As a Third Culture Kid, my two worlds (Japan and the United States) tend to conflict.
As I transition between these two vastly different cultures, I frequently receive mixed social messages on how others perceive me and how I’m supposed to act. Cultural differences can be challenging to decipher for TCKs, especially if we regularly travel between our passport and host countries. Here are five mixed messages from my two worlds that, at times, have left me utterly confused:
Mixed Message #1 One world tells me I’m tall. My other world tells me I’m short.
Since I was nine-years old, I’ve lived in a country known for its petite people. Growing up, I was the “tall girl.” I towered above my Japanese friends. My long sleeves were always too short, the hems of my pant legs at my ankles.
When I was thirteen, I visited my passport country, fully believing I was unusually tall. My current height: 5 ft. 1in. (1.55 meters).
It took me about twenty minutes to realize the word “tall” is a culturally-dependent term. Suddenly, I found myself wearing heels and a dumb-founded expression. I would never purposefully make myself taller in Japan. However, I soon grew accustomed to dusting off the heels before visiting my passport country and tucking them away upon my return to my host country. Am I short or tall? The answer is never in inches or centimeters, but rather in the country I currently reside.
Mixed Message #2 One world tells me to listen. My other world tells me to talk.
I distinctly remember the first time one of my Japanese friends told me to lower my voice. “Shhh… you’re being too loud. You must be quiet, please,” she whispered.
In her book Global Mom, Melissa Dalton Bradford explains, “I reigned in my volume and gestures [while living in Asia]…I learned how to be microscopic.” I picked up on this cultural cue quickly. Gone went my booming American voice. I grew accustomed to listening. In Japan, I barely speak above a whisper. In respect for others, I am quiet. Hushed. Soft-spoken.
This does not go over well in the US. “Why are you whispering?” My host-country friends frequently ask me, puzzled. And when I am introduced to strangers, I can usually expect these questions: “You’re shy, aren’t you? You don’t talk much. Are you usually this quiet?” At times, my quietness has been perceived as rude. This is one mixed message I especially struggle with. Do I use my diaphragm or not? A quick glance around my surroundings is the key to this question.
Mixed Message #3 One world tells me I’m not adequately trained. My other world tells me to take risks.
In Japan, a test is required for virtually everything. The prerequisite of any job or promotion is an extremely difficult exam. Work at Starbucks? Take a multi-level exam. Work at a grocery store? Undergo weeks of supervision and training.
Culturally, young people are considered inadequate for leadership positions or difficult responsibilities. From a young age, I learned through observation that taking on important roles or obligations shows pride. I was not experienced enough. I was not trained.
However, during a visit to the US a few years ago, my sister was asked to lead the craft department at a large children’s program. Her eyes rounded in shock. “I can’t do that!” she gasped, “I’m not qualified!” Later, I was asked to lead a small group. “I can’t,” I replied, “I’m not trained!” One culture told me I couldn’t. One culture told me I could. I felt divided.
Mixed Message #4 One world requires submission to group opinion. My other world demands the assertion of my opinion.
Recently, an expat friend of mine told me about her lunch with Japanese students from her English class. The menu was simple: choice A or choice B. The waitress came to take their orders.
“Choice A,” one older friend stated. Unbeknownst to her, the menu was then set. At that point, all of the other women followed this lead. “Choice A.” “Choice A.” “Choice A.” Finally, it was my friend’s turn, “Choice B, please,” she said. Her students looked shock. Back around the circle they went, changing orders. Soon, everyone had switched to choice B. In Japan, conformity and a collective voice are valued. Independence shows pride and foolishness. Conformity brings safety.
In the US, however, I’ve learned that the confident assertion of my own opinion garners respect. “Everyone’s so self-assured and decisive here,” I whispered to my Mom during a visit to my passport country. She laughed, “Not really. Everyone’s just acting like they know what they’re doing, and then figuring it out as they go.” Submit or assert? I never quite know.
Mixed Message #5 One world sees me as a novelty. My other world sees me as normal.
I have blonde hair and blue eyes, and I live in a city with hardly any foreigners. My physical features elicit cameras, points, and stares. Sometimes this makes me feel uncomfortable. But after years of sticking out, I’ve come to this conclusion: if I saw myself walking down the street, I would probably have the same response. I do look drastically different from everyone else!
In one airplane ride to my passport country, however, this instantly changes. Suddenly, I blend in. “It’s weird,” my sister recognized during our last visit to the US, “I can walk down the street here, and no one notices.” One world sees me as a novelty, while my other world sees me as normal. Will I be overlooked or looked over? Depends on the country.
For TCKs, mixed messages can be perplexing as we are trying to figure out who we are. But as I transition between the US and Japan, I’m learning to recognize how and when the “cultural ruler” changes. (Sometimes literally, when height is involved!) I’m learning to be secure in who I am while at the same time, learning to be flexible. This way, I can bend to meet the expectations of different cultures while still being ‘me’ at my core.
Check out Taylor’s blog at www.taylorjoymurray.com