the confusion of the beginning and you actually started dating a TCK, you should be aware of the fact that TCKs can surprisingly show different cultural sides according to the context. I heard of stories of monoculture people in relationships with TCKs complaining about them changing unexpectedly after a move.  For example a Chinese American man with a very Western mindset in the US could turn into a much more traditional Chinese man as soon as he is back in China and surrounded by his family.  As a monoculture person, I don’t change very easily: I am Italian in Italy and I stay Italian anywhere else. However, when someone hangs in between two worlds, a geographical or cultural change can have a huge impact. This is something a monoculture person does not take into consideration initially, but it is potentially a source of serious problems in a relationship.

(Credit: baanhbaoo @ www.flickr.com/photos/baanhbaoo)

Let’s say you went through the previously listed issues and you successfully dealt with them; you still have to meet mom and dad. That is when things could get really tricky. Your partner may be a very international and open-minded individual, but that doesn’t necessarily apply to his parents: in fact in case his parents are monoculture people, there could be a huge cultural gap between them and their offspring. Let’s assume you are dating a Korean American guy who was raised in the US by Korean parents who emigrated from Korea as adults. Chances are they are still very Korean; they may speak mostly Korean and little English, hang out with Koreans and retain a typical Korean mindset. That means that even though your boyfriend is an open-minded and Westernized TCK, his parents may in fact be very traditional. Usually in monoculture families the gap is not as huge, so monoculture people don’t see this coming. This is definitely a challenge for someone in a relationship with a TCK, because you initially don’t realize what you sign up for and then you have to deal with in-laws that are totally different from the person you fell in love with.

Some TCKs grow up to be extremely balanced and stable people who accept peacefully their mixed identity, but that is not always the case. In other cases TCKs struggle with a sense of rootlessness and lack of identity their whole life, especially when they never received proper psychological support from their family during childhood. It is not easy living with someone that has no idea who he really is. It is a challenge to find a balance with a person that does not know where he belongs. Some TCKs find their center of gravity in their relationship and that becomes a huge responsibility for their partner. Others just keep feeling like outsiders their whole life and go through a relentless wandering around the world in hope to find a place to call home.  Thankfully these are borderline cases and many TCKs manage to deal well with their mixed upbringing and are able to turn it into a resource rather than a problem.

TCK is a broad definition that describes many people with different lives, families and stories. So it is hard to identify a comprehensive rule when it comes about TCKs. I am sure my own experience, both with my TCK boyfriend and with many friends who had this kind of cross cultural upbringing, can’t cover all the nuances of such a huge social phenomenon. However, I believe that dating a TCK presents a unique set of challenges and rewards, especially when you are a monoculture.

It is true; it can be tiring, confusing and frustrating. But it is also fun, thrilling and eye-opening. If you ask me, I would definitely do it all over again.

What is your experience? Ave you ever dated a Third Culture Kid? Do you agree with my take on the subject? Join the conversation and let me know your opinion!

marghiniMarghini is an Italian Interior Designer based in Taipei, Taiwan. Her interests include Japanese literature, cats, urban gardening and relentlessly moving around the world. She currently blogs about cross cultural relationships and life all over the place at The Love Blender.

Do You Get Me? A Third Culture Kid on Dating

Welcome to this week’s cross-post with my friend and fellow blogger, the lovely Marghini from The Love Blender. Marghini and I thought it would be fun to tackle a topic that comes up a lot — dating and cultural backgrounds — from opposite points of view, me as a third culture kid, and she as someone from a monocultural background. What’s it like dating a TCK as someone from a monocultural background, and vice versa? Get both sides of the same coin here: Mine is below (you can also read it at TLB), and check out Marghini’s here.

Last weekend, I was chatting with my friend Justin. An American of Chinese descent who had grown up in Wisconsin and later moved to Germany and became German, he felt equally German, American and Chinese. James wanted to finally settle down. There was, however, one question on his mind: “I wonder how much I would want my boyfriend to understand me culturally.”

Justin’s question made me think. Being cross-cultural, though increasingly prevalent, remains uncommon and most importantly, differentiates you from people who spent their entire childhood in one culture.

Understanding the cultural references of someone is one of the most important thing to partnership. What happens then when you have multiple sets of cultural references like Justin? How important is it that his boyfriend have a similar background to “get” him?

There are certain things that someone from a monocultural background will take longer to get about me.

Someone who’s not Asian, for example, might not understand my midnight craving for instant noodles, or get why it’s absolutely necessary that I have a Miffy sponge cake on my birthday, or why that Rilakumma daily planner makes every day that much better. They might take my occasional flights of Asian girly kawaii as a sign that I’m childish, cute and cuddly, when in fact this is just another facet of being an Asian woman.

Miffy Cake
It’s my party and I’ll order that Miffy sponge cake if I want to. And my significant other better be cool with that.

They might not understand the silent communication I have with my parents or my grandmother when I’m telling I love them in all those little nonverbal ways: picking out the meatiest piece of char siu for my mom, for example, or touching my grandmother’s elbow as we cross the street.

Meanwhile someone who is monocultural Hong Kong Chinese might find me too brash, opinionated, loud, flighty, selfish and, well, American.

They wouldn’t understand my midnight craving for a hot, juicy, burger with blue cheese dripping from the sides, or my desire to have an ice-cold beer at the end of a long day. They won’t get the myriad cultural references that make me tick: why it’s funny to hear Dave Matthews come on the radio because it’s so cheesy but it was like the soundtrack of university pre-adulthood angst.

They certainly wouldn’t approve of the way I do karaoke, which is: scream-yelling and half-singing Chinese songs from the 80s and 90s plus a fair number of Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears numbers into the microphone. This would go against all the rules of serious karaoke decorum, which is: practicing in your room until you’re damn good and giving it your all to a tastefully chosen repertoire of tunes before your admiring audience – I mean, friends.

One essential thing that cross-culturals get about me is the need to yell into the mike at karaoke. (Stefan @ www.flickr.com/photos/st3f4n)

These two packages of references are things that cross culturals with my background – which are westernized Asians, for lack of a better term – would just get. They would be able to fuse all these parts of me together – and by then, they would already be halfway there to getting to know me.

On a deeper level, a monocultural guy might not get my obsession with finding a place to settle down, or my anxiety in the leadup to vacations – the ritual of packing and leaving never fails to send me into fight or flight mode, and leaves me convinced that a) my flat will burst into flames while I’m gone and b) my parents will face some sort of sudden crisis that I won’t be able to be present for.

It’s not just about me, either. Equally, I would face difficulties understanding monocultural partners and wouldn’t be able do justice to their personalities, wants and needs.

Maybe I’ve been lucky. The guys I’ve dated have always been people who – I feel – have been able to perceive me as the entirety of my experiences, whether they’re from a monocultural or cross-cultural background. And maybe that’s the answer to me and Justin’s question.

It doesn’t really matter what that person’s background is, as long as there’s a willingness to understand who you are. Which, I guess, is a key in any relationship, whether it is cross cultural dating or not.

Stuff You’ve Done that Maybe You’re Not so Proud of Just Because You Miss Asian Food

You know that feeling: You’re slightly lightheaded, you’re sweating, and your stomach feels off. In fact, it’s been feeling off since last Thursday. No, you’re not in love. You just forgot to eat rice because you’re living abroad and you haven’t found an Asian supermarket yet where you can buy a proper rice cooker.

That’s right, weird stuff starts to happen when you’re living away from Asia and Asian food, and you start to do weird things to compensate. Something just happens to your body when you’re torn asunder from fish sauce, soya sauce, curry paste, lemongrass, and fermented bean paste. And godammit, where’s that spicy Korean ramen I know I bought for emergencies?!

At times, you feel like you’re hemmed in by white people carbs: you know, potatoes, pasta, bread that’s really hard. (Okay, I actually love all these cards now, but back to the point.) It’s like my grandma used to say when she went on her group tours: Pack lots of cup noodles. Everything else is secondary.

Here’s a list of stuff we all know we’ve done before, all in the name of love for Asian food when we’re living abroad.

1. You call your mom all emotional because you’ve been eating potatoes all week and you miss her cooking but you don’t realize it, so you’re being a tough guy, but really, all you want to say is …

 

2. You buy Asian sauce. And it was disgusting.

You know you totally bought that stuff.

 

3. You attempt to make dumplings at home and they taste totally awesome even though most of them ended up torn up, burnt and sticking to the pan.

You know your grandmother is laughing at you as we speak.

 

4. You totally freak out when you see Tsingtao, Kirin or Chang beer and order multiple rounds of it. Even though you live in beer country.

Oh yeah gimme somma that nondescript-tasting, mediocre beer.

 

5. You get paranoid that you don’t have enough rice to go with the main dish and sauce, and order two portions.

Why you guys keep messing with the sauce-and-main-dish-to-rice ratio? That rice on the plate is clearly not enough to do that other stuff justice.

6. You go home for a break and you start tearing up like a baby when your grandmother comes out with the food she cooked.

I love you grandma.

 

7. You buy the Maruchan 12-pack of ramen at Wal-Mart because you’re desperate for noodles and there are no Asian supermarkets in your town.

There’s no shame in eating American ramen.

 

8. You scroll faster through your Facebook when you sense food porn coming from below showing the last meal your friend had at your favorite Vietnamese restaurant for fear of Asian food FOMO.

Why do you guys have to torture me with pictures of your food?

 

9. You order Chinese from sketchy-looking roadside takeout places where they use canned bamboo sprouts in everything, and you tell yourself it’s okay with your morals.

Would your mother say it’s really okay to overwhelm your meat in oyster sauce like that?

 

10. Your flatmate who’s trying to just be friendly suggests getting Korean for dinner together and you suddenly think you’re in love.

Korean sounds sooo amazing. Credit: Buzzfeed

 

11. You get super excited that you’re going to Chinatown.

It’s so tacky … but it’s Chinatown.

 

12. You pile random ingredients together, pour copious amounts of soy sauce on it, and think it qualifies as Asian food.

This Reis mit Scheiß is totally Asian now that it has lots of soya sauce on it.

Asian Cat-Calling: Consider Yourself Konichiwa-ed

Don’t call me maybe: Not everyone knows what on earth “ni hao” means. Credit: Quasic @ www.flickr.com/photos/ripton

Have you ever been ni-haoed? Konichiwa-ed? A few months ago there was a lot of chatter about cat-calling. But when you’re Asian, that takes on a very specific vocabulary. Asians, particularly Asian women, seem to get “greeted” with “ni hao” — hello in Mandarin — and “konichiwa” in public the same way other women might get “hey baby”.

Over the years I have had my share of bizarre Asian-cat-calling. “Ni hao” and “konichiwa” are the least of it. I’ve been “ching ching chong chong”ed. I’ve had kids and adults alike do Asian eyes in my face. You know, like when they pull their eyes apart to make them look like slits — it’s really charming. There was that time when two men yelled across crowded escalators in the metro: “Wow sooo exotic.” Then there was that time some random dude grabbed my ass on Times Square and proceeded to grin so proudly while nodding “Yea…” when I turned around to confront him. (Actually to his credit I think he was just a perv, not a racist perv.) And the absolute winner: That time on my way home from the bar when a guy threw a glass beer bottle at my head and missed. (Okay that was more a violent racist attack than cat calling.)

Last week I added another refreshing experience to the list. A guy with a soccer ball took notice of me as I was walking into the train station and came over. “Manga manga manga,” he said at me. I mean, why WOULDN’T you greet an Asian woman you have never met by calling her a comic in Japanese? “Manga manga manga” he said louder when I ignored him, and he started bouncing his soccer ball up and down to the rhythm — not all cat callers are so coordinated, mind you. “Manga manga manga” he started shouting as I pretended to be thoroughly engrossed with my Whatsapp conversation and walked away. Then the priceless moment when the station master’s voice crackled over the loudspeaker: “No playing on the platform?” as the ball dropped and rolled across the ground.

I have to admit my reactions were not always as composed as this last time. When I was first ni-haoed in New York, I was just really confused. In my head, I wanted to explain to them: Look guys, I’m from Hong Kong. We speak Cantonese there, not Mandarin. You know, like what they speak down at Chinatown. And actually, my first language is English and I’m Canadian, and I just spent four years at a university in Vermont, so actually, you can just say hello. But this narrative seemed too complicated to shout across Union Square (a lot of the cat-calling happened on Union Square, I feel like it’s cat callers central).

 

Over the years I developed the total-agression-massive-attack approach, which involved me yelling “Shut the fuck up you fucking ignorant racists!” across the square or whatever street I happened to be on. That was really satisfying for a while.

To the benefit of the children in those public spaces, I have matured over the years and exchanged my expletives for a more subdued, withering look which I hoped conveyed a similar message. Also in the ensuing period, the cat-calling became just something that happened from time to time, and nothing seemed that surprising anymore or worthy of reaction.

Many Asians seem to have similar experiences. “I’ve been konichiwa-ed before,” two friends separately told me recently. It’s gotten to a point where it’s nothing unusual. “Ni-hao happens too often now,” one former colleague, Jen, told me. “Anyone’s been an-yong-ha-se-yo-ed? I have. Like everywhere.” (Me too.) And it’s not just women. One friend, Austin, says he gets ni-haoed and konichiwa-ed “all the time when people ask for cigarettes”, even though he doesn’t smoke.

Often it doesn’t even have to carry the sexually suggestive element inherent in catcalling. Some people just like to yell out random greetings at random people in a random language just for kicks!

And oh my god this post from the Creepywhiteguys Tumblr which was posted in this crazy Buzzfeed list of incredibly offensive things people say to Asian women.

enhanced-buzz-30160-1365441646-38 (1)

Are we supposed to think it’s cute when a creepy guy throws out a greeting in a language that is foreign to us? Or is it supposed to be ironic?

Recently my friend Jinhee, a Korean American who lives in New York, took matters into her own hands and confront a cashier and deli worker in a store who had said “ni hao” at her.

“I rolled my eyes and said I wasn’t Chinese,” she said. “You don’t walk up to a woman who looks like she is of Italian descent with a ‘Buongiorno!’ Why do you do this with Asian women? Why do these men always think every Asian woman is Chinese? And even if she was of Chinese descent, she’s probably American and barely speaks Chinese. Or maybe she was adopted.”

Jinhee let the men have it. “So finally, I told them, please never do this again. It’s rude and offensive. I let each syllabus roll off my tongue slowly: ‘O-ffen-sive. O-ffen-sive.'”

Love it. I guess that’s one strategy. But for people who don’t have time to educate everybody, just start humming that Robyn song “Konichiwa Bitches”.

Robyn   Konichiwa Bitches   YouTube

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