“Where are you from?”
“No, I mean where are you REALLY from?”
“Queens, New York?”
“No, I mean, what are you, Indian or Mexican or something?”
If you are an immigrant or the child of immigrants, you’ve had this conversation so many times that you’ve lost count.
Depending on your mood when you are asked, or perhaps the tone of voice being used by the other party, your reaction might range anywhere from laughing and pleasantly obliging to punching them in the face.
If you belong to an ethnic minority in the US, your race and country of origin can often simultaneously be a burden and a badge of honor.
Immigrants and the children of immigrants often refer to their country of origin as “the motherland”. This makes more sense for immigrants than for the children of immigrants. The children of immigrants are often subject to clashing and confusing sets of cultural values as what they learn at home is often inapplicable in social life in their adopted country. Simultaneously, adopted practices and cultural values learned outside the home from friends will often not translate well into the home.
As such, the children of immigrants often feel like they simultaneously belong to two worlds while never belonging fully to either world.
As a first generation child, your life inside of the house is basically a microcosm of the country your parents came from. You often don’t know the country very well but you are forced to accept and adapt to certain cultural norms that either do not exist or are ridiculed outside of your home.
Your life outside of the house is quite different. Technically speaking, you are a citizen of your adopted nation and you are supposed to fully belong. Ultimately, you are often, in many ways, still a foreigner to your compatriots.
All children of immigrants intuitively understand what this is like, even if they’ve never verbalized it to others or even to themselves. Over time, you begin to realize that there does not exist a universally correct way to conduct yourself. Everything is contextual and depends fully upon the audience you are addressing.
For example, in American culture it would be considered rude to not make eye contact and give a firm handshake to someone you have just met. Conversely, if you made direct eye contact with a Vietnamese coworker and gripped his hand in the same way you would his American counterpart, you may come across as aggressive and confrontational.
Simultaneously, the American might view his Vietnamese counterpart as being weak in confidence and conviction, incorrectly perceiving another culture’s version of courtesy and respect as a sign of weakness.
If you do not come from a family of immigrants, this cultural faux pas may seem, at worst, inconvenient and perhaps a bit amusing.
When you are growing up as a child of immigrants, your entire worldview is being persistently challenged by conflicting sets of values on a daily basis. Many decisions you make in the course of your day, particularly those that involve interactions with other people, force you to first identify which cultural value set you should be adopting and then having to take dozens of other subtle factors into account.
In an interaction with an American person, you can generally assume that a person will speak directly and generally have a more casual demeanor. In an interaction with a Korean or Japanese person in your extended family circle, you will have to adopt a highly specific form of grammar and body language depending on your relationship in an unwritten social hierarchy.
Moreover, as most Asian languages and cultures are indirect and highly contextual, you will have to listen to both what is being said and what is NOT being said and deduce a conclusion based on the limited amount of information being provided to you.
As a result, the children of immigrants are often forced to adopt two “masks” that they have to wear when they are among other immigrants and when they among “regular Americans”. Growing up, the children of immigrants inevitably face confusing cultural clashes; the reality of living in an adopted nation and the preconceived notions from one’s parents about what is acceptable and unacceptable causes one to have to constantly adopt a new persona and identity depending on the situation.
Mexican, Puerto Rican, Russian, Filipino, Korean, Bengali, Persian – we’ve all been through similar experiences in this regard.
Ultimately, though, you should view this experience as a blessing and not a curse.
You have the privilege and gift of intuitively and deeply understanding how to navigate two languages and cultures.
You can use this to your advantage by exploring your roots in the motherland. Depending on specifically where your ancestors are from, you may be able to capitalize on growth opportunities and arbitrage by exploiting links and gaps in services or products that others do not see simply because they did not grow up as a child of two worlds.
If you are still in university, you can spend a semester studying and interning abroad in your motherland while improving your language skills and building a professional and personal network
For example, a Brazilian-American third culture kid we know has already set himself up with clientele for his SEO and web design firm in a second tier Brazilian city. Many emerging markets like Brazil have had an explosion in wealth and subsequent rise of a middle class but still lack many of the professional services and products that we take for granted. By taking advantage of his roots, he is able to take advantage of this arbitrage opportunity.
Another great example of the story of Ticketmonster. This South Korean tech startup is essentially a Groupon clone that was launched by an enterprising Korean-American. It was recently acquired for quite a bit of money by Groupon. Had the founder not had experience in both Korea and the US, he would not have been able to seize this opportunity.
You may have grown up wondering why your family had to do things differently from the Johnsons and the Browns and the Joneses.
You may have assumed that cultural clashes and miscommunications with your parents were a burden and curse that you simply had to tolerate until you could get to university and have a level of freedom.
Instead of having any regrets about your experience as a first generation immigrant child or third culture kid, you should look back with gratitude.
Your entire life has been an experiment in intercultural communications. You’ve developed a sixth sense; you’ve gained the ability to navigate sensitive and subtle cultural phenomena in a range of languages. You’ve seen the best and worst of two or more cultures and can thus mold your life and values around a hybrid of the strengths. In turn, you can eliminate all of the weaknesses of both cultures.
You don’t feel that this has necessarily turned you into a stronger and more resilient person because the person you are today could not exist without having to struggle and deftly navigate two worlds.
Ultimately, however, we are defined by and molded into the people we are today by the challenges and struggles of our past – not the good times.
Embrace that you are a child of two worlds. You are a part of history, a grain of sand in the tectonic shifts of globalization.
Seize your opportunity today.