A Tale Of Two Cultures

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My life is rooted in the East and the West. I lived for many years in South Korea and the United States, moving back and forth between the two countries. As a result, I have grown to be a Third Culture Kid who does not identify strongly with a certain traditional culture, but instead with a particular global community of people with the same cultural identity. Being a TCK has given me a gift, so to speak, which lets me experience the cognitive shifts that arise from spanning my two cultures—those of Korea and America.

When I’m in either Korea or America, I begin to feel the side of my identity associated with that culture become more salient. Whenever I traverse across the Pacific Ocean, I get the feeling that I am going into a different cultural universe, perhaps not surprising as I am literally going from one cultural space to another.

From the moment I land in Incheon International Airport and begin to subconsciously recognize that most people around me seem to be Korean and speak Korean, I feel a shift in my mind on the importance of certain values. One of the most striking differences I can speak to is the emphasis placed on individual appearances and the appearances of others. These comparisons of and emphasis on appearances then become important to me. I can feel my individuality fade into the back of my mind as ‘others’ begins to take on more importance. How I look, how I walk, and how I talk compared to others becomes a central concern for me. My actions and what I do for a living as others see and value it becomes important. I start to prioritize societal success above everything else because it can bring me the power, status, and wealth that others can clearly see and then envy. Hearing the jealous exclamations of others and receiving their covetous glances becomes a huge source of enjoyment and pride.

From the moment I land in Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and begin to subconsciously recognize that most people around me seem to be American and speak English, I feel the importance my mind places on certain values shift once more. I begin to relax my perceptions of what others think. Their perceptions slowly fade into the back of my mind as my individuality takes on more prominence. How others perceive what I wear, how I look, how I walk, how I talk, what I do, and what I do for a living do not matter as much. The way I think and the way I interact with others becomes more free-spirited. Even striving for success in pursuit of power, status, and wealth to gain others’ recognition and envy feel less important.

Before I realized my TCK identity a few months ago, I didn't have a firm standpoint from which to view my worlds as my mind transitioned from one culture to another. I was carried away by the culture I was immersed in at that time whenever I crossed the boundaries—I just allowed myself to become more Korean or more American. 

Now, with a more stable cultural identity, I have a firm vantage point from which I can see all the changes I go through when I travel. I observe myself anew knowing that I am a TCK, and this affords me more steadiness and self-confidence. This firm viewpoint has also created a platform from which to further explore life and different human cultures.

But realizing that I am a TCK hasn’t  entirely been a bed of roses. It has created an unexpectedly uncomfortable dynamic as well. There are new tensions and conflicts that I must often deal with. Because I am now strongly connected to my cross-cultural identity, I have noticed myself becoming uncomfortable if I start associating myself with a single culture. I don't feel genuine if I "take sides" with a culture. I find this especially true with my Korean identity because to many, I appear entirely Korean—I could easily slip into mainstream Korean society. Whenever I am in Korea, it is easy and, to be frank, often tempting for me to just let go of my TCK identity and live under my Korean identity. Sometimes I think this would make my life easier—there wouldn't be any conflict and tension arising from my cross-cultural identity.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with abandoning my TCK identity—how I decide to live is up to me. Were I to abandon it, maybe my inner conflict would dissolve. But how I think and act now differs markedly from many local Koreans and local Americans for me to live as either one. Moreover, I would gain and learn more than I would lose by living a culturally richer life afforded to me by my cross-cultural identity. So, I will continue to span my two cultures and experience the vagaries of TCK life that many cannot begin to imagine. And with all my heart, I will enjoy this life which embraces the cultural diversity and the richness of human experience.