TCKs – putting people into boxes

11 Dec

I follow quite a few blogs about expat life and the concept of a third culture kid (TCK) is a common topic.  A third culture kid is someone who grows up in a different culture than his/her parents.  Recently I met a woman who is a counselor and a TCK herself.  We had a fascinating dinner conversation about what it means to her.

One strange thing was how much food came up as we were having the discussion.  I normally wouldn’t put bananas and eggs into the same sentence (unless I was going shopping), but they both can represent third culture kids (as well as people who have traveled and lived in many different places).

The words themselves in other context mean just that – I make a mean omelet and buy bananas regularly.  In this context though an egg is a white person who is “Asian inside” and a banana is an Asian person who acts “white.”  Neither is very polite.

I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone call me an “egg” to my face, but I could see in some circumstances that people may believe that based on some of my likes and dislikes.  However, since I just learned the term within the last month, I may have missed it.

I do know someone though who has been called a “banana” many times.  She said at the beginning that she didn’t understand what it meant, but even her family used it (born in China, lived in the UK and US) and when she finally looked it up it made her very uncomfortable.

These kinds of words exist to put people into boxes – make decisions about what they should think and how they should act, without understanding what made them the way they are today.  I think one of the great things about growing up in the US is that at least at first glance, we assume everyone is an American, then go figure out the particulars later.  In China, it is more – if you are Asian, you are Chinese and if you are anything else, you are foreign.

The discussion made me think.  I think a less intense way of the boxes are the stereotypes that we help push.  Asians are good at math.  Americans are loud and bad dressers when they travel.  I remember teaching a unit on stereotypes when I was teaching English several years ago and how difficult it was to explain to my Chinese students.  To them – those stereotypes were just “true.”

I don’t consciously try to make those distinctions but I am sure that I do.  Do you have any examples of putting people into boxes?


21 Responses to “TCKs – putting people into boxes”

  1. abc in shanghai December 11, 2012 at 9:04 am #

    I agree with your Chinese example and Laowai – probably spoon fed mentality, if you know what I mean. Can’t blame ‘them’. This very same mentality is still very alive in America – these labels are very much alive IMO. Call them stereotypes, racism or whatever; the idea of slotted people into boxes exists. When growing up, I got a lot of that Banana treatment from both Asian’s and non-Asians! Even my own Peeps were calling me a Banana b/c wasn’t acting enough like a Chinese. And, here in China, folks still don’t know what to call me. Some call me Laowai, while others say I am not. My niece, who is Hapa, experiences this today in the US. I believe we all make these distinctions unconsciously.

    • gkm2011 December 11, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

      It’s even stranger isn’t it when you’re not sure which box to put someone in? I imagine your case must be quite frustrating in China as until you speak, people have one judgment and after another one. I though, in China, will always be a laowai.

  2. expatlingo December 11, 2012 at 10:07 am #

    I was just having an interesting conversation yesterday with my young daughter about something similar. She started out by saying that her friend Emma was the only Chinese person she knows who doesn’t have black hair. Then I explained that while Emma was born in China, has lived in China her whole live, and speaks Chinese, she is not technically Chinese (and doesn’t have Chinese nationality). Then my daughter asked me where Emma was “from” then if not “from China.” I said she is “from China” but is not Chinese. Then next question was of course, “what is she then?” and I had to reply that I’m not really sure what she considers herself since her father is American and her mother is from both Argentina and Italy…. Perhaps a “young internationalist” ?

    • gkm2011 December 11, 2012 at 1:22 pm #

      I know – without that label, it is very difficult for us to cope. I wonder how Emma would define herself. Probably (and hopefully) she doesn’t care, but unfortunately the rest of the world does. I remember we had friends growing up who were Japanese and they lived in Michigan for quite a number of years. When they went back, the youngest had spent the majority of her life in the US and didn’t remember Japan. I still remember her asking her mom – “Why does everyone have black hair?” when they moved back. It broke my heart.

      • expatlingo December 11, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

        Emma is probably too young to ask, but you’re right, it would be interesting to know how her older siblings define themselves. Knowing their personalities, I think each one would define themselves differently.

        Interesting also to think, that had her family transplanted to the US from elsewhere she probably would define herself as “American” and no one would blink an eye (as you hinted at already). Can non-ethnic Chinese ever become Chinese nationals?

      • gkm2011 December 11, 2012 at 8:34 pm #

        I think technically it is possible but incredibly rare and requires a major contribution to society. Americans are more welcoming in that sense.

  3. fortheintolerants December 11, 2012 at 2:56 pm #

    I think people do this as a way to either find common ground or put people into boxes that make them feel more comfortable…even if it is rather discriminatory and rude. As a person of mixed race I have dealt with these kinds of assumptions and stereotypes and it’s amusing at the best of times and infuriating at the worst. I’ve never fully fit into either racial group I belong to because how I look doesn’t seem to jive with how I act. I guess it’s confusing for some, though I don’t find being called an “oreo” makes it any easier. I’ll take the label “internationalist” any day over a fat-laden, diabetes causing cookie.

    It was interesting/enlightening to read about this in an Asian context. Great post!

    • gkm2011 December 11, 2012 at 9:44 pm #

      Thanks for contributing another point of view. The discussion that night was incredible, giving me new terms and new ideas and new thoughts about how I define myself and how I define others.

  4. sarahinguangzhou December 11, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

    isn’t it strange to be in country where you know however long you stay or however good your Chinese you will always be a foreigner?

    • gkm2011 December 11, 2012 at 9:45 pm #

      Yes, it is strange but on my good days it is also freeing. Because I will forever be a “foreigner” it also means that I am not responsible for solving the many problems that exist here.

  5. Jeanette December 12, 2012 at 12:07 am #

    This is such an interesting topic. I’m neither an egg nor a banana; but, growing up in the US as a person with a Mediterranean complexion, I suffered from those types of “boxes” constantly. If it wasn’t the assumption that I was Hispanic, and therefore a cleaner or member of the service staff (regardless of my attire), it was the intrusive folks who would play 20 questions in the elevator. The conversation goes something like, “where are you from? Where are your parents from? Where did your grandparents come from? I mean, what’s your ethnicity?” So silly! On the one hand, it’s hilarious because I’m half German and half American as apple pie (meaning my ancestors arrived over 400 years ago). On the other hand, it always made me feel intensely uncomfortable and embarrassed. The positive part of the experience, though, is that it has taught me how irrelevant all the silly boxes are:)

    • gkm2011 December 12, 2012 at 8:12 am #

      Yes, I agree, the boxes really don’t matter. I know that my grandparents were especially guilty of asking questions of origin. One interesting thing is that in my hometown if I am asked where I am from I’ll say I have German and Polishvand Lithuanian background, but that was at least three generations before. In China I lose all that subtlety. Thanks for the comment.

  6. ladyofthecakes December 12, 2012 at 5:41 am #

    I’ve heard the terms “oreo” (another poster has already mentioned this) and “coconut” before for “black people who act white”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Egg and banana, in an Asian context, are new to me. Interesting. I don’t fit into these particular categories myself, but I also find it hard to give a satisfactory answer when I’m asked where I’m from, because I left my country of origin when I was still a teenager.
    It’s tricky when you no longer fit in anywhere 100%. It’s like when one of the eggs leaps out of its box and turns itself into an omelet. Try as it might, it ain’t ever gonna fit into that egg box again. That’s how I explained it to my brother last week when he asked me whether I was ever going to return for good.

    • gkm2011 December 12, 2012 at 8:15 am #

      I have never heard the term coconut before, but I can see the parallel. Great analogy about the omelet. That seems to be the perfect response for choosing to be somewhere else from your point of origin. I do though think making the choice to be some where else is different from being a TCK who just happens into a family situation.

      • ladyofthecakes December 12, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

        I do agree with you there, it is different… I imagine that the situation can be quite hard on TCK children and teenagers, because so much emphasis is paid at a young age on “fitting in”. Being different from our peers in any way can be hell.
        I’ve also heard stories of children refusing to speak in the mother tongue of their “foreign” parent when out in public with them, or to speak the language at all, for fear that it would make them stand out as being different. As adults, they had come to regret this, and understandably so.

      • gkm2011 December 12, 2012 at 9:35 pm #

        My father grew up in a house where his mom spoke polish and his dad Lithuanian. He speaks neither. The American way I suppose!

      • Matt December 19, 2012 at 5:19 am #

        Down here in South Texas (Corpus), a couple of my co-workers have referred semi-jokingly to themselves as “coconuts,” although this would be a different variation than the one mentioned above. I’m not sure what the reverse would be (“Zero bar,” maybe?), but if keep up with my Spanish perhaps I can boldly blaze that trail! I do listen to a lot of Tejano music!

        There’s a big difference, of course, between self-compartmentalization in good humor, and being compartmentalized by others. Having some control of the situation means so, so much.

        In other related news, it’s 6 years and counting, and I still haven’t convinced any Cajuns that I’m one of them. Although when I speak, most people are skeptical about my being from this hemisphere!

      • gkm2011 December 20, 2012 at 8:23 pm #

        Coconut was a new term for me, but I feel you hit the nail on the head- it is completely different between calling yourself a name, especially in good humor and being classed as something unfairly.

  7. LS December 12, 2012 at 6:09 am #

    I’m of mixed race, and whenever a Chinese person asked if I was from England or America, I told them “I was born in China. I’ve lived in China all my life. (no longer true since I’m spending college years in the US.) I spoke Chinese before I ever learned a word of English. In fact, I can probably read more Chinese than you can. So, yeah. I’m Chinese.” They kind of blink then move on with life, not knowing how else to define my foreginness.
    And yet, even today, I find myself speaking of white friends from China as “American” and not Chinese. I think the distinction for me was that they did not go to local school or learn Chinese or generally interact with Chinese society on more than one level. Most of them can speak no more than a couple words of Chinese. I guess for me language is the defining feature, though I increasingly realize how cruel it is to reject a friend’s Chineseness simply because they did not share my experiences. After all, they are no more American than I am. And no less.

    • gkm2011 December 12, 2012 at 8:20 am #

      From my view, the boxes we put ourselves in can be as interesting as the boxes others put us in. It is key to be able to define yourself in multiple ways in order to get the mot value from life. That said, as you inferred, once we start judging others it can make us and them uncomfortable. That must have been a fascinating child hood for you. I hope that you too can embrace each part of who you are. 🙂


  1. The sixth quarter update « 中国 Jumble - January 15, 2013

    […] TCKs – putting people into boxes – here I talked about TCKs (Third Culture Kids) and how difficult it can be to grow up in a different culture than your parents.  This was a thought provoking post about slang and language and how it can change. […]

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