Cultural Identity in Hong Kong – The Experiences of a Third Culture Kid

According to the UN 2020 World Migration Report, more than 40% of the 272 million international immigrants originate from Asia, making Hong Kong a part of one of the most well-travelled continents in the world. 

In fact, it might not be so far off to view Hong Kong’s 1,106 km² of land as a microcosm of Asia’s multiculturality. As not only a former British colony, but also the home of thousands of expatriates every year, Hong Kong has emerged with an identity as complex as that of a Third Culture Kid (TCK). 

This term can be broken down into three parts. The “first” culture refers to that of which one’s parents originated from. The “second” culture denotes the “host culture,” which alludes to the environment in which the individual currently resides. The “third” culture is what defines a TCK, an amalgamation of the first and second culture. 

Yet, what is usually disregarded about this phenomena is that TCKs come in a spectrum. Some identify more strongly with their parents’ culture than they do with their host culture; others deem both cultures as equals. Above all, some may barely identify themselves with either culture, making the individualistic “third” culture  blurrier than ever. 

This lack of a central identity creates a fragile self-perception. Without a sense of belonging, questions like “Where are you from?”, “Where do you belong?” and “Who are you?” lead to uncertainty, allowing fear to move into where pride and self-confidence is expected to be. 

However, it is completely possible to overcome these feelings of disorientation if rightfully recognised. Celine Freksen, eighteen, talks about her experiences as a TCK in Hong Kong. 

F: Celine Freksen is a recent graduate from King George V School. Her father is Danish, and her mother is Hong Kong Chinese. Celine – where are you from? How does this question make you feel? 

C: I’ve always found this question more complicated than it actually is. By offering only one country, I feel like I am neglecting other sides of my identity. My father would always advise me to say “Hong Kong” but it never really sat well with me. I realised that this odd discomfort stems from my lack of cultural immersion and inability to speak Cantonese despite growing up in Hong Kong. I guess you could call it imposter syndrome, because I have never felt a strong enough connection to my Hong Konger heritage to identify myself as one. 

F: How has being a “Third Culture Kid” affected your sense of identity growing up? 

C: It has definitely muddled my cultural identity. There always seems to be a sense of not fitting the criteria of a culture. 

It has also had consequences on my personality as it has hindered my communication skills. For example, I have developed a strong dependence on others because I found myself in environments where I couldn’t express myself verbally. It can be quite jarring too as I  sometimes feel isolated despite being among others. 

Conversely, I feel slightly invasive when in English-speaking countries, because I am suddenly hyper-aware of everyone. I feel the weight of responsibility as I can’t just mutter that I don’t understand, because for once I actually do. Yet, there is something so liberating about communicating with others fluently. 

F : What do you feel are the advantages and disadvantages of being a “Third Culture Kid”?

C: One of the perks is that you are less likely to feel a sense of excessive attachment. I only miss memories and individuals, but the locations are not significant. You could say my condition is the product of my parent’s style of raising me – never overly strict, giving me the freedom to pursue what I wanted instead of forcing me to merge with their cultures. It has encouraged me to be an independent, individual thinker. 

On the other hand, it impacted my familial bonds. I can’t even have a conversation with my Chinese grandparents, leading me to not even consider them as a part of my family at times since I haven’t been able to communicate with them on a personal level. I do feel guilty, because I always imagine an alternate scenario where visiting them would be an opportunity to develop a fruitful connection. 

F: Do you identify with the label “Third Culture Kid”? How else would you describe yourself? 

C: No, I feel like that implies that I already fit into two other cultures. I actually don’t think I would use a term to describe my cultural identity. I would prefer to define myself as simply Celine –  in ways other than nationality. 

F: In what ways do you like to define yourself? 

C: I prefer to define myself according to my interests, characteristics, and beliefs. For example, growing up in a more rural part in Hong Kong, I have always had a deep love for nature, spending much of my time planting and observing different wildlife. However, this is not to say nationality shouldn’t be a part of one’s identity – I completely respect those who choose to display pride for their heritage! 

If perceived from a different angle, in a wider perspective – in a way – we are all “Third Culture Kids.” 

Does culture not refer to the various aspects, people, and public figures that influence us daily? If so, the “third” culture of a TCK need not be shaped by our nationality or ethnicity, but rather by aspects that truly excite, engage, and embolden us daily. 

Feeling aligned with true oneself does not equate to meeting social expectations of what fulfills an identity. To feel comfortable with yourself, is to simply be yourself.