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TCK Stories – TCKs & The Imposter Syndrome by Emi Higashiyama

Every time I apply for a job, I face a certain level of anxiety related to not being good enough. I’m interested in just about everything (which makes my life simultaneously exciting and stressful), but I’ve never gone about mastering those skills in traditional learning environments — which is a fancy way to say, I taught myself a lot of things I’m now good at. It wasn’t out of choice, but necessity, that I developed my skills because I was a TCK (Third Culture Kid) and my language(s) and countries/cultures never conveniently matched.

My family background in a walnut-shell: My grandparents were all of Han Chinese descent. They were born and raised in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period, which means they received Japanese education but spoke Hokkien (a southern China dialect) at home with their parents. Before World War II, my maternal grandparents took a boat to settle in “mainland Japan”, and so my mother was born and raised in Kobe as a second-generation TCK (Third Culture Kid) — but in her worldview she was simply the child of Chinese immigrants in Japan, and they were all effectively second-class because they were never granted citizenship. My paternal grandparents, on the other hand, stayed in Taiwan, but before my father was born the government changed from colonial Japanese to military occupant Chinese (the army that was kicked out by Communist China). That’s how my father was born and raised in the same city as his parents, but the first in his family to receive a Chinese Mandarin education because he effectively grew up in a different country. His worldview was that he had Japanese-speaking parents (with whom he spoke Taiwanese), and he’d be beaten at his Mandarin school if he spoke Taiwanese. He later immigrated to Japan, and that’s where he lived for 15 years before I was born.

By the time I was born, my parents had completed the immigration process (finally), and so I was born in Japan to Japanese citizens (who were anything but Japanese). Things would have been so simple if they had stayed, because then I would’ve been a Japanese citizen who went to local public schools, but my parents decided to “return” to Taiwan when I was two months old. I say “return” with quotation marks because my father, although returning to his home culture, was now a citizen of another country, so legally he was a foreigner in his own country. That caused him a lot of headaches in his career as an entrepreneur (also a career choice out of necessity because he couldn’t get a regular job in a local company). My mother “returned” to the country of her parents, but nothing of her parents’ experience applied to what she was facing; she was an absolute foreigner. The only saving grace was that she had a lot in common with her in-laws (also Japanese-educated). Culturally speaking, she had more in common with them than my father did with his own parents!


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If I had gone to a Taiwanese public school, it would have been practically as if we had stayed in Japan. I would’ve simply had one parent who was, for all intents and purposes, a local — and another parent who was a foreigner. That happens all the time. Lots of people are “halfies”. But I went to a K-12 American school (disguised as an international school), and for one reason or another, it seemed like my only choices for university would have been in the US. I didn’t speak Chinese growing up. I’ve spent the majority of every year of my life in Taiwan, but to me it’s not home. I grew up speaking Japanese but never learned to read it. I’ve never lived in Japan, but I’m “from” there, so when I go there I feel like I’m a broken citizen. I’m so freaking fluent in English but nobody believes it’s NOT my second language because I don’t have matching passports or residences. In every culture, I feel at least a little bit like an impostor because I can’t confidently pass the inherent checklist of what it means to be completely of any one culture. I always feel like I have to justify myself or qualify myself in nebulous terms that monocultural people have never even thought about (because they never had to). It seems they’re totally fine with the world as it currently works, and I’m the only one struggling to come up with reasons and explanations that apply to no one but me.

And so my identity in a nutshell: I was born in Japan, I carry a Japanese passport, and I’ve spoken Japanese my whole life, and so I must be Japanese — but not really. Genetically I am fully Taiwanese and grew up in Taiwan, and so I must be Taiwanese — but not really. My entire education has been in the American system and English is my first language, and so I must be American — but most definitely not really. My self-taught competency and checkered work history embarrass me to the point where I don’t want to apply for any jobs (because I might be exposed for merely ‘passing’ all this time).

A Hispanic friend who works in anti-racial advocacy in the US recently encouraged me to apply for a job, speaking to the inadequacy issue: “It’s good to remember that as a woman of color, you are very likely underselling yourself because you’ve been programmed to do that.” But then I realized the premise of her advice wasn’t true, at least not to me, because I’ve lived in racially homogenous Taiwan all my life and just by looking at me there’s no way to tell I’m a cross-cultural melting pot inside. No one looks at me and assumes I can or can’t do something (I don’t think), but writing up and sending in a resumé is like torture for me. And actually I take back that bit about assumptions because when people find out I’m not an American citizen, they tell me my English is so good and the conversation turns to some translation-related topic, because obviously it’s my second language so of course I have no problems switching between English and my ‘first’ language  (and that angers me every time). I’d rather they tell me my Chinese or Japanese is so good, considering I’ve never been educated in those languages. But how would they know? My friend might say this inadequacy-identity has external origins; it’s the mainstream or racial majority culture that has trained people like me into dreading career changes. But we ATCKS (Adult Third Culture Kids), especially hidden immigrants like me, we do it to ourselves.

Written by Emi Higashiyama.


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