Vol 2 Part 10 : Born Expat

Posted by Stephen Ullstrom & filed under But Where are You Really From?, Identity.


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Here in Canada I am an unlikely suspect for being asked where I am really from. I am told I have a Canadian accent, and assuming that to be Canadian, is to be white (a dangerous assumption, but one that is perhaps hard to shake) I look like I belong here. Yet when someone casually inquires about my origins, I end up trying to decide what story I want to tell…

My father is a second generation Canadian with parents from Sweden and England. If you trace those lines back, Jewish and Wallonian (Belgium) ancestors eventually emerge as well, with perhaps some Welsh. Though I have only met a few of them, I do have relatives in Europe.

This history strikes me as quintessentially Canadian.

On my mother’s side, I have lines tracing back to the English Puritans and French Huguenots, who arrived in North America within a couple of decades of the Mayflower. They then fled to Canada following the American Revolutionary War, after which further ancestors arrived, mainly of the Anglo, Scotch-Irish variety.

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One of these ancestors, a 6’6″ German-American, was with Governor John Graves Simcoe when York (later named Toronto) was founded. Another branch of the family gave their name to Armour Heights, now a neighborhood in Toronto; and Mt. Niblock, overshadowing Lake Louise, is named after a several times over great-grandfather who was a superintendent on the Canadian Pacific Railway.

While recognizing that yes, the First Nations people were here first, this history strikes me as quintessentially Canadian. It is of immigrants, past and present, making this land their own. It is humbling to think that ordinary citizens—my ancestors—had a role in creating our national infrastructure and cities. On the other hand, with seemingly half of Western Europe in my blood, I am not sure how to define myself ethnically. Maybe Canadian really is a good catch-all label.

But this history is not why people ask me where I am really from. This history only explains why I am white, six foot tall, with dark red hair, and a Canadian accent. The magic word that causes heads to swivel is Taiwan.


My parents moved to Taiwan when I was just shy of my second birthday. Twenty-three years later, my parents still live in Taiwan, and over the years I have gained four siblings —two biological and two adopted—who were all born there. My parents are Evangelical Christian missionaries, words for which many Canadians seem to have an irrational fear. Perhaps they think I will sic Jesus onto them. So, I now tend to use softer phrases, such as, “kindergarten teacher at an international school,” and, “pastor of a small church,” which is both also true, and get less flak.

With the exception of two years and a few summers spent in Canada, I lived in Taiwan until I finished high school. Taiwan is my home. For years, until I finally learned what the word meant, I’d get frustrated with foreigners who complained about the humidity. It seemed that they were insinuating that something was wrong with my home. Yet the flip side of being white in Taiwan is that we will always be assumed to be wai guo ren—foreigners—fresh off the plane. It does not matter if we speak the language. It does not matter if Taiwan is on our birth certificate. We look foreign. That is enough.

Grade six was the year that I first fully experienced culture shock.

This disconnect of belonging didn’t fully hit me until grade six. Sure, I can point out previous incidences of being put on a pedestal because I was white, or of being conscious of my ignorance of Canadian TV, but grade six was the year, living in Canada, that I first fully experienced culture shock. Returning to Taiwan for grade seven, I then experienced reverse culture shock. I didn’t understand why my beautiful home was suddenly alien. Had I changed, or had Taiwan changed?

Returning to Taiwan, and living in the dorms in Taichung, I was increasingly drawn into the expat bubbles that centered around the schools. I was conscious of having lost most meaningful contact with the Taiwanese people, the opposite of my early years when my siblings and I were often the only white kids at the local school, and it was common for us to excitedly point out the odd foreigner in the street. But I had my friends, I had my homework, my soccer, my new comfort zone. I was tired of studying Mandarin, so took Spanish instead. I recognized the loss but let it slip by.

I’m left awkward in Canada.

The usual acronym for my type is TCK—Third Culture Kid. One who spends part of their childhood in a country or countries other than the one on their passport. One who knows they can never stay. One who has a partial, intuitive, grasp of two or more cultures—likely as many as the person has grown up in—there will always be a disconnect. I feel it in Taiwan when I try to order my favorite breakfast, but I forget some of the words (I am constantly mixing up the words for soy milk and my favorite type of tofu). I’m left awkward in Canada when I am expecting a more hierarchical structure to a workplace or classroom, and everyone else is assuming equality.

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I am coming to prefer a different term now. One that better locates the third culture. I’m calling it Born Expat. It refers to those pockets and networks, regardless of the host country, where expats tend to congregate. In some places, this will be fairly divorced from the local culture. In other places more of a hybrid culture will emerge. But both will be highly mobile and fairly sophisticated, as it tends to be the well-educated who live abroad, whether for business, missions, the military, NGOs, or with the diplomatic corps. Adults bring their culture with them when they enter, but for us kids, this is it. This is our culture where saying goodbye is all too common, and stability is a dream. This is our innocence lost.

But joy is still present. I still love Taiwan. I love the sensation of walking out of the airport into wet and stinking air. I can relax there in a way I can’t seem to manage in Canada. I also to some extent enjoy being the insider who is always treated as the privileged outsider. It is an odd position to play in society, but it is what I grew up with. I am also thankful that I stayed in one country for most of my childhood, and that my parents initially sought to integrate our family into the Taiwanese society. I know of those who changed countries every few years, and thus were much more embedded in the expat bubbles than I.

Yet I have to admit that Canada is growing on me too. Even though I often feel like a fraud when protesting my citizenship too loudly, I do have a passport and a family history here. I do enjoy cross-country skiing with my grandpa. All of British Columbia is amazingly beautiful, and I am blessed to have roots on the Island, in Vancouver, and in the interior.

This is our culture, when saying goodbye is all too common.

It took me four years to admit this, to start feeling settled in Canada. Three years later I am still learning what it means to be settled. The concept is nebulous, though I admire it, and have some envy for the settled. Maybe somewhere, somehow, I will manage likewise, though I make no promises. My heart is still too often in Taiwan.

The value for me, then, of being Born Expat is not to perpetually live abroad, nor to only hang out with other expats—though I must admit I often find it easier to relate to those who have also been stateless, so to speak—but to be able to locate the source of my cultural and emotional identity. It is good to know why I am different, and to be at peace with my differences. I still don’t understand what it means to be Canadian. I don’t think I ever will, but thankfully I am no longer trying so hard to fit in. I can embrace my Taiwanese half.

I am an expat. This is my culture. This is enough.

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