My experience of Filipino culture is ingrained in my earliest memories: being forced to siesta every afternoon by my lola, eating extra-sour sinigang for both lunch and dinner, and playing Filipino street games like tumbang preso and patintero with my neighbors.
I realize most of these happened within the walls of my own country. But Filipinos are not just based in the Philippines—with Filipinos living in different parts of the world due to globalization, one might wonder: How do Filipinos, especially those who were raised elsewhere, experience culture outside of their home country?
In recent years, researchers have looked into this phenomenon and coined the term “third-culture kids” to describe children who spent most of their developmental years in countries that are not their parents’ place of origin. They have the privilege of being exposed to different cultures, but because their experiences tend to be dispersed across these cultures, they may feel as if they never entirely belong to a community.
That said, it is unfair to box Filipino third-culture kids into one category given that they are not granted the universality of experience. While some have struggled to grasp their roots, others did not feel like a stranger to their own culture.
Born and raised in Jeddah, a city in Saudi Arabia, Dominique Hipol viewed the Philippines more as a vacation destination instead of home. Yet even with her unfamiliarity with the Philippines as a country, she felt deeply connected to her Filipino identity because of the strong Filipino community she was surrounded by. “There were Filipino kids in the (village) compound (I grew up in) because there were a lot of OFWs, so we had a Filipino community. Growing up, yung mga memes like 'I’m amalayer,' umaabot ‘yun sa amin, ” she shared.
Being able to study at a Filipino school overseas also played a role in how Hipol experienced Filipino culture. She was surrounded by Filipinos both at home and in school, with the rare exception of interacting with people of different cultures in public places. So being Filipino came naturally—it just so happened that she was experiencing it from another country.
But not everyone shares Hipol’s experience. In fact, other third-culture kids were more exposed to people from different cultures and diverse backgrounds. This was the case for Patrick Rivera, who lived in China for two years and then moved to Thailand until he finished his undergraduate studies.
Studying in an international school with primarily Thai and American students, Rivera’s main experience of being Filipino was at home with his family as well as his annual visits to the Philippines. Even if he has no explicit memory of intentionally being taught Filipino values, his father emphasized the importance of respecting others, particularly elders, which is very similar to Thai values. As he was growing up, he felt no particular affinity to just one culture because of his exposure to many of them.
Though they have varying experiences, Hipol and Rivera both had to adapt to the culture of the country they were residing in. Hipol had to adjust to the prayer schedules as well as wear the abaya, a loose, robe-like dress that covers the woman’s whole body, to special occasions. Rivera did not just need to adjust to Thai culture, but to all the cultures he was exposed to at his international school in Bangkok.
“American culture was a bit easier (to adjust to) since I grew up speaking English, but Thai culture was more difficult as they have a certain way of treating others with respect and humility. American culture is a very mind-your-own-business culture. (The two) clash at times, but with the mindset of everyone in international schools, you learn how to respect others' cultures as well,” he explained.
The experience of being a third-culture kid is multifaceted. While Hipol shares that her main cultural identity remained Filipino even with her geographic location, Rivera finds that he is an amalgamation of all the cultures he’s been exposed to, whether that’s Filipino, Thai, American, or Chinese. “The way my brother and I see it, we have multicultural values. (It translated) even into our accent—it’s not an American accent or a Filipino accent. I didn’t notice that at first, but now I’m realizing that I’m a mix of all the cultures I’ve grown up with,” he reflected.
Even with their varying and complex relationship with being Filipino, both Hipol and Rivera feel a deeper sense of appreciation for their Filipino roots. Despite their geographical locations, Filipino culture is never entirely lost in third-culture kids.
“None of the geographic locations I’ve been in took away my identity as a Filipino. In fact, I think it adds to even more diversity in our culture (as Filipinos). I never felt like an impostor. But (what’s important) is also cultivating intentionality to remain connected to it,” Hipol concluded. In a world that is increasingly becoming more diverse, Filipino third-culture kids show another side of what it means to be Filipino even outside the Philippines. After all, culture is created and passed on by people, not places.
Culture is a never-ending process of redefinition. Filipino third-culture kids show that our culture is not being lost in the diaspora; if anything, it just means that these unique, complex experiences add depth and layers to the ever-changing Filipino culture. Third-culture kids are not isolated from culture—they play a large role in amplifying it.