A Sense of Belonging from Someone that Doesn’t Belong: Experiences of a Third Culture Kid

I’m Jessie. I’ve been an intern with Belonging Space for 3 weeks. Today is my last day, so I want to write this piece about my own sense of belonging and culture, as a reflection upon my experiences in this company. These three weeks with this company, that puts belonging and culture above all else, has caused me to introspectively dig into my own personal history, and challenged me to articulate my own sense of belonging.

“OK. But where are you really from?”

This is the question I get asked constantly as people look at me with confusion not knowing how to categorise me.

As a third culture kid, I learnt to be mentally prepared every time this dreaded question comes up. Under different circumstances, I’ve prepared different answers. The short unsatisfying version being just “Taiwan”. There’s also the detailed minute-long answer where I explain I was born in Taiwan, moved to Spokane, Washington, and then Shanghai. All because my dad is half Irish American half Taiwanese, and my mom is Chinese.

I always feel apologetic to see people listen to my answer with confusion and frustration. What people don’t know is the quest to find my belonging and origin has been an uphill battle and my urge to belong to somewhere, anywhere, has been truly devastating. There’s this vulnerability and dull pain that people who’ve lived in the same place, and been accepted by a community their entire life, don’t easily understand.

When I was a child, I would switch around or omit part of my story in order to enhance some characteristics to belong to a certain group more. I would try to act more American when I was hanging out with the Americans, and when I moved to Shanghai I tried really hard to adapt to the Asian culture so that I’d be accepted there as well. Being excluded is tough. Psychology research shows the feeling of exclusion activates the region of the brain associated with physical pain. However, the col d truth is that I am not fully accepted anywhere because, after all, I am not fully from anywhere. I can put on a different mask, mould myself into different versions for different situations, but nothing is genuine or convincing to me.

Which version of me is the true me?
Which mask should I put on the next time?

Belonging is not identified merely by your passport, by the language you’re born speaking or learn to speak, and it is not necessarily by where you’ve lived. To me, really belonging is feeling comfortably included. It means I don’t have to prove my origins or reinvent my identity just to fit in more. It’s the feeling of being able to identify with a diverse group of people, all from different backgrounds, who come together to be in the same space, with a shared open-mindedness and acceptance. Here I can be every version of me at the same time. But over time, I’ve realised being able to belong doesn’t have to depend on the external factors, but something that I have to build up internally. I’ve learnt to identify with all the places I’ve lived, and acknowledge all the experiences I’ve encountered and combine everything into a cohesive, yet chaotic, whole, which I can personally identify with.

I still wonder what my life would be like if I’d grown up in one place, with all my family members. I’d go to regular family gatherings, be included in family events and milestones, rather than never making any as they’re spread over the globe.

I wonder what life would be like if I’d lived in the same house since I was a baby, where I close my eyes and am still familiar with all the edges on the wall, and can trace all the stains on the furniture. I wonder what life would be like going to that one favourite candy store that’s been around the corner for decades, walking down the street greeting the store owners like old pals. I wonder what it’d be like to have friends who’ve known me since kindergarten, that know my family and my history, so I wouldn’t have to introduce and explain myself, telling my story over and over.

I wonder what life would be like not having to constantly leave behind every relationship I‘ve carefully built, not having to say teary-eyed farewells, not knowing when I’ll next see someone I care about because I’m moving again. I wonder what life would be like knowing for certain where I belong, where I’m going to settle, who I am today and who I’m going to be tomorrow.

Despite longing for familiarity, comfort and nostalgia, I still pack my bags, fit my life into two boxes and keep moving from one place to another. I open my maps and keep being a wanderer, a tourist, a stranger on a foreign land.

There’s a strange liberation that comes with a complex history, an international background, being whoever the circumstances require me to be. All the dots on the map make up the story of my life, and no experiences that I have felt or encountered meant less than any other. Every single country, city, street, school and people in my life adds to my identity and make me who I am today.

I keep on with my journey moving around in the world. For now, until I truly settle down, I’ve learned to embrace my identity as a third culture kid. This is my sense of belonging: a collection of multiple pieces that do not seem to fit together, but aren’t mutually exclusive. Their awkward contradictions help me belong nowhere, but everywhere.