The Third Culture Paradox

Have you ever struggled to find a place where you truly fit in? All my life, I’ve been in search of a space where my heritage and personal beliefs could coexist. The reality for many North Americans of Asian descent is that we continue to search for that balance each day. How do we balance our Asian heritage with our westernized upbringing?

Although born and raised in the faraway lands of Hong Kong, I was fortunate enough to have grown up in an educational environment that helped me foster a global, albeit euro-centric, perspective. Most of my friends and I share the experience of immersion in western culture while being physically situated in the Pearl of the Orient. While this was widely embraced and practiced amongst my peers, my local extended family often used this as a joke, which inadvertently placed an invisible barrier between us. I cannot begin to recount the number of times I was told that I am too whitewashed to understand the family jokes, or that I was called “guai mui” (“white girl”) for preferring pizza and pasta over traditional foods. It felt as though no matter how hard I tried, I was still an outsider looking in because I was too detached in my westernized bubble to understand local culture. The thing is, my first language is Cantonese, the primary language in Hong Kong, and I engage in most forms of typical local behaviour. Yet, I can’t help but feel alienated from my loved ones for being raised in a non-traditional manner. It seemed to me that it was my mistake for being too westernized to connect with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  

A few years ago, my family decided to relocate to Canada, and forgive me when I say that a sense of relief washed over me. In my head, it made sense to move to a country where my identity aligned with that of the mainstream culture, but boy was I wrong. After a whirlwind of plane rides, I found myself in an awkward position once again, as it suddenly occurred to me that I wasn’t whitewashed enough to truly fit into western society. Many of my Asian Canadian friends were born and raised on this soil, to which they assimilated seamlessly. I assumed that we were similarly westernized, but it turned out that they reconciled with their culture through K-pop, dramas, anime and even food to an extent that made me feel less Asian than before. It seemed to be a never-ending paradox of being in the crossroads of identities, if there were ever one, and eventually begged the question of who I truly am. 

19 years down the road, I still don’t have the answer to finding a place to accommodate both my heritage and personal identity. In fact, it is beginning to dawn upon me that the universe is trying to tell me this place does not exist and that I don’t have to make both aspects fit in seamlessly.  I remember my friend once described a banana – yellow on the outside, white on the inside – and for the first time, I could somewhat make sense of my identity. While I don’t identify with being completely out of touch with my Asian heritage, there seems to be a missing connection that prevents me from feeling like the native Hongkonger that I was raised to be. Perhaps this is the universe’s way of telling me that there is no right answer.  The only way of making peace with myself is to embrace the complexity of my being and coexist with the dissonance, because what matters at the end of the day isn’t some binary label of cultural association, but rather myself and my fusion of human experiences.

 

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