‘I’m a Third Culture Kid’ – Stories of Four New Yorkers

This story was created by Rachel Waters for the Feet in 2 Worlds journalism course at The New School and originally published on the Huffington Post.

Third Culture Kid /THərd//ˈkəlCHər/ /kid/ noun: A person raised in a culture different from that of their parents for a large part of their childhood, resulting in an identity that encompasses two or more cultures.

ronveerName: Ronveer Shuvendu Kumar Chakraborty

Age: 29

Profession: Student

Heritage: Afro-Caribbean and Indian

Tell me about what you’re wearing today: The shirt is a traditionally designed tunic. It can be quite common for them to have religious symbols like the “On” or swastika, but this one doesn’t have it. The beads are commonly called “rudra” (shortened from “rudraksha”). They’re one of the items a follower of Shiva can carry on themselves.

What it was like growing up. At any point did you feel conflicted about your mixed background? I was born in Brooklyn, but I spent my childhood in Bangladesh and India (moreso in Bangladesh) as well as in New York. I grew up with different relatives, so I have 5 mother figures and 3 father figures, including my biological ones.

I feel like my bond with my parents isn’t as deep as a typical parent-child relationship. I didn’t get to meet my real mother until I was 10, so until then, I was still very desi in my head. But after that, I found out I was also black. It should have been obvious, but I was a naive kid and my family never spoke about my mother who allegedly left me as a child and lost custody of me. I wasn’t sure how to be at home with black people. I didn’t look desi enough to be taken as a desi, nor were my features typical of someone who is of West African descent. I stopped trying to fit in one group or the other and started embracing both, which eventually helped me to embrace it all. I started to feel like a citizen of the world. I became a fan of history and learning about the interactions people around the world had with each other because part of that is also my history.

If asked to describe who you were to someone, what would you say? There are multiple versions of me that become visible to the public that can be blamed for various reasons like the slightest change in metabolism. I mean, if I skip breakfast you might have the pleasure of meeting Hangry Ronveer. I think such a question depends on the context. If asked to describe the platonic version of who I am, I’d be at a loss for words.

Name: Merrill Sterritt merill

Age: 31

Profession: Audience Engagement Strategist for Films

Heritage: Burmese and English

What’s the significance of the tattoo?

I got my tattoo a few years ago after Aung San Suu Kyi was released – hopefully — for the last time from house arrest. I had been thinking a lot about my grandmother, aunt and all the women on my mom’s side of my family, about how they were often only given the opportunity to survive instead of thrive. These converged and resulted in an adapted version of the National League for Democracy’s flag on my arm.

Since Burma was still a place I couldn’t travel to, I didn’t consider the implications of having the group’s image on my arm should I ever be in the country. I visited for the first time this year a week after the national election that placed National League of Democracy reps in a majority of seats in parliament. Several people every day would stop me to talk to me about my tattoo or take pictures of it. I got to hear many people’s feelings about the state of Burma in 2015 completely unsolicited. It was an incredibly unique experience to be able to connect with strangers in this way, I’m so grateful the stars aligned for it.

How would you describe your relationship to your heritage and the evolution of your identity over time? 

When I was growing up in Connecticut, people often asked me where I was from which is just a cloaked way of asking why I don’t look completely white. The answer that I was half Burmese was never satisfying because until the mid-2000s or so, most Americans had very little context for what Burma was or even where it was. Because I had no community here or even pushback from people from other ethnicities, I didn’t necessarily feel conflicted.

However, when you have no community, you can feel like you’re just sort of floating free of identity in general. This can be freeing in some ways, but also lonesome at times. I’m identified visually as a certain ethnicity, but I can’t identify with the typical narrative of that ethnicity. What I’ve come to terms with is that I identify very much with other mixed people and their experiences, regardless of what their “mix” is. My experiences as a mixed race person have impacted and helped created my identity much more than the Burmese aspect of my ethnicity.

How important is it to you that you know your culture(s)? Because of the longstanding military rule in Burma, my family had come to the conclusion that my mother would never return and we would never visit. Burma became almost a mythical place that was part of me but unreachable. However, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party making huge strides there, I decided to finally visit and also meet our remaining family there. It was important to me to finally get to know the place that my grandparents spent their lives prior to (coming to) England. I was so moved to finally be submerged in a context for my grandmother, who I had only seen so out of place in the grey suburbs of Kent. I am working on learning the language so that I can plan my mother’s first return trip and hopefully go back with her.

kayvonName: Kayvon Zand. I had to work for it. I grew up in a single parent Persian home. My mom legally named me Kevin, but my family called me Kayvon. This always irked me as “Kevin” seemed like a name made in fear. I was born in the ’80s so the Iranian hostage crisis was still a very real feeling.

Age: 28

Profession: Performance Artist/Nightlife Personality

Heritage: Persian/Iranian

As a Persian/Iranian American do you feel an obligation to represent a particular image to counter stereotypes or misconceptions?

I was told I looked like Elvis as a kid and I didn’t take so kindly to it then. In some ways I feel conflicted about my image. There was a time I was dying my hair darker and tanning. Naturally I’m very pale and have been bleaching my hair. Most people, including Persians, are very surprised to know my heritage as my appearance isn’t typical. Also, I’m a male who doesn’t dress to gender binary so I think it’s a great opportunity to break the stereotype of what it means to be Persian American and a man today.

Why do you live in New York? How does it compare to where you grew up?

I was born in Wilmington, North Carolina. I guess I’m a Persian Redneck? Wilmington is definitely a predominately white city; lots of “Anglos.” I think growing up was really a test of my integrity as my name was legally “Kevin” and I looked like everyone else — keep in mind many Iranians have an olive complexion. So it was really up to me to advertise that I was Iranian American in a time where anything Middle Eastern was the axis of evil. However I was always very vocal about being from a Persian family. It was like living two lives. At home we spoke Farsi, ate Persian food, listened to Persian music and my mom socialized with a small group of Persians who had moved to North Carolina.

I think if I were to compare being Iranian American in North Carolina I would draw the analogy of being a mixed race child in America. I felt I wasn’t white enough for the whites or black enough for the blacks. I use that comparison because it’s understood in the Western world. At school I couldn’t relate to going to church on Sundays, or the latest in American TV, and at home my family couldn’t relate to the decisions I wanted to make with my future or my wardrobe, as it wasn’t Persian enough. Also, being in Wilmington, Christianity is the law of the land. My mom was socially Muslim with her Persian friends but that’s about where her faith ended. However she had arranged for my sister and I to be taken care of by a black Muslim family. That was another social twister as my sister and I spent a lot of our childhood with our sitter’s family in a very urban section of town. We also had to follow their prayer regimen and house rules which were Islamic. They were also Sunni Muslims, whereas in Iran, the majority of the population is Shi’a, so we got to experience both sides of the Islamic faith in a small town in North Carolina. Imagine that.

I was being suffocated in North Carolina. I feel in New York I make more sense especially in regard to my career and strong artistic mentality. However I think it just boiled down to the fact I didn’t feel like I was wanted or appreciated in North Carolina. What I love about NYC other than the opportunity for work is the melting pot that it is. Most everyone in NYC has such a great understanding of diversity when it comes to other cultures. I think for this fact alone it would be a great place to raise a child as they would be not only multicultural by default but also more open to understanding and respecting difference in general.

I know you recently married Anna, the daughter of a minister from Georgia. What’s it’s like for a Persian American guy to marry a Southern Belle?

As a kid, I used to fantasize about the idea of having an Iranian partner in my adulthood, however with age you realize there is more to having the right partner than being of a particular culture. I have actually never dated a Persian but that’s also because of my social scene and surroundings — the option never presented itself. I’m very thankful to be in a marriage with a partner who loves me unconditionally and understands me as a human being. Anna actually wants to learn Farsi as we both want our kids to be able to relate to their history. I think Southern Belle works just fine as I was born in the South and totally relate to that culture as well and let’s face it: I’m the biggest Southern Belle of them all!

benName: Ben Huang

Age: 35

Profession? Apparel Product Developer

Heritage: Chinese

What’s the story behind the book you brought today? It’s been a while since I had read the book — more than 12 years ago. I don’t remember a significant detail from the story but I do remember clearly why I picked it up.

Growing up, my parents were busy with their jobs because they were immigrants working hard in America with a low paying job and long hours, so I didn’t have family members or adult figures in my life to guide me on how the world works. I also went through a significant amount of difficulties as a youth and didn’t have the mental capacity to engage in school or social activities to be part of a learning environment.

When I was in my early twenties, I got very lucky. I met a person of the same age, who happened to also have a difficult childhood and we became friends fast. This friend also happened to be an important political figure and had shared life experiences and fascinating stories with me from a world I never knew had existed. I devoured every detail of it, and from there, my own world changed completely.

The story of the book reminded me of me; it was about two city boys being sent to a remote village to be reeducated, set in 1970s Communist China. They coincidentally discovered Balzac and other banned books, which in turn, changed their viewpoint of the world.

How do you blend your Chinese and American cultures in your everyday life, practice and philosophy?

American culture breeds individualism and self-involvement as the Chinese is a conformist culture. I believe too much individualism can breed entitlement but conformity can hinder creativity. Balancing the two is a daily struggle. I take one characteristic I like from one or the other and apply it to a given situation, it is a case by case scenario. I practice self-awareness and try my best to apply what feels natural to me. Again, it’s a daily struggle because people do things out of habit and sometimes those habits may not be spiritually good and positive for you.

What was a pivotal experience you had when you were younger that has impacted how you present yourself to the world today?

I was born in Guangzhou, China, and immigrated to the US when I was 5 years old. I grew up in Spanish Harlem and spent my teenage years in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. My family members grew up in communist China and their mindset is very different compared to the Western outlook of that time and of today. I grew up in a very restricted household that did not encourage personal freedom of thought, dress, etc. I learned from a young age how important freedom is — freedom of speech and movement and the will to exercise one’s right. When someone comes to me for advice or shares their thoughts, I never tell them what to do or impose my ideas.

 

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, the Nicholas B. Ottaway Foundation, an anonymous donor and readers like you.

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