Juliet Yi: Bringing the Korean TCK Story to Light Through an iPhone

Growing up in multiple cultures can sometimes be hard. For third culture kids from societies where conformity is valued much more than individuality, it can be harder. More so if they don’t have an outlet to speak about the experience.

That’s why it was great to see Juliet Yi’s video, “Finding Home,” a documentary on Korean TCKs. The clip, lasting just over 12 minutes — and filmed entirely on an iPhone! — presents the stories of five Korean TCKs whose homes have spanned countries from Egypt, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates to Canada, the United States, the Philippines and Germany.

This is not your everyday Youtube video. Juliet was nominated for best film at the iPhone Film Festival this year. I am totally impressed by what she has managed to do with just her iPhone 4 and Adobe Premiere Pro.

The people Juliet interviews shed light on just what it’s like being a Korean TCK. If you haven’t had a chance to see it, check it out now.

I recently caught up with Juliet, who herself bounced around several countries during her childhood. Now based in Soeul, the 24-year-old is studying for a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies and working toward becoming a documentary film-maker and photojournalist. I for one hope she produces more work like this clip.

CXC: What are your thoughts on Korean TCKs? Are there any issues that you think are specific to them?
Juliet: I think it’s particularly difficult as a Korean TCK, because Korea is a very monocultural and collectivistic society where everyone is required to act inside the social norm.

In fact, in a research conducted by Uehara, he found that Japanese children who had been overseas experienced more problems when returning to Japan than their American peers who returned to the U.S. This is because for the Japanese, conformity to the group is important so the returnees are viewed negatively. Being different is not a virtue in collectivistic societies. The same result can apply to Korea.

There is an unspoken list of things to follow to be inside this social norm: to be a good student at school, to get into a good university, get a good job, get married at a certain age. Social norms exist everywhere but it is highly emphasized in Korea. Everything, even beauty and your appearance, seems to be standardized in Korea and female Korean TCKs may feel the pressure to fit in.

CXC: What is your background? Yes, please give us the long version of your “I come from…, but” introduction.
Juliet: I’m originally from South Korea, but our family moved to the Philippines when I was seven. My father’s project there was supposed to last one year, but it ended up lasting seven years. Almost every year, he’d tell us: “We might move to a different country soon.” But it wasn’t until I was 14 that we actually did, and that country happened to be the United Arab Emirates. This experience was probably the first time I felt culture shock in terms of the culture, religion, and language. I had to relearn the social faux pas and what was considered culturally taboo. I came back to Korea when I was 17, and got into university here. After a while I found myself feeling restless so I took a year off and went back to Abu Dhabi to learn Arabic. Determined to finish off my studies and hopefully stay in one country as long as I could, I came back to Korea, but soon enough, the restlessness kicked in again. I moved to Egypt and spent another year traveling. I am currently living in Seoul.

CXC: What prompted you to make video?
Juliet: First of all, I wanted to tell people what TCKs actually had to go through both in their host and home countries, because I have met many non-TCK Koreans who hold prejudices about Koreans who’ve lived abroad. Some of the biases that they may have of us in Korea is that we all come wealthy families or we all speak many languages fluently, so we all land ourselves good jobs with no effort, but that’s not always the case.

Also, even among TCK friends in Korea, we hardly talk about our TCK experience from an emotional point of view, so the emotional aspect is something that I really wanted to focus on. Physically it only takes a couple of hours on a plane to move to a different country but to move emotionally — to detach yourself emotionally from the country and the people you were living in, and to attach yourself to the country that you have just moved to — I think that takes years.

I wanted to share with other TCKs who were in any way struggling with the same issues, and I’ve actually received emails from many TCKs around the world who felt that something was wrong with them but that they no longer feel alone after watching the video. Before I learned about the term TCK, I thought the restlessness and the rootless identity was limited to myself, as if it was some kind of a personal defect I had. But as I started reading up about TCKs and found out that these were actually common traits among TCKs, it was reassuring to hear that I wasn’t alone, so I wanted to share this with the audience.

CXC: Why on an iPhone?
Juliet: It just seemed easy. I did have a DSLR camera, but I didn’t want any fancy camera effects. I wanted the tone of the video to be as honest and emotionally deep as possible, while not making it a sob story. I also wanted it to be amusing and bright at the same time while getting the message across.

I tried very hard not to make this a “sob story”. In fact, some people have told me that they felt like the video was nothing more than sob stories. They were either non-TCKs or Korean Americans.

Find out more about Juliet’s work!

Where’d they go? Growth of Chinese Students in U.S. Higher Education Slows

Photo: 韓 承燁

If you’ve noticed a lot of Chinese students on your university campus in the U.S., that’s because … there are a lot of Chinese students on your university campus in the U.S. For several years now, Chinese matriculants, as a group, have been ballooning at rates of above 20 per cent annually. But two recent reports show those increases are slowing.

While Chinese students still account for nearly one-third of all international enrolments in the U.S., their rate of growth has been dropping in recent years, according to figures from the Institute of International Education’s 2014 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, published Monday.

During the 2013/14 academic year, 274,000 Chinese studied at American colleges and universities. That’s 16.5 per cent more than a year earlier, but represents the lowest increase since 2007/08, and a drop from the 30 per cent growth in 2009/10. The graph below shows how the percentage change in Chinese enrolment has fluctuated year to year. (To see absolute numbers, read on.)

The slowing growth might partly be due a drop in Chinese students going to the U.S. for grad school. A report released by the Council of Graduate Schools last Wednesday shows offers of admission to American grad schools for Chinese nationals actually dropped 2 per cent last year. “This is the second consecutive year in which offers of admission for prospective graduate students from China did not realize a double‐digit increase,” the report’s authors wrote. First-time enrolment also dropped, by 1 per cent. In all, Chinese graduate enrolment rose only 3 per cent, which, as noted in the report, was “considerably smaller than the double‐digit increases seen in previous years”.

Still, despite the decelerating growth rate, Chinese students numbers are still expanding. There is no doubt that the they continue to comprise a huge swathe of the foreign student population in the U.S. Last year, for the fifth year in a row, China led as the top country of origin for foreign students in the U.S. These students contributed a whopping US$8 billion to the American economy!

There were five times as many of them last year as in 2000. And, as the report’s authors noted, the overall growth in foreign students in 2013/14 was “once again largely driven by students from China, particularly at the undergraduate level.” The following graph the number of Chinese students at U.S. institutions.

Hello India
Still, a decline in growth in the biggest contributor to the foreign student population can be a tad worrying. American grad schools might be glad to know increasing numbers of Indians are flocking over. As the Council of Graduate Schools noted, Indians are “undoubtedly offsetting declines in first‐time enrollment among students from China, as well as the persistent declines from South Korea and Taiwan.” In terms of enrolment at both the undergrad and graduate level, Indians came in behind China at second place, with 102,700 matriculants last year.

Meanwhile, according to the IIS report, Kuwait, Brazil and Saudi Arabia — which are investing a lot in scholarships — are also sending many students to American colleges and universities.

Feeling unattractive: The struggles of being ‘big’ and white in ‘petite’ Asia

Photo: Kat NLM

We’ve all heard about Asian women who aspire to the Western ideal of beauty, the hugely popular whitening products, and the overly accessible nip-tuck services in Korea, where you can enlarge your eyes or fix your nose — so you can come out looking just like a white person!

But when you grow up non-Asian in Asia, things just might end up the other way around. As a white woman in an Asian society, you’re surrounded by average body sizes that just are smaller. What would that do to the way you perceive yourself?

I was recently speaking with a friend, who we’ll call Ashley, and whose parents are Caucasian Canadian. I have always thought of Ashley as confident, smart, incredibly funny, so open-minded, and a lot of fun to be around. She had such a positive energy that I would feel the world was a better place every time I was with her.

But Ashley, who had spent almost all of her 34 years in Hong Kong, let me in on something that I wasn’t completely aware of before: Growing up with an Asian ideal of beauty, and around men who seemed to prefer Asian to Caucasian women, she found it really hard to feel attractive.

All I could think was: But you have hips! You have breasts! And I also thought back to high school, where the white girls seemed to have all the fun and, more importantly, the guys’ attentions. But Ashley didn’t see it that way.

“In some ways, in a place like Hong Kong, white people have been given a privileged position in society,” Ashley says. “We are by far the minority, but one that is over-represented in powerful positions and is generally treated with respect and even deference.”

Then she adds: “But physically, western women are some of the most marginalized in Hong Kong. Western men win the jackpot here with their pick of slim, beautiful Asians — and some less slim, less beautiful Asians, that the men seem not to be able to tell the difference about half the time.

“But for people like me, growing up around these sophisticated, beautiful Asian women, it was hard to feel attractive. My concepts of beauty are based around the Asian model, and my body will never fit those parameters.”

So Ashley developed a way to cope, which she feels conflicted about. “I formed a sense of identity and confidence by being bold and outspoken and overtly sexual — things that are often deemed unattractive in Chinese culture — to try to find a different route to being desirable. Though this might have been refreshing to some, I can never help but feel a bit shameful about how loud and perhaps rude I am. And my values are TCK [third culture kid] enough to make me feel like this makes me unworthy.”

All of this has meant that Ashley must go through a difficult mind game when it comes to dating. “If I am flirting with a guy, and I hear that he has an ex who was Asian, if he came to Asia because he fancied Lucy Liu, or even if a cute Asian joins us and he flirts with her also, then I will back off and leave it.”

Ashley thinks the idea of beauty she grew up with has left her with a somewhat self-defeating strategy when it comes to guys. “I give up at the mere prospect of competing with an Asian for a guy’s affections. Because in my mind, who would want a whitie when they can have an Asian? In fact, I have probably lost many an excellent potential men by defeating myself before they even have a chance to reject me themselves.”

She says the issue isn’t just that she feels “unable” to compete, because she doesn’t think all Asians are by default beautiful. “The issue is that I feel like a lot of guys assume Asian girls are more beautiful, so that you feel like a guy can’t even see you to determine whether you might be prettier or not.”

Ashley says she has tended to go for what she terms “fresh off the boat” white guys (love it!), “since they haven’t yet gotten ‘yellow fever’”. As for Asian men, she’s also attracted to those who share her more western values, but she feels that most guys of this kind would prefer westernized Asian women.

All of this has left Ashley exhausted and frustrated. “So here I am, 34 and single. Paranoid and insecure. Wondering if I should pick up and move somewhere where perhaps other people’s views on the size of a reasonable waistline will eventually convince me that I, too, could be attractive. But I know I can run across the world, and if I still can’t determine that I am beautiful in my own mind, it’s just not worth the air miles.

julia circleAshley is not alone. Julia Simens, a school counselor, speaker and the author of Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child who has lived pretty much all over the world, says other women have told her a similar story.

“I have heard these same words from people in all assignments we have lived in abroad. Being compared to ‘locals’ can be hard in ways we have never thought.  In Asia, the model is much smaller and petite than most others. I have lived in Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. In all these places, I have heard women talk about feeling so big, so ugly and unable to compete with the beautiful local ladies. I also heard many ladies talk about feeling lonely even though they tried the dating scene. They often felt insignificant.”

Simens says that developmentally, people only know what we are raised like, or what point of view they have had exposure to as a young child. The experiences in the early years of a child’s life deeply impact them for the rest of their life.

“Many people think of the teen years as when you form your beliefs. I believe it is much earlier in a child’s life. Attachment influences early brain development, which has an impact on a child’s lifelong abilities to regulate thinking, feelings and behavior. So I often wonder about the caregivers that the TCKs had growing up. What body image did that child attach to?”

Simens says many places do not have multiple body-mass indices, which means foreigners will be compared to the local BMI. Healthcare staff can also have an influence through the language they use. “Even professional people have told young ladies they are very large, overweight, huge, obese,” Simens says, “‘Fat’ was reported by one young lady due to the limited English the nurse had while examining her.”

I’m glad Ashley spoke up, because I don’t think we talk about this enough. Have any of you ever felt this way or know someone who does? Talk to us!

Depression and the Asian Third Culture Kid: A Conversation with Ellen Mahoney

Depression is something we often hear about among third culture kids. If you’re from a cross cultural background, you’ll probably already be familiar with the standard narrative: Moving around and being embedded in foreign bubbles lead to a cultural disconnect with the local society. Living in communities that are inherently transient means it’s hard to hold down long-term friendships. More importantly for those of us from Asia, the need to suppress the negative emotions of the individual for the communal good might stifle the conversation about depression.

So I found it refreshing to talk to Ellen Mahoney, founder of Sea Change Mentoring, which provides guidance to TCKs by pairing up high school kids with adults who grew up just like they did. Ellen believes that through mentoring, depression doesn’t have to dominate our story.

Even though Ellen is American, I feel like she completely gets my Asian TCK-ness. I guess it’s no surprise, because Ellen spent a big chunk of her childhood in Asia, in Tokyo up to the sixth grade at the International School of the Sacred Heart, and Singapore for junior and senior at Singapore American School, with a few years in Connecticut in between.

After graduating from university, Ellen joined iMentor – which supports students from low-income communities through mentoring – before founding Sea Change Mentoring in 2012.

I spoke to Ellen about depression and TCKs, particularly in Asia. As someone who has herself battled depression, she was able to provide a unique perspective.

ellen mahoney circleCXC: How prevalent is depression among third culture kids?

Ellen: There is no real good data about this. Among third culture kids, you hear a lot about depression and anxiety. Adolescence is not the most common age group for depression in general, but it is still normal to see teenagers who are TCKs develop depression.

What are things that can lead to depression? Could it be family history? Could it be the culture where that particular expat community is located? For example, in Singapore, you have a lot of people in finance. High-achieving parents may put a lot of pressure on their kids, which can exacerbate existing depression if they don’t have the proper coping skills.

Another question is this: Is this related to affluence, or TCKness? I wasn’t trained in Asia, but in the U.S., with affluent children, there is more drug use, depression and anxiety. We need to ask, when a TCK is depressed, is it related to TCKness, or some other characteristics?

As for my personal story, I also experienced depression, and one of my friends committed suicide.

One reason why people commit suicide is because of feeling of not belonging. That is the primary reason. To put it more precisely, if you feel like you don’t belong, it doesn’t mean you will commit suicide, but if you commit suicide, it means you likely felt like you didn’t belong.

Among affluent communities, it is common to find depression. Depression can be hereditary. Maybe it has to do with the pressure to maintain the standards that your parents have set in terms of class and status. I think there could also be pressure to keep up with the Joneses and always have a public face. Really what depression is, is when we have a feeling and internalize it. Sometimes in affluent and also expat comunites, you can’t show that you are upset or angry. What will the other diplomats say? What will the company say? You might get kicked out of the country.

In most Asian cultures, it not okay to talk about mental illeness. Culturally, it is not appropriate to get that out and it’s looked down upon. I wonder whether that might have something to do with a sense of “I don’t belong”.

CXC: When does depression usually appear among TCKs?
Ellen: You definitely see these cases in teens, adolenscents aged 16 to 23. What I’ve noticed is that it becomes more pronounced within the first two or three years of leaving the international community. It’s that adjustment period. Any time someone goes through adjustment, there’s loss involved. If you’re not near your support system – your family, siblings, the international community – and you’re on your own, that’s really hard. If you’re not being mirrored, you feel disconnected, and can be at risk of being depressed.

As for Asia, this value of keeping things inside, not making a scene, being part of the group and not making yourself stand out – I wonder if that encourages people to internalize their feelings. If you are taught to keep it inside does it lead to more depression? It’s a question that I would want to ask.

I think it also depends on where they go to university. I think racism can be a problem. In the U.S., you’ll see that a bit. In Australia, that’s another serious challenge.

There is also the question of reverse culture shock. Take Japan, for example. Because Japan is so homogenous, and there is such a great respect for Japanese things and traditions, it’s really hard for kids to come back and integrate, and especially hard to find a job. The are a lot of kids returning who feel really alientated. The Japanese government is now trying to do something about it. They have recognized the need to welcome these Japanese back into Japan.

One of my friends who works for the City University of New York talks about families who are Hong Kong Chinese and have lived overseas, who are having a really hard time being accepted by their Hong Kong peers.

CXC: You started Sea Change Mentoring in 2012. What is the idea behind it and how do you help TCKs?

Ellen: In education and psychology, there is a theory of positive youth development, and that is an idea that I subscribe to. It is the idea that even children have tools to be resilient, which is in contrast to the 1980s and 1990s, when there was much more of an emphasis on risk-oriented theory. I think it’s dangerous to think this way. It eliminates hope for kids. It leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The story of a TCK is hard. I personally had depression for seven years. I think if we keep telling that story, we are only going to feed these illneses, adjustment problems and relationship issues.

Why I chose mentioring and to work with kids is because there is a ton of research that shows that mentoring can promote mental positivity in kids. I want a tool to work with TCKs, to tell them you’re resilient, adapatable and open-minded. Let’s focus on that first and see how you can apply those assets. I prefer to work with kids when they’re still in their international communities. So when you tansition into a different place and into adulthood, you can say: I already know what assets I have and what tricks to pull out of my bag.

One of the coolest things to come out of research is that mentoring actually decreases the symptions of depression – just the ability for a TCK to have a relationship with a mentor who understands them, because they grew up the same way. No matter where they move, their mentor is with them. Just having that mentor is a protective layer against depression.

It sounds cheesy, but we’re all human beings and we all just want to be loved and cared for, and to be seen and acknowledged. When you’re depressed, you feel you are not seen. Mentors are there for you. They say: We see you. You can be a total jerk to me, and I’ll still be there next week, the following week, and after that. That is a very powerful thing.

One of the themes we work with is relationship issues. Because a lot of us did not get as much practice in dealing with conflict and having a constant group of friends from the ages of five to 18, a lot of us don’t know what that means. Relationships are very important for a sense of love and belonging. Mentoring is reparative. Maybe you didn’t have that practice. The mentor helps you undo some of those bad practices.

Find out more about Sea Change Mentoring and Ellen here.

The white guy speaks: Mark Zuckerberg’s mediocre Chinese at Tsinghua

By now, we’ve all seen the video of Mark Zuckerberg wowing crowds at the Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management with his Chinese. If you haven’t, see a video from Reuters here:

As Zuckerberg himself admits and several news outlets have noted, his Chinese is “hen zao gao” — very bad. But why is everyone fawning over him?

First of all I have respect for anyone who makes an effort to engage an audience in their own language, and Zuckerberg made a fine effort here, not least because Chinese is notoriously difficult for people from an Indo-European linguistic background.

But to anyone who actually knows Chinese, Zuckerberg spoke like a child, with all his intonations out of place, so that at some points during the 30-minute session, it’s hard to understand what the hell he’s actually saying. If I were to bastardize the language the way he did, I would have gotten a swift ass-whooping and been sent into a corner to reflect on the great insult I had committed against the great language of our forefathers. And Mandarin isn’t even my native dialect.

The sad thing is, this kind of fawning over white people speaking our language is all too common. I’ve seen people break into applause when Brits and Americans break out their Mandarin. The girls go wild. The guys want to give them a medal. Congratulations, you have achieved mediocre competency in a language with zero grammar!

These attitudes have real consequences. I know of one case where a white candidate got preference over a Chinese applicant for a job where Chinese was essential, because the Chinese interviewers were so impressed by their kindergarten-level ability in Chinese, even though the other candidate had native competency in both Chinese and English.

Anyone who moves to another country or has a spouse from another culture, should, by default, learn that language. For me and many people, that is simply a given. It’s about respect for that culture and the people you live and work with. So Zuckerberg should speak Chinese, his wife’s language and that of his in-laws. And I should speak Russian in Russia, German in Germany, Mandarin with my mainland peers, and Cantonese with my family, friends, relatives and colleagues. There is no award for it, and no one should expect applause.

Most of the Chinese-learning English speakers I know are extremely humble about their fluency. They’ll apologize ahead of time, or give fair warning that the intelligence quotient of the conversation is about to take a steep dive — which is what many of us do when learning a foreign language. That’s because they know their Chinese sucks. The only thing missing is our acknowledgement of that fact.

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