I am currently at my final year at the University of Hong Kong where I major in Politics. I was born and raised in Hong Kong until I was about 12 or 13, which was when I left to attend boarding school in the UK. I attended international school in Hong Kong before I went to the UK, but even then, it had not prepared me for much of what came next.
Up until I left Hong Kong, I had a more solid idea of what “home” was, because I didn’t move a lot. Since moving to the UK, I changed rooms every semester, so I accumulated a box of things that I would decorate my room with. It didn’t matter where I went or which room I moved into, that box of things was what defined “home” for me.
I was sent away to the UK because I wasn’t doing well in school and because of some family issues back then. It was simply easier for me to be educated somewhere else. Plus, there was a sort of a culture in Hong Kong where, basically, if you are a middle-class family, you will eventually send your kid away to the UK (mostly), the US or Australia sooner or later anyways. It was the right time for me to go considering the circumstances.
new beginning in the UK
When I first got to the UK, I was at that age where I didn’t fully comprehend what I was doing or what I was getting myself into. I wasn’t using my head so I didn’t feel fear; I didn’t understand the situation enough for me to be scared.
I didn’t really get home sick. I suppose it was kind of exciting to be in a new country. I was the only Asian in my year, but there were also other international students from France, South Africa, Russia, Costa Rica etc. I was sharing a room with two other British girls and we had a strict routine everyday. We would wake up and automatically set to shower, get dressed and queue together to go downstairs for breakfast. There was a great sense of solidarity but teachers also encouraged individualism. The school paid a lot of attention to the arts and discussions and to this day I still appreciate this. I think it contributed to my creativity and analytical skills. Teachers would point out things that we were good at and encourage us to pursue it.
In the second year of boarding school, I was told that I had great leadership skills and I was appointed duties to monitor other students in following rules. It was mostly simple things like making sure everyone would queue in time to go down for breakfast, or going around with a “vote paper” to help decide where we would go out for fun during the weekends (most popular choices were always either hiking or ice staking). I was put in an environment so different from the 9-5 school life I had in Hong Kong, and it changed me.
Adapting to “Home”
When the time came for university, I decided to come back to Hong Kong because I have always knew that I wanted to work elsewhere and because I had been away from my mom for a very long time. I was afraid that if I didn’t come back, there wouldn’t be a chance for us to live together again.
Living with my mom was a challenge because she didn’t really watch me grow up; we only saw each other a few times a year. It was difficult for me to get her to see me as an adult and let her know how much I value independence. It was difficult for her too because she wasn’t used to having me around. In a sense, she still thinks I’m 13.
That summer, I tanned a lot, so I was really dark and my hair was really curly; I looked very racially ambiguous. At university, I would start conversations with people in English (instead of Cantonese) and mid-way, people would say something like: “so are you from the Philippines?”
Laying my own path
A few months in was when I realized I really didn’t fit in because whenever I would tell people that I am from Hong Kong, or I am a local, they will ask “what school did you go to?” I would then have to explain my past and they would immediately put me in a different categorical box than them.
I learned to cope with it by avoiding having “that” conversation with them. I got tired of having to have the same conversations about where I’m from or spilling my whole life story. It’s not that I was offended; it’s just really clear that when we do have “that” conversation, they convey the sense that that they are the “right” local people, and I am not the “right” local.
Because I grew up in Hong Kong, it’s hard to say that I am not from Hong Kong. When it comes to experiences, however, mine are obviously very different from someone who had never left Hong Kong. I wouldn’t comprehend a lot of the slangs or TV references here. Even with big events that are happening right now, I feel like I’m reading and learning about it from an outsider’s perspective, whereas most of the local people here have very intense feelings about it. I find it really hard to attach myself with big issues related to Hong Kong, and the same goes for the UK. I can’t identify myself as a British person either because I didn’t grow up in that culture there. I didn’t grow up with the pop culture of Hong Kong or the UK.
Education-wise, I had always been immersed in the Western rather than Chinese education system, so it wasn’t until I was independently learning at university that I had come to appreciate the Chinese education and history that I was never taught. I became really interested and read up a lot on Chinese history. Gradually, that gave me more of a sense of who I am but it didn’t necessarily change my self-identity.
Because of the environment that I was brought up in, I had more leeway to shape my own identity, opinions, and personality in a way that a lot of people weren’t able to. By that I mean, if you were a local person who grew up in Hong Kong, you would face a lot of consistent constraints from your family, school, and peers to be a certain way or live a certain life. With those similarities, however, it’s also easier for them to be friends with one another, whereas people with similar upbringings as me could still turn out to be very different.
In my teenage years, I already felt that I was different in some ways from the majority, so I’m okay with having different opinions, I’m not afraid to speak up to challenge commonplace views, and I’m okay with diverging from a traditional career path. For example, many Chinese families would want their kids to become lawyers or doctors but I don’t get that pressure from my family and I don’t feel that’s a path I should follow because that’s not what I want to do. I have been offered a short-term teaching assistant role at a South East Asian university that I’m likely to take after I graduate. It’s definitely not a conventional path here in Hong Kong because most people wouldn’t regard it as a valuable experience. I understand their mentality, but I’m also super comfortable with living the life that I want to live even if the majority does not agree with or understand my decisions.
coming to terms with individuality
Every majority group in a particular society has this very strong sense of “we,” and whoever fails to fit into that category automatically becomes an outsider.Yet even people considered outsiders in a certain society are able to find groups that identity with. For example, the South Asian minorities in Hong Kong, have a strong connection with each other and identify with other South Asians. Whereas for me, I find it really difficult to identify with any group.
When I was in the UK, I didn’t feel like I fit in because I was obviously a foreigner but I don’t feel like a local either in Hong Kong. Some years back it really bothered me. At a young age, I think everyone wants to fit in to a certain extent, to have friends, and to be liked by their peers. I tried really hard because I was craving attention and love but no matter how much I made an effort to fit in, there would always be certain things that give me away.
Either shaped by my personality or environment, I became a very independent person as a way to cope. When you are a minority, it’s really hard to find people that understands you; you just kind of have to be okay with being by yourself.
what I want others to know
What I want other people to know about Third Culture Kids is that at least realize that we exist and that we didn’t choose this life we live; most of the time, it just happens. In this sense, it’s not something that we are deliberately doing to set ourselves apart from others; if anything, we try really hard to fit in.