Jenny Kang on Cultural Loneliness and Being a Third Culture Kid [Interview]

Last year, Jenny Kang participated in a TEDx Talk at Saint Louis University Madrid, covering the topic of cultural loneliness and being a “third culture kid.”  With increasing mobility and interconnectedness between different countries, many people are exposed and become a part of multiple cultures.  Identifying with multiple cultures allows for a greater perspective and understanding of the world, but also creates a new set of unique obstacles as one introspectively reflects and constructs their identity.  Jenny is a third culture kid and as a psychology student, she has previously written articles for us at Psych2Go. We thought it would be great to catch up with her and learn more about her TED Talk, cultural loneliness, and its effect on identity and otherness.

Hi Jenny!  Thanks for taking time to answer some questions.  To start out, please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about you.  What are three words to describe you? Can you describe your educational/work background?

My name is Yeonhee Jenny Kang and I was born in Seoul, Korea. I moved to the U.S. when I was 5 years old and spent 11 years there in five different states before I moved back to Korea to spend the rest of my high school years. After a year of working in Seoul, I moved to Madrid, Spain to pursue my undergraduate studies in Psychology and Spanish Literature. While attending university, I worked primarily in business translation/interpretation. Three adjectives I would use to describe myself are: ambitious, empathetic, and resourceful.

In your TEDx Talk, you introduce the concept of “cultural loneliness.”  Can you explain to us what it is?

I define cultural loneliness as one having the capacity to belong everywhere and nowhere all at once, having the personification of a culture that is distinctly one’s own because of the unique mix of places and people he or she has experienced, and feeling isolated as a result of it.

Cultural loneliness stems from third culture kids (TCKs) feeling like they have no solid sense of place, culture, or community. Many of them can’t really ground themselves anywhere that they can call a home because they don’t sense a belonging or a “oneness” with any one nationality or culture, and this often makes them feel like they don’t make sense to others, don’t fit in, and don’t have roots. In some, this constant pattern of displacement makes them insecure and anxious as they lose everyone due to all of the moving around and they feel as if they have no control over their lives as they simultaneously struggle to build their identities. The result is a kind of grief as they mourn the losses of themselves, their identities, and the worlds they left behind. This feeling is what I call “cultural loneliness”.

How do you answer the question, “Where are you from?” when people ask you this question?

My answer depends on who is asking. I usually go with the most convenient answer that results in the shortest explanation possible due to the complexity of the answer (as well as me not knowing what the true answer is). When a Korean asks me where I am from, I say that I grew up in the U.S. to help them understand why I can speak English fluently. To Europeans, I say that I am Korean to help them identify which Asian country I’m “from”. To Americans, I answer by saying that I moved to the U.S. at an extremely young age and went to an international school in Korea. To other TCKs, I reply that I am a Korean/American/Spanish mix.

What is a “third culture kid”?  How has this shaped your sense of self and identity?

A TCK is an individual who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside of their parents’ culture. They are those people who embody their parents’ culture, the culture in which they reside in (which can be more than one), and a third culture which is an amalgamation of the two. In my case, this “thirdness” would consist of the cultures of South Korea, the U.S., and Spain.

As TCKs, we build relationships with all of the cultures we assimilate to, but simultaneously lack full ownership or identification in any of them. We are independent and cosmopolitan; we are global nomads, cultural hybrids, and international citizklens, and yet we simultaneously struggle with our identities and the losses that we suffer during each move. We often face difficulties in assimilation and communication with social groups due to the fact that we personify a culture that is distinctly our own.

Our identity development as TCKs is delayed because of the need to focus on adjusting to all these different places rather focusing on creating a sense of belonging. I always felt like a foreigner no matter where I went, and I wasn’t fully accepted by anyone or in any place.

Using your definition of culture as a set of shared beliefs, do you think that this concept can be applied to other cultures not necessarily tied to locations/nationality/ethnicity?  

If we think about the term “popular culture”, it refers to an idea, belief, or thing that is ubiquitous and salient at a given point in time in society; it also includes the shared experience and feelings that the members of that culture come in contact with as they interact with varying aspects of the culture.

I believe that culture does not have to be confined to a specific place, nationality, or ethnic group. Culture can embody both interests and hobbies, as well as being a set of ideals, beliefs, and concepts that guide our everyday behavior. It is something that can exist in and group together people from varying ethnicities, nationalities, or even socioeconomic backgrounds.

Why is knowing where you are from and having a sense of belonging so important to people? How do all of these ideas you discuss relate to psychology?  

The need to belong, whether it is to a place or a group of people, is as fundamental as the physiological needs to eat, drink, and sleep. When we don’t feel like we belong, we get lonely– and this is why we can feel lonely even when we’re surrounded by a sea of people; we can still feel left out and isolated even while we’re among friends or family. Just as being hungry is associated with the need to eat, loneliness is a response to the need to belong. Humans are social creatures– evolutionarily, being social was favored, because belonging to packs and tribes increased our chances of surviving out in the wild. Today, there are no woolly mammoths roaming around to provide an incentive for humans to attach to each other and be social; now we just do it because it feels nice to be accepted and to belong.

Social psychologists such as Abraham Maslow studied the concepts of social needs. In 1943, Maslow proposed that the need to belong was one of the five basic needs required for self-actualization in his Hierarchy of Needs. Belongingness is directly above the basic, bottom-tier physiological and safety needs; then we have esteem needs, which refer to our desires to feel prestige and feelings of accomplishment via the recognition and respect of others. Knowing where you are from and feeling accepted in that place, feeling like you belong, gives you comfort and is crucial to your overall well-being and identity development. When someone asks you the question, “Who are you?”, you will most likely identify with your race, your religion, your profession, etc.– and these are all groups that you identify yourself as being a part of.

Belonging to groups of people gives us a support system and helps guide our direction in life. Social comparison and discussion with members of a group that you relate to, respect, and consider yourself to be similar to can influence and help guide the choices you make; they help us make sense of the world around us. Additionally, stereotyping through belongingness to groups helps order the world, albiet sometimes in a more negative manner due to the consequences that follow said compartmentalization. Feeling at ease within a group you identify with can also make it easier to exhibit self-expression, which is a crucial part of taking care of your mental health.

As students of psychology or people interested in psychology, how can your ideas be applied to our continued learning of psychology?

In addition to their saliency in the general fields of cultural psychology and social psychology, the topics that I’ve mentioned hold certain clinical implications for psychologists– what kinds of treatments will and won’t work, what to be aware of, etcetera. In an increasingly globalized world, we all must be aware of how people no longer fit into simple molds and categories– the complexity of people’s identities and methods of communication are growing more and more by the day.

As mentioned in my talk, language and grammar shape how we think and feel and help mold our identity. For bilingual or multilingual individuals, most of whom tend to be TCKs, this makes things much more complicated for us. Naturally, a mental health practitioner must keep these variables in mind as he or she determines the best course of treatment.

Interpersonal communication for TCKs is filled with more conscious changes and choices because we have to analyze who we’re speaking to and, in order to appropriately communicate and relate to that person, then put aside certain identities at times and bring out other identities. Every now and then, TCK or not, we all change how we express ourselves and switch between different cultural and linguistic spaces in order to utilize different parts of our own identities. We define our identities in different ways in order to be able to “fit in” in different settings and be accepted. Practitioners must similarly adjust how they interact with their clients, TCK or not, in order to best aid them.

How was your experience presenting at the TEDx Talk?  

I have a good amount of experience with public speaking, but before giving the TED talk, I had never spoken or presented while being streamed live. It was a great opportunity for me to see what it was like to speak under the pressure of recording and broadcasting live, in addition to speaking in front of an audience as per usual. After the talk, I had multiple people approach me and tell me about the secondhand catharsis they had felt listening to someone speak who not only had the same shared experiences as them, but who also coined a term for that confusing sequence of life events and emotions that they had felt growing up/were still feeling now. These individuals could relate to me and my experiences, and some were incredibly surprised to find out that there existed many others just like them. The interactions and conversations that I was able to experience after presenting the talk was just as fulfilling, if not more, than the giving the actual talk itself.

I hope that the talk encourages dialogue and open discussion among non-TCKs as well. It’s important to know about demographics that we do not belong to because in spite of the fact that we may not be able to understand the members of those other demographics fully, we can still learn from them and from our differences. Differences make room for dialogue and discussion, and through these talks, we should all make a greater effort to understand each other. We have to put away these outdated cookie cutter concepts of people being from/belonging to one place and instead focus on the individual in front of us.

Do you have any advice for our readers, especially those who are battling with otherness?

You are not alone. Everyone feels excluded at one point or another in their life. Being different or feeling like you don’t belong to a certain group of people or places is difficult to endure and at times very lonely, but you have to keep in mind that all experiences help us to grow in one way or other, albeit some in a more painful manner. Take comfort in the fact that you are in the middle of growing and learning– learning competence, self-reliance, and independence.

TCKs, for example, are often ostracized and feel as if they don’t belong; however, they are resilient. They/we adapt to new situations and survive and thrive pretty much anywhere we go. We’re great at adjusting and recognizing societal norms and cues. Although we may not fit in completely anywhere, we can sneak our way into most places and assimilate well enough to be socially accepted. We also understand how to view situations from more than one single way because of our exposure to different cultures and people. This helps us to be more empathetic and sensitive to other opinions, ways of life, and cultures– it helps us have a broader perspective on many aspects of life in general.

You may feel like an outsider now, but one day you will find your own little niche that you will fit perfectly into– whether that be a new city, a group of friends, or a workplace. Stay strong!

A big thanks to Jenny for answering our questions!  We often hear of the great aspects of being multicultural (of which there are many!).  But it is also interesting to learn more about the struggles one may face, being a part of multiple cultures, but at the same time, not having as firm of a sense of belonging and identity that a single culture person may have.  Growing up and finding oneself is difficult to begin with. Adding in the question of “where am I from?” can add to the challenge. We hope that by learning more about Jenny’s experiences and ideas, one can find comfort in the idea that there are others going through similar difficulties; you are not alone.

Be sure to watch Jenny’s TEDx Talk here!:

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