Featured image from http://www.bcaromania.org
This is a little bit of a personal post. At university, whenever I speak to someone in Cantonese whether it’s just to strike up conversation or because we have to discuss a group project, a follow-up question is always something along the lines of “So, you’re not local right…?” I don’t blame them. My Cantonese is perfectly imperfect, and if he or she heard me speak English earlier, my lack of a Hong Kong accent would lend to the belief that I am in some shape or form connected to another country.
“But you were born overseas?” “You studied abroad? “Your parents are from somewhere else?” No, no, and no again.
I studied in an international school growing up where English was the medium of instruction, and I’d always shown a larger interest in English than Chinese as a child. I loved reading, but it always took a disproportionate amount of encouragement and sweet-talking for my parents to get me to read a Chinese book.
Recently, the term ‘third culture kid’ (TCK) has gained a lot of traction. According to TCKid.com, a ‘third culture kid’ is a person who has spent a significant amount of time growing up in a culture that is not what their parents grew up with.
In a sense, I am very much a third culture kid. The music I listen to, the TV shows I watch and the books I read are all in English, originating from the US or the UK. They’re definitely not things I can speak to my parents about. But just like my parents, I grew up in Hong Kong, albeit a very different Hong Kong from what they were used to as children.
So, I don’t fit the traditional bill of a TCK. I wasn’t born in India, my father isn’t an African diplomat and haven’t lived in 8 different countries. This Buzzfeed article lists 31 signs you’re a TCK, and I can’t say I identify with many of them. But I can say this – this position I’m in is definitely not unheard of among Millennials whose way of identifying themselves will show you that you don’t have to physically be part of two different cultures to be a third culture kid.
Speaking from a Hong Kong perspective, the demand of parents for their children to receive an international school education – or at least study in an English-speaking school – contributes to this. Especially for the later-born Generation Y-ers, families are becoming wealthier, making non-local schools a viable option. Forums geared towards expatriates are full of questions about long waiting lists and fear that their children won’t be able to get a spot. While an international school education is not arguably better in any way, it almost guarantees a grasp of the English language that would surprise others who didn’t know you were educated in English – but at the expense of your Chinese skills going to shit. When you’re spending seven hours in school speaking, hearing and learning English, that afternoon Cantonese program you watch first thing after school and the few words you exchange with your parents do little to stop the fact that English is slowly and surely becoming your first language – even if the circumstance of growing up in Hong Kong didn’t intend it that way.
Proficiency in English opens up a world of media that our Generation X and baby boomer parents just don’t get. The dominant language of popular media is English, so it is unsurprising that proficiency in it basically allows you access to all facets of media, from K-pop songs to 90s American sitcoms. Our brains, hard-wired to figure out technology, mean we can torrent anything and everything. I’ll be honest – Limewire was a formative part of my preteen years. I know every Avril Lavigne and Hilary Duff song, but I can probably name about three local celebrities.
The implication of this is that Generation Y and Z are fairly similar, in that their chances of catching on this kind-of-but-not-really TKC-ness are equally high. The middle class is getting wealthier, allowing for more access to education in the language that dominates the first world – English. The media is only getting more powerful, and we’re only getting smarter in learning how to use it to fit our interests.
I sat down to write this without really knowing where it would go, but I guess we’ve got a little bit of a conclusion here. The constant questioning of my identity as a local Hong Konger doesn’t make me feel bad about myself, but it does lead me to understand that it is a form of TCK that is common among my generation, and likely the generation after mine as well.