Third Culture

By Leslie Park
Coluna Perfil e Opinião

I recently came across a term that I may have been introduced to at some point, but certainly never thought too much about. Third Culture. The anthropological idea of someone spending pivotal developmental years in a culture that is different from their parents. The idea suggests that a third culture individual will build relationships with all cultures, but not have complete ownership of any. It’s not a new phenomenon; still I cannot help but be fascinated by this.

These children are often multilingual, accepting of other cultures and flexible in various situations. I imagine they must have a concrete worldview and in these modern times of booming international business, impactful world events and high technology, isn’t it an advantage to be a member of the global community? Sure, I understand there are identity issues and adapting when returning to the home country is challenging at best. The sociological effects of this unique experience are beyond my scope.

I am not Third Culture and neither are my children. But this introduction led me to start thinking about many aspects that are similar in the multicultural community – one that I am a gold-star honorary member of.

Park familyFamily and Community
My narrative is similar to many that experienced an immigrant upbringing. I am the product of Korean immigrants, who are part of a larger population of Koreans that moved to Los Angeles, California in the early 70’s. I grew up with traditional parents who were struggling to live the American Dream, raise four children who were culturally intact in their Korean heritage and provide every opportunity to ensure their success – their own was sacrificed when they left their home country. As far as I knew, I was American. “American-American” – a term I coined myself. Go to Korean School on Saturdays? Go to Koreatown on Sundays for church and market? Speak Korean? Share our formal and odd ways with friends and neighbors? Even with such a strong presence of Korean culture in my hometown, I resisted the entire way. Food was the only thing I couldn’t reject; especially my grandmother’s cooking.

By my mid-to-late twenties, clearly something had changed. Perhaps it happened during my journey to becoming a teacher. Teaching primarily to the Mexican population in Los Angeles, I couldn’t help but appreciate their strong cultural identity. How was it that this community did such a good job of transferring their love of language and heritage to their children? It was infectious and it made me want to celebrate my own. Whether I embraced it or not, being Korean was a way of life during my formative years. My father reminded me of it daily, as much as I wanted to be “American-American”. Now I wanted to take it by the horns, in my own inexperienced hands, and have full control. I wanted to celebrate it because I was proud. I no longer harbored this inexplicable need to have a clear division from my roots. I longed to be exactly what I recognized I was: Korean American.

Luckily for me, the resources were readily available. My community, a thriving Korean subculture in Los Angeles, as well as my entire family network was there to support this newfound desire. Today my actions and words mirror my parents when we were growing up. I often scold them when I hear them speaking English to my children. If they continue this way, what will Noah and Paisley have? If they don’t have the language, what will connect them to our ethnic roots besides our faces?
Our consciousness about what makes us different can only enhance the cultural makeup of our larger very diverse community. So why take away from that? Isn’t the flavor and the color, our ethnic makeup and history, what makes life so interesting?

Truly Multicultural
After familiarizing myself with the Third Culture Kid (TCK), it made me think of my husband Eduardo. He, in essence, could be labeled one; though he never returned to his home country to live. He was born in Sao Paulo, Brasil to Korean immigrants who met and married in their new foreign home. He was raised with very little to shun like myself because the Korean community was not as apparent in Brasil. His first language was Portuguese, he ate and preferred Brasilian food and could not connect to much else. Still, he had the Korean language that was his parents’ main mode of communication. When he himself immigrated to the US at age 14, he quickly adapted and in a year and a half spoke English without an accent and happily accepted American culture. He was, like TCK’s, adaptable.

Not until we interviewed as a family with Felicia (Brasil Em Mente) did I realize that he didn’t fully connect with any of the cultures – Brasilian, Korean OR American. He was multicultural, could speak proficiently in all three languages, but didn’t have a stronger attachment to one than the other. I was perplexed and thought that after all these years, he must be culturally confused and drifting in a sort of limbo. He had accepted American life so wholeheartedly that he dismissed his upbringing as a thing of the past, a past that his family (at the time) was doing their best to move on from. His Korean upbringing was always alive because his parents only spoke Korean, but even that was not enough.

Eduardo is a Korean-Brasilian-American through and through. He brings a unique experience and point-of-view to any situation. The background has been cultivated, but the culture must be nurtured. Scientifically, culture means growth, so for us to grow in our efforts why not take an active role?

Here and Now
My children are members of the Brasilian community. They are also members of the Korean community, and American community by default. Growing up in the US, they will never forget that. We are not ‘global nomads’, but if we were to uproot ourselves to explore Brasil or Korea more, they would not be completely foreign. There is significance and cultural relevance in exploring their roots. I feel that language is where this glorious journey begins.

So what more can I do than to send Noah and Paisley to Portuguese school and Korean school when the time comes? I can do my best to tap into the community for any resources. Eat Korean and Brasilian food regularly; take part in the arts (music, martial arts and dance); celebrate holidays and special events; read books and watch TV; learn Portuguese myself.

This multicultural experience is an ongoing and evolving one that needs to be more than enrichment activities for our children. It is a way of life and takes commitment and involvement like no other. But if we fully engage our filhos in their multicultural upbringing, we will form bonds and create meaningful experience upon meaning experience – ones that later will essentially define our individuality and enhance our quality of life.


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