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Cultural Differences: Making Room in Your Heart for a Third Culture Adult (Part 3 of 3)

Angela Green in her wedding dress

(This post is dedicated to my mother and the third in a series about Third Culture Kids and Third Culture Adults. Read the previous articles here and here.)

“Where are you from” is a question some of us can answer in the blink of an eye. However, for some this can be difficult because “home” is a relative word. These people are called Third Culture Kids (TCKs) or Third Culture Adults (TCAs).

One of these people is my mother, Angela Green.

A little girl makes the jump to a new country
My mom takes a leap of faith and moves from China. (Illustration by Ellie Green)

My mom’s third culture upbringing

She was born near Tianjin, China and came to the United States in her 20s. She stepped off the plane in San Francisco, Cali., U.S.A. with less than $100 and just two red suitcases of belongings. She married my father and had me a few years later. I grew up listening to stories of her early life in China and transition to the United States.

She liked to run free in her neighborhood, chasing the chickens and grasshoppers, jumping rope and biking fast. She won numerous track competitions, even outrunning the boys.

Bringing home, ‘home’ for a third culture adult

My mom tried to bring a lot of the elements of her home to the United States. We had peppers, green beans, and tomatoes like she did in her backyard.

I remember endless delicious meals of stir fry and steamy rice. We had potted bamboo plants and bowls of watermelon. I could always tell when my mom was homesick.

Every day she would write in her calendar in Chinese. I pointed out one phrase from a year after she came to the U.S., which she translated for me as saying: “I don’t feel like I belong here.” I hugged her, even though I couldn’t come close to understanding.

Timeline of my mom's life in the U.S.
The rest of my mom’s life after landing in the U.S. (Illustration by Ellie Green)

I am extremely proud of my mom for coming to the U.S. on her own. I remember my first time going abroad when I was 18.

Stepping off the plane, I thought, “I don’t know how I could start a life just like this.” But she did. I cannot imagine the cultural differences, not to mention the language barriers and financial barriers for a TCA from China.

“A part of my heart will always be there,” my mom said.

Piecing it all together

My mom raised me with a mix of cultures. She would always pull me aside to correct my behavior, unlike U.S. parents who would just tell their children in front of others. I learned later it was the concept of “saving face.” She told me I was different from the other children because I was also Chinese and that I have to remember my roots.

Third culture adult mother holds newly born child
My mom holding me right after I was born. (Photo courtesy Ellie Green)

When the Olympics were on, she would be excited for the China team and the U.S. team. It was very hard for her to pick one.

“I can’t just choose one. I belong to both,” she said. I remember the day she became a U.S. citizen. She cried a lot because she felt like she was losing a piece of her identity, even though it was just a piece of paper. She always talked to me at home in Chinese because it was the most comfortable, but also because I’m sure she missed it extremely much.

I can’t just choose one. I belong to both.

I always believed that if you love life, life loves you back. I think my mom loved running freely in China, barefoot on the Earth and fell in love with that place. It holds a special spot in her heart, and she had to make room for another one in coming to the United States. That is how I can describe the internal struggle of TCKs and TCAs.

The story continues…

There was so much more to learn from my mom. She didn’t even know what it meant to be a TCK or TCA, but she was able to express many feelings similar to others in those situations, including belonging in many places but not actually feeling at home in any.

But our time was cut short. I lost my mom when I was 18 years old and I still don’t truly know what happened to her or where she is. I will never give up on finding her because she taught me so much and is a brave, intelligent woman I am so proud of.

Read the full story of her disappearance here.

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