Cloaked in Singapore's humidity, I roamed around the streets of Singapore this past summer, soaking in the nostalgia. A stranger approached me, soliciting donations for a presumably good cause.
"No, thank you," I replied. My tongue felt like a strange and separate entity, as my words saturated with the American accent spilled out. In Singapore, where most people speak Singlish, (Singapore's colloquial English dialect), my accent stood out like a red flag.
The stranger's ears perked up. "Wah, you have an accent. Where are you from?"
That question is probably every Third Culture Kid's least favorite question. A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is someone who has spent a portion of their formative years in a culture different than their parents. Most have lived in more than 2 countries. People who have attended international schools, children of diplomats, “military brats,” and missionary kids are just a few examples of TCKs. Oftentimes, TCKs don't feel like they belong to any one culture.
At the age of 5, I was a Singaporean girl, living in Kazakstan, speaking with an American accent. I then moved to America where I lived during my elementary school years; afterward, I attended an international school in Singapore for middle and high school. I currently go to college in Chicago. Despite living in Singapore for 7+ years, I never identified with the Singapore culture, as most of my friends were expats. Although I loved Singaporean food, there was so much I didn't know or understand about Singaporean culture.
I'd been doing an experiment that summer, sometimes answering that I was from America; other times stating I was from Singapore. Neither were true - I didn't feel at home in either countries. Once, when I answered I was from America, the inquiring person wondered why I was so quiet. "Aren't Americans very loud?" he asked.
This time, I decided to tell the solicitor, "I'm from Singapore." He then proceeded to ask how I attained my accent, and I explained my background.
"Wow, you're so privileged," he sneered, referring to my overseas education. I shifted around uncomfortably in shame, avoiding his gaze until our conversation ended. On one hand, I do have to recognize that I have been given opportunities other Singaporean young adults have not had. However, I also hadn't been trying to lord my background over him. Did my very history have to ostracize me from the country which had legally claimed me as its own?
There's a term in Singlish called jiak kantang. Jiak is Hokkien (a Chinese dialect) for eat, and kantang is Malay for potato. Combine those two together, and jiak kantang means "eat potato." It's a reference to how a Westernized Asian will supposedly eat more potatoes rather than "typical" Asians who will eat more rice. Jiak kantang is a derogative term used to describe Westernized Asians, and associates them with being pompous and condescending.
In Singapore, I am seen as the one who eats potatoes. In America, I am seen as the one who eats rice.
As I straddle between these two cultures, I wonder if there will ever be a place I can call my home. I'm about to graduate from college and (most likely) move to San Francisco. I'm relocating there with the hope that I'll settle down and be able to finally call a place home.
Ultimately, I'm just looking for a place where I can fully belong - a place where I can eat both rice and potatoes without giving a care.
Special thanks to Joe Zhang for helping me to cut and cook the potato!