I used to think not fitting in was a weakness, but now I know it's a strength
I grew up stuck between two worlds. My mom is originally from Singapore, a tiny island nation also called “the melting-pot of Asia'' because it is made up of three different descendant groups: Chinese, Indian, and Malay. In the 1950s, when my mother was born, these groups were very separate and intermarriage was uncommon. My mother, however, was different. She was the daughter of an Indian repairman and a Chinese shop worker, and would similarly reject the norms of her time by marrying my father—a white Navy man from America. From the start, I was destined to never exist on only one side of any line.
Upon leaving the Navy, my father decided to go to seminary, and eventually became the English-language pastor at a Chinese Mandarin church in Chicago, where my parents had settled and where I was born. There were Asian kids from my church that I would see during functions as a kid, but outside of that we didn’t have much in common. Because of this, I often felt left out. To make things worse, I was also homeschooled, which separated me from the other church kids even more. Eventually, my mom joined a homeschool co-op so that my siblings and I could meet other kids, take classes, and go on field trips together. The homeschooled kids were from all different backgrounds and ethnicities—white, black, Hispanic, and also many kids with multiple ancestries like me—but none from Asian backgrounds. I liked spending time with the homeschooled kids, but also felt like something wasn’t quite right. Again, it seemed I was in between worlds—that of my Asian church community, and that of my homeschool community. Neither was a very good fit.
When I was in my teens, I decided to ask my parents if I could attend the local public high school. I felt that I had been sheltered from a lot of things with my homeschooling and strict upbringing. Our parents didn’t let us watch movies or listen to what they deemed to be “secular” music. We weren’t allowed to go to sleepovers or play with the kids in our neighborhood. I wanted to know what I was missing out on, and I also secretly hoped I’d find a place where I’d feel like I truly belonged.
My parents acquiesced, and I spent the next three years of my life attending a very large, very multicultural high school in the Chicago suburbs. It was a revelatory experience. My eyes were opened to history and literature that I had never encountered during my homeschool days. I loved learning and having many different teachers, and soon decided that I wanted to become a teacher myself. However, the one thing that didn’t come naturally to me was making friends. I was introverted, and spent most of my time observing rather than engaging with others. Despite my high hopes, I ultimately didn’t feel very comfortable at school either.
After high school, I chose a college located in the corn fields of Ohio with a good teacher training program. During my time there, I discovered three groups of students who would end up becoming lifelong friends. They included international students, formerly homeschooled students, and Korean exchange students. In spending time with them, I noticed that despite our backgrounds not being exactly the same, we were similarly different from others around us. We had many experiences and beliefs in common, and we began forming a bond that carries on to this day.
Upon graduation, I took a job at an international school in Asia, where I would teach other children who were “similarly different.” As part of my overseas training, I learned the term “third-culture kid,” which, according to Wikipedia, “are people who were raised in a culture other than their parents' or the culture of their country of nationality, and also live in a different environment during a significant part of their child development years. They typically are exposed to a greater volume and variety of cultural influences than those who grow up in one particular cultural setting.”
For the first time in my life, I had begun to understand myself. No wonder I always felt slightly out of place. No wonder I felt different. The more I learned about third culture kids—or in my case, third culture adults—the more I started to see that the differences I had struggled with throughout my life were not all bad. In fact, those differences made me unique. As a result of my varied experiences and observations of different kinds of people over the years, as well as my inability to be fully comfortable in any one place, I had subconsciously developed an adaptability—a facility for code-switching, for learning about, understanding, and connecting with different people at a deeper level than most. I was able to empathize with others in a way that transcended differences, whether they were skin color, experience, or ethnic background.
I have learned to cherish my existence between two worlds, my difference from others that I meet, and their difference from me. Being different and feeling out of place might be uncomfortable and lonely sometimes, but it also gives you a lot of perspective.
I now live in the Midwest and teach at a small, diverse, urban private school. I married someone who looks nothing like me and has a totally different background, and yet knows my heart in ways no one else can. One day, I hope to start my own family, one that exists between multiple worlds, and I hope to help them appreciate growing up being similarly different.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
In keeping with our mission to promote a common culture of fairness, understanding, and humanity, we are committed to including a diversity of voices and encouraging compassionate and good-faith discourse.
We are actively seeking other perspectives on this topic and others. If you’d like to join the conversation, please send drafts to email@example.com.
Join the FAIR Community
Become a FAIR Volunteer or to join a fair chapter in your state.
Take the Pro-Human Pledge to help promote a common culture based on fairness, understanding, and humanity.
Join the FAIR Community to connect and share information with other members.
Share your reviews and incident reports on our FAIR Transparency website.
Read Substack newsletters by members of FAIR’s Board of Advisors
Common Sense – Bari Weiss
The Truth Fairy – Abigail Shrier
Skeptic – Michael Shermer
Habits of a Free Mind – Pamela Paresky
Journal of Free Black Thought – Erec Smith et al.
INQUIRE – Zaid Jilani
Beyond Woke – Peter Boghossian
The Glenn Show – Glenn Loury
It Bears Mentioning – John McWhorter
The Weekly Dish – Andrew Sullivan
Notes of an Omni-American – Thomas Chatterton-Williams