Claire was born in the Philippines and raised in Chicago, Illinois. A diplomat’s daughter, she’s lived in Seattle, Washington; Melbourne, Australia; and in Singapore. She is developing an independent documentary series called Dreamland: The Filipino American Story.
My biggest guilty pleasure is browsing Zillow or AirBnb. I imagine myself living in a vintage apartment back in my childhood neighborhood, walking around like a local. Or building a tiny house on wheels so I can constantly be on my way somewhere else. But even if I wanted to, I could never just take off on a whim. Visas are required for every country I’ve called home, except for Singapore.
As a TCK raised to believe the world can be roamed freely, my choices today are shaped by borders. The struggle has moved away from questions of identity into uncharted territory for the TCK: staying put. Since returning to Manila five years ago, I wake up everyday wanting to just fly. Where can I go, what can I do to find joy right here? It’s the challenge faced by any creative person: make it new.
And so I address God and ask, “What new thing will You show me today?”
While navigating the twisty, narrow streets of the most densely populated city in the world, I try to look past the chaos that is Manila.
The sari-sari store keepers fanning themselves in the thick heat and the fearless entrepreneurs opening cafes and co-working spaces all share a kind of grace in their striving. I see the work they put into building community, and the spirit of the city begins to grow on me. The idea of rootedness turns into a peaceful stability.
Then there are days I’m frantic for change (hence the virtual apartment hunting). Or I drive three hours south of the city, out to the small volcano poking out from the middle of a lake, if only to cope with the sameness of my surroundings.
As a young mom, I made the choice to raise my Philippine-born daughters as third culture kids. This was not an easy decision to make, even though being a cultural misfit was the only way I knew how to be. At 10 and 11, my girls were thriving at school, had best friends and pets they adored, and a roomy house they ruled noisily, all while making their own childhood memories in one place. I thought about the turbulence and trauma I experienced at 13, moving from the US to the Philippines; the bumpy transition to Melbourne at age 17.
But when I asked my father for advice, he said: “We moved all the time. You kids turned out OK.” And so my husband chased a career in Singapore, where my kids grew up, graduating high school at an American school. My daughters are adults now, and I celebrate the empathy, open-mindedness, and adaptability they share with other TCKs. But I worry about their restlessness (which mirrors mine), and their own journeys to belonging.
I can’t help but see my passport country in the context of the places I’ve lived. Not only have I seen more, but I’ve been steeped for years in a multitude of experiences, and maintain rich friendships across countries. I’m painfully aware of the privilege that’s allowed me to live so many kinds of lives. There are places that feel more like home to me than others, but I could never choose just one cultural identity.
Instead I claim and nurture a global identity, with all its moving, malleable parts. Then the question becomes not “who am I”, but finding where I stand in a much bigger story.
My name is Eleanor Chin. I was raised in the United States, in the Bay Area in California. Best known for its veritable traffic jams, increasingly bizarre tech unicorns, the astronomical cost of living, and extremely liberal political bent, it is also home to a significant Asian-American population.
My father is Chinese-American, my mother is Caucasian. Adopted from China at six months, I grew up speaking only English, and mostly spending time with other purely Caucasian families.
From a young age, I had a natural inclination toward foreign languages and mythology traditions from other lands. I was very good at Spanish, I taught myself French, and I played around with a few other languages. I was a hopeless dunce at mathematics and sciences, however – a trend that would continue into my later schooling.
At age eleven, I began attending a Chinese school with many Taiwanese immigrant families. I was wildly in love from day one – the tones, the script, and of course, the miniature toys the teachers would bring us as homework motivators. For the first time, I began to be conscious of my Chinese heritage, noticing that my family’s values, priorities, and habits were significantly different from other kids in school. I used to hang out with a bunch of white girls, but I started seeking the company of other Asian-Americans.
I took my first trip out of the
United States at age fourteen, to Vietnam.
It was a significant experience, and I came home with a renewed love for
Asia and its languages. I got more
serious about Chinese, finding a private language tutor, reading more books
about Chinese history, and actively pursuing friendships with people from China
and Taiwan. I also began to read memoirs
about Chinese-American experiences. Outstanding:
Growing Up Asian, by Cynthia Meng, and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by
Amy Chua brought into striking relief a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t an
“authentic” Asian American.
As I observed my family and community, I found myself to be at odds with myself in multiple directions, enhancing this belief. First it was the academics. There is typically a lot of pressure in an Asian-American homes to bring home excellent marks in school, particularly in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related subjects. I never experienced this kind of pressure, and as I was a complete dunce in maths and sciences anyway, I was extremely grateful. But still, I felt that I was cheating somehow, that I should experience that kind of pain to legitimize my experience as “truly” Asian-American.
Then there was the violin. I started playing of my own accord. My parents never made me practice, and I never partook in any violin competitions, let alone win any of them. This bothered me a lot. A common theme in the “real” Asian-American world is the prevalence of developing inner discipline through a musical instrument. I played the violin, like a “regular” Chinese kid, but I wasn’t very good, because I didn’t practice enough—to me, it was worse than if I didn’t play at all. I was really ashamed of myself, as if my credibility in being Chinese-American hinged on how many violin competitions I won.
Finally, there was Chinese. I was very, very good at learning Chinese. I had more fun in Chinese school learning words than I had in youth group throwing water balloons. It might have been the drug of being so spectacularly good at something so effortlessly, but I was totally, completely in love. I think I poured so much into learning Chinese because I desperately wanted to have a meaningful relationship with my Chinese self. A relationship that wasn’t at odds with the cultural norms, and that would also be understandable to my non-Asian friends.
I went off and lived in Taiwan and China, one
year in each place. In both places, I
found that I was more culturally American than I thought. Despite my significant language abilities,
and sometimes in light of them, I found myself once again estranged. Now, I was not only a bad Asian-American, but
also a bad Asian.
Why did I ever learn Chinese? I asked myself. The last ten years have been an extreme
waste of time.
Jhumpa Laheri, author of In
Altre Parole, once wrote of missing the Italian language, “that emotional
distance is always more pronounced, more piercing, when, in spite of proximity,
there remains an abyss.”
My Chinese had already hit a glass ceiling years ago, so I subsequently tried to define myself more fully as a linguist by pursuing Japanese and Korean, which are close cousins. Fluency evades me though; my emotional connection to these languages is just not as deep. Or maybe it’s because I’m still burned out from a decade-long linguistic journey that brought me right back to where I started.
Language shapes existence, and so
despite being thankless, onerous, and insanely demanding, I remain in awe of
and inspired by foreign tongues. The
word I cannot pronounce may not be in Chinese, or for that matter, in any
language I know.
I trust that someday though, I’ll
speak it fluently.
The worst part about living in globally mobile circles is the constant stream of ‘goodbyes’. What do you do when your friend leaves the country? They’re off to build a new life in a new place and with new people, so would it be best to just let them forget you and move on?
It’s true that they might have less time to talk to you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to! I’m going to talk about this in terms of Third Culture Kids, but this is also true of ex-pats and global nomads.
TCKs often spend good chunks of their lives moving from place to place, in a cycle of new beginnings and fresh starts. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t need stability. If your friend is going to go to a new place, don’t back off. Be understanding that there will be new pressures on their time, but if you can make the effort to let them know “We’re still friends, I’m still here,” you can help them make the transition. You can be a steadying factor in a world that keeps changing: a reminder that their past lives haven’t disappeared. “I’m still here,” can be the most meaningful and comforting words.
And if you’re like me, and you’re questioning whether you were close enough friends to merit staying in touch, or if that person really liked you enough to want to keep talking to you…message anyway! You can make that decision, because the chances of the other person appreciating it are pretty high. And what’s the worst that could happen?
When I moved to China, I loved my new life: my friends, my routine, my lifestyle…it was such a positive move. I was living my dream. That said, every time I opened my laptop a little part of me was desperate to see a new Facebook message, or a new email from someone from the UK. Every little ‘hello’ from someone who knew me in my ‘old life’ suddenly meant the world to me – even though I was so happy in China. Moving will change you, but it doesn’t turn you into a new person. I didn’t want my UK community to forget me, because I absolutely never forgot them.
And all of this is not to say that long-distance friendships are not hard. They are! They take discipline and effort and creativity. Being an “I’m still here” friend can be as rewarding, as it is emotionally challenging.
What does a good long distance friendship look like in 2019? There’s no one-size-fits-all formula, but here are a few ideas to get you started:
Snail Mail. Post things to each other! Whether that’s postcards, Christmas newsletter, or little mementos from a place you’re both familiar with, being able to send something tangible can make the friendship seem much less abstract.
Voice Messages. Texting is great, but I love sending and receiving voice messages. It just seems a lot less clinical, and it makes the friend feel a lot closer. They are also less effort than having to type, so they can be much chattier!
Remember Birthdays. And other important days – let them know they’re on your mind, even if you can only send a little message.
Send them things that remind you of them. Memes, news articles, jokes, photographs…you don’t have to be in full-blown conversation all the time, but you can keep enjoying the things you have in common! If you have the chance to make your friend smile, just go for it.
It’s not realistic to keep in touch with everyone you’ve ever met. But it’s also not realistic to ask yourself or others to constantly be making new relationships, and forgetting old ones. We can actively decide who to maintain contact with, who to put in that extra bit of effort for. And we can treasure and foster relationship with those who do the same for us.
So if you can be an “I’m still here” friend for someone (even if the ‘here’ is metaphorical), all the better.
How do you maintain long-distance friendships?
Are you, or do you have an “I’m still here” friend? How has that helped with your/their transition?
“Oh, Malawi,” he replies with a genuine smile. “British, huh? You are our colonial masters!”
This is a real conversation that I’ve actually had multiple times, with people from different African countries. Every time it has been said with a smile, and every time I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I didn’t even know that Malawi was a British colony. The truth is, I didn’t learn a thing about British colonial history at school. I had to start learning the hard way – from the people who almost exclusively learn about the shadier British/European exploits in history class, because they bore the brunt of it.
What is Colonialism?
The ancients, by their system of colonization, made themselves friends all over the known world; the moderns have sought to make subjects, and therefore have made enemies.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – what do we mean by colonialism? National Geographic puts it like this: “One nation subjugates another, conquering its population and exploiting it, often while forcing its own language and cultural values upon its people.”
Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state.
Now, building empires and taking over other peoples’ land is not a modern phenomenon – think of the Ancient Romans! But what we think of as modern colonialism kicked off in around the fourteenth century with the Age of Discovery. Basically, a number of European countries (notably Portugal, France, Spain and England) began discovering new trade routes around the coasts of Africa and the Americas. They found that a lot of these countries were rich in materials not found in Europe – so they took what they wanted.
So by the time the twentieth century swung around, the majority of the world’s countries had at some point been colonised by Europeans.
This may all seem a long time ago, but let me put this in perspective: Macau belonged to Portugal for 400 years. It was ‘returned’ to China in 1999 – that’s only 20 years ago! Comoros only gained independence from France in 1975. Seychelles got independence from Britain a year later.
There is a widespread view in many of the former colonies that decolonisation has not brought about significant economic or cultural independence.
Maja Mikula, Key Concepts in Cultural Studies
The fact is that a lot of decolonisation – that is, the ‘conquering’ state withdrawing to let the colony become independent – is not distant, long-forgotten history. It has happened in peoples’ lifetimes, or their parent’s lifetimes. And hundreds of years of history leave their mark.
Asking people to face up to the problems of racism in their midst is not always welcome … It is always easier to point the finger of blame than to look hard at our own prejudices.
Facing Today in the Light of History
How can I, as a pale-skinned Brit, respectfully and thoughtfully travel to and befriend people from countries that my ancestors oppressed?
Ignoring or downplaying colonial atrocities is the moral equivalent of Holocaust denial.
I don’t go out looking for conversations about how my country went out and built an empire. It makes me so uncomfortable and angry to think that my ancestors ever thought that they were superior to their ‘exotic’ friends, or that they had any right to kill, destroy, and take control in the way that they did. I hate that that’s what history looks like. But I also can’t ignore it.
That said, what I’ve found is that many people would never accuse me of those crimes. I remember walking around the Old Summer Palace in Beijing with a Chinese friend:
“It’s so sad that this beautiful place got destroyed,” I said, as we wandered through the marble ruins. “It…it was the British, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, well,” she said. “I think the French helped too.”
“No need to be sorry,” she chuckled. “It was a long time ago. And it wasn’t you.”
So if my friends aren’t too bothered – if my Kenyan friend likes to joke that things went downhill after ‘my grandparents’ left, and my Hong Kong friend cheerfully shows me around the British-built police station – do I still need to think about this? It’s all in the past, forgiven, right?
First of all, if I’ve hurt someone, I don’t get to decide when they forgive me. So although in general, my travels to previously colonised countries have been completely pleasant, I know that there may still be people who don’t look kindly on Europeans. It’s hurtful, but it’s understandable.
Secondly, in a horrible, subliminal way, colonialism affects how we view ourselves as a nation. We’ve grown into ugly habits of seeing ourselves as the helpers, the teachers, and just generally doing things the right way. Everyone else is ‘the other‘. Can you see how this kind of deep-rooted false assumption – even if we’re not aware that we’re thinking it – will make us seem arrogant and patronising as soon as we leave our own countries?
Imperialism never ended, but merely mutated into new forms. The virtual empire knows no boundaries. Until we begin to recognise and confront it, all of us, black and white, will remain its subjects.
So…can British people still go to places like India and Egypt and Papua New Guinea? Of course!
Here are a few points I like to remind myself of when I travel to countries like that.
I am not at fault, but I represent a country that is. That means that although I had no part in what happened, I acknowledge that they did, and that they were wrong.
Cultural superiority is a lie. My country is not better than yours, our art/language/food/philosophy is not to superior to yours. We are different, developing and working things out at different rates. I do not go to other countries to educate them on the ‘Western way’.
We are equals. We are humans of equal value, and I will treat you as such. Your story is as important as mine, so I’ll listen.
Visiting previously colonised countries is not necessarily awkward. Be aware that there have been past hurts, but that your friendships can transcend them. We remember history so that it doesn’t happen again – maybe your next friendship can be a symbol of a more united, more loving world.
Can we be a generation that doesn’t shy away from past suffering, but tries to heal relationships, and build a better world learning from past mistakes?
I think so. I hope so.
Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.
T’Challa, Black Panther (don’t judge, it’s a great quote)
These are issues with no easy answers. What’s your take?
How important is it to keep wrestling with these concepts, and addressing the past? How do you do that in a respectful and humble way?
Is there anything as cathartic as processing your experiences, identity, and emotions through writing? If you decide your writing needs a home online, it can be a little daunting! Where do you even start?
This list will point you towards a few of the literary journals and e-mags that excel in promoting voices from a range of cultures. Why not just submit, and see where it takes you?
A Gathering of Tribes – In their words, ‘A Gathering of Tribes is an arts and cultural organization dedicated to excellence in the arts from a diverse perspective.’ They publish poetry, prose, essays, and reviews.
The Acentos Review – Latinos, this one’s for you! Accepting work in Spanish, English, Portuguese, or a combination, this magazine is looking for work from Latinx writers.
aaduna – This journal is particularly interested in providing a platform for writers of colour. In their words, ‘aaduna welcomes all work that addresses multicultural themes, and bolsters human dignity. ‘
Apogee – Their focus is identity politics, so if you have writing or art around the themes of race, gender, sexuality, class, ability or intersectional identities, definitely worth checking these guys out!
Callaloo – ‘A journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters’. A very reputable journal publishing poetry and essays by writers of African descent.
Cha – This journal publishes work with Asian themes, and work by Asian writers. They are an English-language online journal, based in Hong Kong.
Human/Kind – This journal focuses on Japanese short-forms of poetry and art, talking about the human experience, culture, and current events. They describe themselves as a community that ’embraces diversity’, and they accept non-English submissions (providing they come with a translation).
Kweli – In their words, ‘Kweli’s mission is to nurture emerging writers of colour and create opportunities for their voices to be recognized and valued.’
Solstice – Solstice is a literary magazine searching for high quality writing and photography from diverse perspectives. In their words, ‘We publish underserved writers, or writers on the margins. We publish writers of diverse nationalities, races and religions, and also writers from diverse cultures within our culture.’
Sukoon – This magazine works to showcase literature and art with Arab themes, discussing the diversity of Arab identity and experience. They publish work in English.