Expatriate kids will moan and groan when asked the question “where are you from?” or its variation “where’s home?” because when you’ve lived in countries you were not born in, or that your parents weren’t born in, there is no easy answer. Some kids will choose the country of their passport, others the country that they spent the most time in. As much as we moan, however, there is a sort of pride taken in the fact that such a simple question requires significant back story.
Others may look in on our lives and say, “Cool! You’ve been all over the world!” and yes, it’s very cool. But what the outside world doesn’t realize are the self-identity problems some expat kids have when it comes to choosing a country of origin. Correction: it’s probably just me.
I grew up in an environment influenced by three cultures. By heritage I’m Taiwanese yet I was born in America, raised in Singapore, and attended an American school. In third grade, I eagerly identified as a third culture kid but only in later years did I come to realize that being a part of three cultures meant I was never really a part of any one in particular. For as long as I attempted to maintain a balance between Taiwanese, American and Singaporean culture, I would never be able to fully become a member of any of them. I didn’t even fit the typical expat kid stereotype. My family did not move every couple of years, my schooling, housing, and transportation were not paid for by my dad’s company and I was on financial aid for my entire high school career. Like a drop of water just barely on the rim of a glass, not really safely on the inside or out, I was just about to be displaced, fallen, with no form of my own until placed into a container to whose shape I could conform.
I never truly fit the Singaporean label, despite my having lived there from ages one to eighteen. Try as I might to eat chili with every meal, omit ‘to be’ verbs from my sentences and tack on extra “lah’s” and “wahlao’s” to the things I say, I was never truly Singaporean. I was the other; I was an “angmohr,” a foreigner. Because I spoke better English and went to an American private school, there was a disconnect between me and the locals. “Wah, your English speak so good, eh. You go American school is it?” was a phrase I heard often from any local I spoke to long enough which also meant, “your socioeconomic status is higher than mine, your education is better than mine, you lead a completely different lifestyle of which no aspects overlap with mine.” I was placed in the box of luxurious expat living and barred the chance to understand Singaporean life. They associated me with the American ‘space’ (Wacquant pg. 50). This stereotypical ‘space’ was stigmatized to be luxurious and wealthy, self constraining to only high class foreigners, and territorially isolated to the area of ‘little America.’ Ironically, I never belonged to it.
I didn’t fit the American label either, never having lived in America until now. Even during my thirteen years in the American education system, I did not consider myself American or even truly expatriate. The lifestyles of my American Expatriate peers included vacations to Italy, then Paris, then London, and on the way back to Singapore, perhaps a three day stopover in Bali, personal drivers to and from school, and membership to the American Club in Singapore; little to no interaction with local society and culture. In their eyes, because I was involved in non-school sponsored, non-American Club organized activities, I was effectively a Singaporean. It’s been no different here. My saying I’m from Singapore, and being ethnically Asian, has people automatically associating me with ‘The Asian.”
Trapped between two labels in Singapore, neither of which I could truly represent, I came to the States hoping that the supposedly most diverse nation on the planet would grant me freedom from labeling. But upon arrival, “I stumbled, and the movements, the attitudes, the glances of the other fixed,” (Fanon, pg. 326) upon me the label of Asian. Here, more than anywhere, I’ve felt the pressure to act the way I look. A slave to my appearance (Fanon, pg. 329), I’ve been once again cast a role that I don’t identify with. It was as if I had stepped outside myself to observe what was a caricatured ‘Asian’ or ‘American’ version of me interact with the world.
If not Asian, and not American, then what do I identify with? Asian-American? According to everyone else, I’m too Asian to be American and too American to be Asian. I have these identities that society has given me on which others attribute my actions to, causing me to categorize the way I behave as well. There reaches a point where it stops being “Emily, that’s so Asian of you,” to me telling others, “It’s because I’m Asian.” These labels have affected the way I act and pressured me to follow the script that comes along with my racial identity (Appiah pg. 671).
Try as I might to be Asian or be American, I can’t help the feeling of displacement, like I am too much of the ‘other’ to properly agree with whatever label I was given, too American to be Singaporean and too Asian to be American. I don’t fit in with society’s pre-described labels of race identity. In prescribing to one of these two labels, I deny the existence of the other one. At one point in my life, fitting into one of these groups was of utmost importance. I remember being completely ‘white American’ in middle school, hanging out with white friends, and going to friends’ houses after school. Then, converting to being ‘so Asian’ in high school, staying in on weekends to study, and going to sing karaoke when I did leave the house.
What does it mean to be truly Singaporean or American anyway? I guess from the point of view of an average Singaporean, my accent served as the one drop of American blood set me apart as American. I could look and act as Singaporean as I wanted, I could pass, but the second I opened my mouth it would be known that I did not really share the same Singaporean experience. It’s not the same in America. The cultural gap between me and the average American makes me feel so un-American despite my accent and passport that I would cling to my Asian background in an effort to at least fit somewhere.
Now attending an American university, taking a class on race, I’ve discovered how little it all matters. Society has moved beyond racial theories to justify slavery and discrimination but it has not moved beyond race as a means of distinguishing, segregating, and stereotyping. Just because society is not yet past that point doesn’t mean I can’t be. I’ll take the advice of K. Anthon Appiah, a professor of Philosophy at Princeton, and stop making my racial identity ‘negatively central’ (Appiah pg. 675) to who I am and just accept it. I’ll decide how important fitting into racial identities is in my life. (Appiah pg. 671).
So I like rice, eat with chopsticks, and slurp my noodles. I pose in pictures with a peace sign displayed on both hands, and listen to Asian music. So what? I enjoy pasta, burgers and fries too. I’ll also celebrate Christmas and Thanksgiving as well as the Fourth of July. The question, “where are you from?” hardly matters when I’ve accepted that I won’t have a typical home or country of origin like everyone else. I’ve fought and I’ve struggled with displacement and racial labels and I’d like to say I’ve won. I can say I’m from Singapore, Taiwan or America. Don’t believe me? Want to hear the back story?
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photo inspired by 365.denizen.com a daily self portrait photo blog by third culture kids