From a very early age, I knew I had a unique identity. My favorite part of having mixed blood is to make people try to guess my nationality. A few will fold immediately, unable to read anything from my accent or features. Others give the wildest guesses; I’ve been called an Egyptian, Indian, African, Italian, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and many more.
Nobody, not once in my entire twenty-four years of life, has guessed that I am Austrian or Taiwanese.
Throughout different stages in my life I’ve felt confident, ashamed, or confused about my identity as a third culture kid. Sometimes it felt like a curse, other times a blessing, and often a hybrid of the two. For many people, knowing where they come from and who they are is a simple fact learned from childhood, though I’ve been on a journey to find the answers to those questions all my life.
My dad comes from Austria, and my mother, Taiwan. If their lives were dice, no game toss would ever show the same number on both faces, but life goes beyond probability to bring two people together.
A pairing of two quickly expanded to a family of three, four, five, and then the sixth child was me. I was born in 1994, and like my siblings, I spent my early days in Tokyo, Japan, where our parents were living and working at the time. Whenever I mention my birthplace, 50 percent of the time the follow-up question is, “Oh, so do you have Japanese citizenship?” And I explain that not only do the Japanese only issue citizenship by blood, but I also don’t even remember anything from the city. Before I turned a year old, my parents moved our entire family back to my mom’s homeland of Taiwan, where my younger brother and younger twin sisters were born, capping off our sibling count to a grand total of nine.
At the time, there weren’t many foreigners living in Taiwan, and the size of our family only accentuated the novelty. The whispers and curious smiles from the Taiwanese people followed us. It didn’t bother me when kids pointed at me and yelled “American!” because I could speak English and looked exotic, or when elderly ladies wanted to touch my hair. In fact, I started to wear that badge of distinction proudly; the label of “foreigner” was all the identity I needed. It was an ambiguous, yet welcoming title that required no paperwork or certification to prove, and it won me smiles and interest wherever I went. It made me feel special and confident.
Occasionally we’d meet the other rare foreign family, and they would comment — as people still do now — on our American English, which didn’t sync with us being Austrian passport holders. And I’d explain — as I still do now — that it might be because we were homeschooled from kindergarten to high school with an American curriculum, which also gave me a sense of American culture and speech habits without ever having lived there. It’s not a completely comprehensive or logical reason, but few things in my life can fit into neat boxes. Square pegs can fit into round roles if you whittle down the sides.
Having grown up as a foreigner I thought it would easy for me to relate that experience to being in any new country, so when I took a volunteer internship in Colombia after graduating high school I figured that within the first year I would have settled in and established roots to stay there.
I was not prepared for the world of difference and my first taste of culture shock.
For the first time in my life, I felt like a true outsider — not one that locals stopped to wave at or take photos of, but rather, one that forever drifts on the outskirts of each moment. My Spanish wasn’t very good, and the little that I did know I was too embarrassed to speak. I could hardly even buy something at the store without asking a friend to help me translate. It was also my first time being away from home, and that coupled with the language barrier created an overwhelming wave of alienation.
In Taiwan, I was considered an “American,” but in Cartagena, most everyone thought of me as Chinese. Or Japanese. Or Korean. The three lines were blurred but I was definitely Asian to them, a concept that hadn’t really occurred to me before. To my friends and their friends whom I was introduced to, I was the “amiga china” (Chinese friend). Once they found that out, the next question they all wanted to ask was, “Do they really eat dogs in China?”
I had to tell them the truth: not just dogs.
My time in Colombia showed me that my mixed ethnicity allowed almost everyone to have a different view of me in accordance to their own culture and perspective. For example, in Taiwan, I was often praised for my “foreign” features like big eyes and curly hair. But in Colombia, I was told that I couldn’t look more Asian with my small eyes and diminutive figure. In one place I was regarded as “special” and in the other as “unusual.” Encountering this disparity in Colombia was quite a blow to my confidence at the time.
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When my year of volunteer work finished, I moved to Shanghai, China, where my oldest sister and two brothers had moved previously to study. I’ve spent the past four years here, studying Chinese at the Shanghai University of Engineering Science.
In China, I found that, again, others’ perceptions of me shifted. To some, I looked like one of them, and I’d be approached by grandmas chattering in Shanghainese, a local dialect that bears no resemblance to the Mandarin I’d learned in Taiwan. Other times, taxi drivers would glance at me repeatedly before daring to cautiously ask, “You’re not from around here, are you?”
There’s a certain kind of relief in the anonymity of not having a fixed national identity. I’ve always been the unbiased spectator to my friends’ nationalistic debates. I feel no pressure when I watch the World Cup or Olympics. I’m free to choose to root for whatever team or athlete is the best-looking. Politics or elections have no bearing or effect on me in either the country of my birth or passport.
But with the freedom comes a feeling of being adrift. Sometimes at bars or parties, I watch how two strangers connect with the question “Where are you from?”, their shared country or language immediately bridging them with a shared culture and experiences. And I know that the only time someone will come up to me and say, “I’m an Austrian-Taiwanese who’s a native English speaker” will be when I’m meeting one of my siblings. I feel envious when I hear people talking about going home for the holiday, because I don’t have a concrete place that I can go back to like that.
My passport country of Austria is a place as foreign to me as any other country, and I can only stay in Taiwan on a short-term tourist visa. My parents always told me my diverse background and upbringing would be an asset in a globalized world, but sometimes I long for the comfort of one stable country and nationality to call my own.
By now I’ve learned to utilize my experiences of being an outsider to my advantage, my wide range of world knowledge and perspective allowing me to integrate into conversations fluidly, to know what to say and how to say it to easily assimilate into others’ worlds. But this also means that no one can ever step into my own world, and that sometimes led to me feeling alone in my own skin, of wanting to break out of the oddity of myself and fit into a more common mold.
So, I spent the next few years in Shanghai puzzled by this dilemma, trying to come to terms with who I am and what that means to me and to those around me.
It wasn’t until recently, when I was talking to one of my friends, that I pointed out that maybe being able to fit in anywhere isn’t something to be proud of — as if I’m a chameleon that can go anywhere and be anything. Maybe it just means I’m invisible.
“It means you’re like water,” she encouraged me. “Bruce Lee style.”
She was right. Regardless of what other people think of me, I should find confidence and pride in where I’ve come from, what I’ve experienced, and who I am as a result of that.
I realized that I will be perceived differently no matter where I go. As a bi-racial, bi-lingual person who doesn’t fit any standard list of boxes to check, I’ve come to accept that people will have different opinions of me, but they can’t change how I view myself. No matter how others see me, I am who I am.
Fitting in to new environments is something that doesn’t always come easily to most people, but knowing that I now have that skill tucked under my sleeve does make me feel like I have a secret power that will definitely come into play someday. If the apocalypse ever does come and we all have to relocate on some alien planet I probably won’t be rattled; in fact, I might fit in right with them.
This is the story of Elena Sichrovsky
Elena is 24 years old and currently lives in Shanghai, China. She was born in Japan, grew up in Taiwan, and holds an Austrian passport. Her native language is English and she also speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, along with a smattering of Spanish. Being a third culture kid is something that has been both confusing and empowering at different points in her life, but she’s learned to embrace the chaos and adventure of finding one’s own identity. She’s also a writer, with several short stories published and a novel on the way. Movies in other languages is one of her guilty pleasures, be they in French, Italian, Russian, or Japanese; she’s currently in a “Korean phase” and spends any free evening watching Korean dramas. Her favorite foods are pasta, pizza, and popcorn, in that order, and she’ll always choose cake over cookies, tea over coffee, and juice over wine. She is still in search of a place she can settle and call home, which has never truly been a place, rather something felt while with those she loves. She’s considering moving to the USA someday, perhaps to Los Angeles.
Life Log #226
This story first touched our hearts on November 15, 2018.
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