The Life of a Perpetual Foreigner

I was born in Boston and lived there for a year before moving to North Carolina, but I grew up mostly in China. I was in the U.S. until I was 3, then I moved to Beijing, where I stayed until 17, so I was in China for a total of 14 years. I then took a gap year between high school and college to do service work related to my Baháʼí Faith in Ontario Canada, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. I am currently studying Physics and Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S.

I don’t completely understand the [American] culture, and people may assume that I know more than I really do. Often, the opposite happens in China: people expect me not to know anything, but usually I do.

My dad is Egyptian and my mom is American, but her father is Chinese, so that makes me a quarter Chinese, a quarter American, and half Egyptian. Legally I’m only American and Egyptian, not Chinese. 

My parents live in Egypt now, so I’ve been going there during winter breaks once a year. Right now, I have family across the U.S., Egypt, Taiwan, England, Emirates, Bahrain, New Zealand, Indonesia etc.  

My China Experience

In China, looking non-Asian clearly made me stand out as a foreigner, so that has influenced the way people that treated me, usually to my advantage. Here in the U.S., I look like I’m from here and I don’t have an accent, so people will talk to me as if I’m just American, which is great, but sometimes they’ll make references to things that I’ve never heard of, ranging from politics to popular humor. I don’t completely understand the [American] culture, and people may assume that I know more than I really do. Often, the opposite happens in China: people expect me not to know anything, but usually I do. [laughs]. 

In terms of living as a foreigner in China, pros and cons go hand in hand a lot of times. For example, Chinese class will be a bit harder for me since my parents didn’t speak Chinese, so I just wasn’t used to the language. But the flip side of that was since people didn’t expect me to know things, I could get away with more [in school and social circumstances]. 

….being Chinese is not just about how well you speak the language; there is a really deep cultural aspect that I was pretty much oblivious to.

My elementary school was bi-lingual—we spent half-day learning in English and the other half-day learning in Chinese—but all of my classmates were English-speaking. When I first went to middle school [in a completely Chinese-speaking environment], it was very challenging to keep up with conversations. That was the big transition for me, and in the first month, I went home crying every day. 

Luckily, there were some nice people who I became friends with. They were very patient and explained a lot of things to me. Through talking with them, I became more comfortable with speaking in Chinese, and as I learned more Chinese, I also learned more about how to interact with Chinese people. 

Of course, speaking Chinese helps [with integration in China], but I feel like being Chinese is not just about how well you speak the language; there is a really deep cultural aspect that I was pretty much oblivious to. Like, you know when people talk, they use different, ah what do you call them? Proverbs, cheng yu! That’s it. In Egypt, there is also a deep cultural connection. In the U.S. I’m not sure, maybe because it’s a newer culture, like a newer country, there’s not much of that…it’s so mixed. 

I think growing up in China made it easier for me to go into STEM. Being a girl in the U.S would have made it more difficult, from what I’ve observed. I was more supported in China because I have always been good at math and people were more encouraging. The fact that I did well in school earned me some respect from my Chinese peers, which served as a sort of social protection.

In the U.S., you have to socially connect with people and being good at academic sort of hinders that sometimes (ex. “nerd”). It’s like saying, “I’m good and such and such, and I’m also good at academics,” meaning academics can’t be your main thing in the U.S., whereas in China if you’re good at academics, that puts you in a place where that is pretty much all you need. 

Being in China also meant that being an introvert was more encouraged, so I was more okay with that. 

Laying Out My Fluid Identity

No matter how good my Chinese was, I was always “the foreigner.”

I feel like I kind of get to choose which culture I wish to identify with in certain moments, which is kind of nice. In some situations, I’ll be more Chinese, and in others, I’ll be more Egyptian, but I’m usually not completely one or the other. 

I don’t think I know how to be completely one or the other. I haven’t spent enough time, or I just haven’t integrated well enough, in any of the places I’ve lived in to identify as such. Not even in China, where I’ve spent the longest period of my time. No matter how good my Chinese was, I was always “the foreigner.”

When asked about where I’m from, I’ll usually say something like “wrong question!” [laughs] It depends on the situation, if I wanted to give a short answer I might say “Pittsburgh “because that’s where I’m living now. Sometimes I will say “China,” and that will always invite questions. Then sometimes I will just say, “um I’m not sure,” and that will also invite questions. 

I am at a confused stage, but I don’t think that hurts my life like I don’t feel like I’m missing something. 

It also depends on where the person who is asking is from. If they’re Middle Eastern then I will emphasize my Egyptian side; if they’re European then I will emphasize my family relations in different parts of Europe, and if they’re Chinese, I will be like “oh Chinese!” [laughs] 

In the U.S., when I say I’m going home, that means I’m going to the place where I live, I call this home. When people mean it in the more “where do you identify with” sense, I tend to sort of get a little bit of lost and go “um…don’t care!” “anywhere!” [laughs] People will be like “so do you associate yourself as Chinese?” And I’ll be like “sure!” I am at a confused stage, but I don’t think that hurts my life like I don’t feel like I’m missing something. 

What I Want Others to Know

Third cultured kids (TCKs) are just people, we’re not that different. There are struggles that TCKs have that other people don’t, and at the same time, there are also advantages that TCKs have that others don’t, so it is helpful when people recognize both sides. 

To my fellow TCKs, I would say it is really easy to use “third-cultured-ness” as an excuse for not doing something, or not being good at something, and it’s completely valid, but just be careful with it. Sometimes, I let that be an excuse for something instead of thinking, “this is a challenge that I need to overcome,” so in the end, I lose out on a good learning opportunity. Same advice to everybody— don’t shy away from challenges, meet it head on. 

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