Korean birthplace, Chinese hometown, American high school – although I wanted nothing more than to fit in, my cultural identity always made me stand out. As an expatriate, I felt like I never truly belonged with any cultural group. To my American friends, I was the “token Asian,” because I did not know most of the day-to-day social norms or American lingo, and when I returned to Hong Kong from Andover, I was labeled the “American” since I dressed and spoke like one. Yet, when asked to place a label on myself, I simply had no answer.
At Andover, my cultural ambivalence only became more apparent to me: American culture began to mix with my Chinese and Korean background. “Where are you from?” – a simple question for most – became increasingly difficult to answer now that I had three places of origin. At the same time, because I was not ethnically Chinese or American, I began to question whether I actually belonged to the Chinese and American cultures even though I had lived in both countries.
The confidence my friends, teachers, classmates and dormmates had in their own cultural identities ultimately made me feel insecure, because I had no clear-cut label for my background. Yet, despite my own uncertainty about my cultural identity, others scrambled to categorize my unusual background.
I want to call together other “cultural nomads” who have experienced the same uncertainty regarding where we belong; we need to remind ourselves to appreciate the opportunities our unique backgrounds give us. My cultural ambivalence does not make me an outsider — rather, it invites me into more cultures than most people have the fortune to be a part of. While this mixed-bag of cultures may not have a label, it is just as legitimate.
We should not force labels onto people; in fact, we should do away with them altogether. While strong cultural identification is significant for many, it is also important that we celebrate the cultural ambivalence of the Andover community. Our world is rapidly globalizing: more and more people are becoming expatriates and find themselves unable to fit into a single culture. Fortunately, our community has already begun to take steps forward. Cultural clubs, such as Asian Society, encourage inclusivity amongst students who may not be Asian but grew up in Asia. Similarly, in a recent visit to International Club, I was able to bond with other expatriates, many of whom had also experienced cultural ambivalence and ambiguity .
Still, more can be done. Scholars well-versed in the psychology and effects of cultural ambivalence should be included in the speakers Andover invites to campus each year. MOSAIC’s Mixed-Heritage Awareness Week, which concerns itself with the experiences of mixed race students, could be expanded to include and address the experiences of cultural nomads as well. Ultimately, we should strive to celebrate all members of our community no matter how ambivalent their cultural identities may be.