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  • Writer's pictureKara San

I was using "Third Culture" as a cop-out

In my second year at university, I took a module called Identities in Asia; in the first seminar, I introduced myself to my classmates and the professor as "Burmese, but I grew up in Cambodia." I'd been living in Singapore for 8 years by then, from most of my adolescence to that point in my early twenties. It was an introduction I'd been using since I'd first moved to Singapore, that "I grew up in Cambodia" became an appendage I felt the need to add, because to simply tell people my nationality was to erase a country that I felt was a large part of my past and my identity. I still didn't really count Singapore as a place I "grew up" in, as if growth had stopped the moment puberty hit—which it didn't. Even now, it feels redundant, considering I'm still here.

Towards the end of that semester, I came across the term Third Culture Kid (TCK), and something clicked into place. That word was me. That word was my Singaporean friend who grew up in Thailand and moved back to Singapore a couple of years before matriculating into university. It was a label I loved to apply to myself, thinking that "third culture", that in-between, was a way to avoid being boxed into an identity restricted to a single country. I grew obsessed with in-betweens and migration; I picked up Ruth Ozeki and Kazuo Ishiguro, I fell on Asian diaspora literature for my bachelor's thesis and well after graduation. I thought, in reading about these in-betweens, I'd somehow find myself; even if their experiences were centred in the West, they straddled opposite worlds, and I felt that sense of at once belonging and not-belonging, was part of who I was. Perhaps I found comfort in being unbound, untethered to the responsibility of speaking for any specific culture. But in that state, I was also shirking responsibility. In shrugging off the weight of a specific minority, of my every word and action coming to represent my entire country, I was also shrugging off my history and heritage, an identity that went beyond my bloodline.

Until the February coup and the Spring Revolution, I had zero interest in Myanmar's politics. Years of clinging onto the memory of a country I spent my childhood in but had changed beyond recognition in my absence, of trying to assimilate (and then giving up) into the country I was in, pushed nationality to the bottom of my list of self-identifiers. What did it matter if I held a Burmese passport, if my family went back every one or two years, if I didn't "live" there for an extended period of time? Never mind that I hadn't been back to Cambodia since 2014. When I first received an invitation email from the Burmese Society at my university in my freshman year, I'd quipped "sorry, I'm Cambodian".

It wasn't just my attachment to Cambodia—it was the weight of the stereotypes and expectations that came with being a Burmese person in Singapore. There are hardly any Cambodians in Singapore, as far as I know. Perhaps that slight unfamiliarity—beyond the stories of volunteer trips to the provinces—in comparison to the Burmese diaspora was the freedom I wanted. If I associated myself with Cambodia, I could dodge the ridiculous "ships" locals liked to make between me and Random Burmese Boy XYZ that I'd never talked to before, I could avoid having people offer to set me up with their Burmese male friends (aside: can we please stop with the heteronormativity?), I could joke about how terrible I was at my mother tongue (why should middle class Chinese Singaporean kids have all the fun with that?), I could distance myself from unnecessary comments from acquaintances about their Burmese helper, and most importantly, I could cling to excuses for being so unfamiliar with the country I was born in. Internalised racism and classism definitely played a part in it. I wanted to not be Burmese. I took the Third in Third Culture as some nebulous Nowhere, free of associations. I had completely and perhaps intentionally misunderstood the concept.

Third Culture is supposed to be about reconciling different cultures, taking in these different aspects and making them your own. It was never supposed to be a Nowhere free of the countries that made you. I am Third Culture because I'm Burmese, I'm Cambodian, and—at this point, I reluctantly add—perhaps a little Singaporean, all at once. I carry in me experiences of and attachments to all three, and together they make my own Third Culture. The coup and what it could mean for the future of Myanmar, my sudden interest in the language and culture and history, forced me to stop running away from Myanmar as one of the influences in who I am. I don't have to have lived there for several years at a time for it to have a bearing on who I was; I had my parents and connections to extended family, filling in as much of the gaps that growing up overseas had left in me. I carry it in my name and my passport, in the language I still struggle to read and speak, in my memories of my late grandmother and the regret that I didn't try harder to bridge the language gap when I still had time.

I am Third Culture because I am constantly negotiating between these identities and will no longer let the prejudices of one place make me feel shame for the place where I was born.

A few links:

  1. ArtsEquator (includes links to support different causes)

  2. Mohinga Matters (chronicles the daily experiences of the people living in Myanmar as of 1 February 2021)

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04. Jan. 2023

as a third culture kid, I also resonate well with your story. I always used the TCK term as a 'free pass' for me not knowing much about my own country and cultures. But now, perhaps, I would hope to rekindle with my own roots and be proud of my blood. Thank you so much for this lovely post you wrote!

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