Where is Home?

As a Third Culture Kid, I don’t belong anywhere

In Canada, I’m too Chinese.

Like all Third-Culture Kids (TCK), I always dread the same question:

“Where are you from?”

“It depends,” I say.

They look at me like I’m an idiot. “You know what I mean. Where are you really from?” They ask.

“Please be specific — My birthplace? My ethnicity? My citizenship?”

And the cycle continues.

I’m another Third Culture Kid with an identity crisis

I’m an Asian, Chinese person — right?

Yes and no.

I’m Han Chinese by ethnicity, according to the social sciences.

But being Han Chinese doesn’t mean anything.

All ethnicities are arbitrary social groups tied together by a common national or cultural tradition — like race, ethnicity is a social construct.

To keep it simple, I usually tell people that I’m a “Hong Kong-born Canadian.”

However, I only lived in Hong Kong for three years. Despite being born there and being a Hong Kong (and thereby Chinese) national, I’m not a true Hong Konger.

I didn’t grow up in Canada, despite having a Canadian passport and Canadian citizenship from birth, so I’m not a born-and-raised Canadian either.

I’m just another confused TCK.

The Hong Konger in me

I was born in Evangel Hospital (播道醫院), Hong Kong.

My parents are both Canadian and Hong Kong citizens, so I was given Canadian and Hong Kong citizenship at birth.

Ethnically, I am a Hong Konger (香港人) of Han Chinese (漢) descent.

My ancestry belongs to the Han-subgroups of Teochew (潮州) on my father’s side and Hakka (客家) on my mother’s side.

The first language I learned as a child was Cantonese (廣東話) — the prestige dialect of the Yue Language (粵語), used primarily in Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Macau.

I can’t speak or understand either of my parents’ ancestral languages — my father’s Teochew Southern Min language (潮州話) or my mother’s Hakka language (客家話).

Language Atlas of China: Mapping Different Varieties of Chinese

“A language is a dialect with an army and navy.”

Are Cantonese and Mandarin different languages?

Are they just dialects of Standard Chinese?

Are they different languages, but part of the same Chinese (Sinitic) language family?

An Informative Video of the History of Sinitic Chinese Language(s)

Here’s a fun-fact—spoken Cantonese and spoken Mandarin are not mutually intelligible.

If a Cantonese speaker had a conversation with a Mandarin speaker, they wouldn’t understand each other. They may recognize a few words here and there, but they wouldn’t be able to communicate properly.

According to 2016 statistics from the CIA World Factbook, 88.9% of Hong Kongers speak Cantonese as their native language. Only 1.9% of Hong Kongers are native Mandarin speakers.

To put this in perspective, in the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国), 73% of the population speak Mandarin as their native language.

How Similar Are Mandarin and Cantonese?

History and politics aside, the language, cultural, and communication gaps between Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China doesn’t make things any easier.

I’m (not) Chinese

I flinch when people say that I’m Chinese.

Are you referring to my ethnicity and cultural heritage?

Or are you identifying me as a citizen of the People’s Republic of China?

I wish that I was proud of being Chinese. There’s a lot of beauty in Chinese culture.

Taijitu (太極圖) — A representation of Yin-Yang and Wuji, from Taoism

Philosophical Taoism (道教), founded over 2400 years ago, contributed many important ideas to the world. It emphasized living in accordance with nature, recognizing that everything changes, and embracing impermanence.

Here are some of Taoism’s key concepts:

Tao or Dao (道): The “Way”. Or “Nature”. It cannot be fully understood.

Qi (氣): Literally “breath” or “air” — Qi is the animating force of the universe. It is the vital life-force that is present in all living things.

Yin-Yang (陰陽): Opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary and inseparable.

Good and bad, right and wrong, positive and negative, etc. — They each contain within them a seed of the opposite.

Wu Wei (無爲): The art of effortless, effective, and efficient action.

The Three Treasures (三寶): The most important virtues for a meaningful life:

  • 慈 — “compassion”
  • 儉 — “frugality”
  • 不敢為天下先 — “humility”

“Tao alone becomes all things great and all things small.
It is the One in many.
It is the many in One.
Let Tao become all your actions,
Then your wants will become your treasure,
Your injury will become your blessing.
Take on difficulties while they are still easy,
Do great things while they are still small.
Step by step the world’s burden is lifted.
Piece by piece the world’s treasure is amassed.
So the Sage stays with his daily task,
And accomplishes the greatest thing.
Beware of those who promise a quick and easy way,
For much ease brings many difficulties.
Follow your path to the end.
Accept difficulty as an opportunity.
This is the sure way to end up
With no difficulties at all.”

Besides Taoism, Confucianism, and Chinese Buddhism, Chinese culture contributed to world civilization with a variety of innovations, scientific discoveries, and inventions:

  • Paper: Invented during the Han Dynasty, sometime between 202 BC — 220 AD.
  • Paper money (banknotes): First developed during the Tang Dynasty in the 7th Century AD. True paper money did not appear until the 11th Century AD during the Song Dynasty.
  • Gunpowder: First used during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD)
  • Printing: Invented during the Tang Dynasty around 593 AD. Originally used to print Buddhist texts.
  • The magnetic compass: Invented during the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) for divination and geomancy. Used for navigation during the Song Dynasty in the 11th Century AD.
  • Tea: A plant indigenous to Yunnan province. First found around 2000 BC.
  • Porcelain: First made during the Tang Dynasty in the 7th Century AD.

Ordinary Chinese people continue to inspire the world today:

Chinese online star Li Ziqi provides an escape from urban life
Boy gains 18kg to save his father, who has cancer

I’m proud of what my ancestors contributed to the world — Chinese civilization is part of my cultural heritage, but China isn’t my country.

I don’t have a People’s Republic of China Passport.

I don’t have a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Passport.

Officially, Chinese nationals are not allowed to claim dual citizenship.

Officially, Hong Kong citizens are Chinese nationals.

Officially, even though Chinese nationals cannot have dual citizenship and even though Hong Kong citizens are Chinese nationals… Hong Kong Chinese people are allowed to have dual citizenship.

(That’s why I’m a dual citizen of Canada and Hong Kong.)

Confused?

Me too.

Even though I spent a lot of my life in different “Chinas”, I was always seen as a foreigner due to my Canadian passport and my English-language schooling.

I’ve lived in three different “Chinese worlds”:

  • I lived in Hong Kong for three years.
  • I lived in Taipei, Taiwan for two years.
  • I lived in Beijing, China for twelve years.

I enjoyed living in all three cities. Normal, everyday people in all three places were just… normal.

Like everywhere else in the world, everyone wants to be a good person and have an opportunity for a good life. Most of the stereotypes, hatred, and discrimination towards others stems from ignorance and fears of the unknown.

Everyone always asks me if Hong Kong and China (the People’s Republic of China) are the same — it’s complicated. It depends on your perspective and who you ask. I don’t have all the answers.

Like most Hong Kong citizens between the age of 18 and 29 (my age group), if I had to identify myself as either a “Hong Konger” or a “Chinese” person…

I’m a Hong Konger.

How Hong Kong Citizens Identify Themselves

Here are a few tables showing some of the differences in censorship and free speech in the PRC (People’s Republic of China), HKSAR (Hong Kong), and the ROC (Taiwan).

These tables are sorted based on the international non-profit, non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders (RWB) Press Freedom Index.

Higher scores mean more censorship and less freedom of speech, freedom of press, and freedom of information.

I’m not a fan of the PRC government, but I have nothing against ordinary Chinese people in the People’s Republic of China. The people of Hong Kong and Taiwan are awesome as well.

The Chinese citizens of the People’s Republic of China aren’t stupid.

Many of them (especially the ones who are between 18 and 29 years old) are well-educated and are not as brainwashed as Western media would like us to believe — in a land of limited freedoms, they just have no power to speak up or change anything on their own.

At the same time, many citizens of the People’s Republic of China are also ignorant, culturally unaware, and are frankly uninterested in the world outside of “China”.

These attitudes of Chinese cultural superiority (Sinocentrism) over other cultures and nations are steeped in over 3250 years of Chinese-centric culture and history.

Fun fact: The name China in written Chinese (中国 or 中國) can be translated as “The Middle Kingdom”, “Centre Kingdom”… Or it can be interpreted with a Sinocentric lens: “The Central Kingdom of the World.”

Sounds similar to a few ideologies throughout the years, doesn’t it?

For example, American Exceptionalism comes to mind:

By understanding history, today’s clashing cultural rhetoric and ideologies of American Exceptionalism and Chinese Sinocentrism make a lot of sense.

Back to China.

In today’s internet-dominated world, The Great Firewall of China doesn’t allow for much self-education and independent thought.

Normal people everywhere around the world are usually fantastic — Some are great, some are terrible.

Some are independent thinkers, others are ignorant.

Ordinary people are generally pretty good everywhere in the world.

People in power? Not so much.

Who am I?

Diagram of a Third Culture Kid (TCK)

Between my time in Hong Kong and Taiwan, I also lived two years in Jakarta, Indonesia — the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world.

Besides the May 1998 riots that my family had to flee from, Indonesia was fantastic. The food, the people, the culture… I don’t remember much, but my memories of Indonesia are warm and kind.

In total, I spent 18 years of my life in Asia before I moved to Toronto, Canada to study at the University of Toronto.

Unlike my parents, who are 100% certain of their Hong Kong identities, I’m not.

Hello, goodbye

Change and uncertainty define my life as a Third Culture Kid.

From a young age, I mastered the art of making friends quickly.

Hello, we’re friends now — Like my fellow international school classmates, my friendships were never certain.

One moment we were best friends. The next, their family had to relocate to another city or country.

I might never see them again.

Losing friends was just a part of everyday life.

I never had the luxury of stable relationships. Maybe that’s why I have commitment issues. My whole life is a revolving cast of characters.

Whether by choice or by circumstance — nobody stayed in my life for long.

I still hate saying goodbye.

Toronto: Diversity Our Strength (?)

I fell in love with Toronto at first sight.

I’m grateful. Every time I land at YYZ, I feel at peace. I’ve now lived in Toronto for eight years.

I even wrote Toronto a love letter.

What makes Toronto special?

Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world. Torontonians represent over 250 ethnicities and speak 170 different languages. Over 51% of Toronto’s population was born outside of Canada.

Toronto’s multiculturalism is woven into the City of Toronto’s official motto: “Diversity Our Strength.”

Like all places on Earth, Toronto isn’t perfect. Canada isn’t either.

Public transit, lack of affordable housing, homelessness, inclusivity, and mental health are just some issues that come to mind.

Systemic racism and discrimination against black people is still a huge problem in Toronto and in Canada.

Mental health impact of discrimination | Living In Colour

“We are capable of love and hate.

Racism and discrimination in Canada still exist today in other forms:

There’s no place like home because home is not a place

There’s so much injustice, inequality, and hatred everywhere I look. It’s easy to get depressed and think negatively about the world.

How can humanity heal centuries of hate and conflict?

I must not forget the TCK creed — everything changes.

As the Persians say, this too shall pass (این نیز بگذرد‎).

For better or for worse, good things follow bad things and bad things follow bad things — Welcome to life.

Maybe I’ll never truly belong, and that’s okay.

Home is not a place, after all.

They say home is where the heart is. My heart’s in my chest — so I’m always home, wherever in the world I may be.

Like in the Hero’s Journey, I’m coming to realize that the home I’m looking for was within me all along.

English teacher, language lover, and dancer. I write about learning languages, dance, and personal growth. http://jjwong.net I IG: thejjwong

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