Working Abroad as a Third Culture Kid in Your “Native” Country

by Melissa Sakamoto

"America-jin desu."

I said the familiar phrase to a passenger listening to me speak English on the Midosuji subway in Osaka. After hearing for the millionth time that I “look so Japanese!” and that there is no way that I could be American, it was exasperating to explain my cultural background to another curious stranger. What is it like to be a third culture kid? Or in my case, a Japanese-American working abroad in Japan? Culturally amazing, but at times, a little overwhelming. Working and living in your home country’s roots will probably be one of the most interesting ways you are forced to understand your own identity.

Traditional kaiseki meal in Kyoto, Japan

A traditional kaiseki meal in Kyoto

You’re a third culture kid? 

A third culture kid, also known as TCK or 3CK, refers to a person who was raised in a culture outside of their family’s native culture during their childhood. While growing up, perhaps you celebrated certain traditions that came from your parents or grandparents’ cultures, while also celebrating big holidays in the United States. Before actually developing and understanding your own unique culture as an adult, your identity was spread across various communities and gave you a unique experience. The United States is a melting pot full of people who have a similar background.

Let’s say you decide to go back and work abroad in your family’s native country. When you get off the airplane, your features are similar to these people, yet you dress, act, and perceive life differently. You could sneakily pass as a local and blend in with the crowd.  At times, society could challenge you and make assumptions that you understand cultural customs and manners. There are several interesting and unusual experiences being a third culture kid working in your family’s native country.  

You can speak English fluently? 

With Japanese features and English fluency, you can easily draw stares anywhere you go in Japan as a TCK. English fluency with a perfect accent makes strangers wonder about your background. Depending on your perspective, this could be either a positive or negative part of working abroad in Japan. As any native English speaker can tell you, it is a great way to meet new people and can give you a strong advantage when searching for jobs abroad in Japan. In the workforce, your native English skills will be valued. 

Winter in Takayama, Kyoto, Japan

A classic winter in Takayama

You don’t know how to bow properly? 

Although you may have culturally grown up in another country, having your family roots from Japan allows locals to subconsciously believe you also know how to abide by cultural rules. Expectations can range from knowing tableside manners, understanding how to take an onsen bath, proper business introduction etiquette, and understanding how to show respect in the office. These assumptions may be difficult to understand at first when you begin your job in Japan, but it is important be aware of them and encourage yourself to learn them as fast as possible.

You’re not Japanese? 

While non-Asian features can draw unwanted stares and attention due to a more “foreign” look, having Asian features can allow you to disguise yourself in a crowd and not seem like an outsider. Sometimes it’s nice to pretend like you’re a local while working abroad in Japan, and not draw so much unwanted attention. You can choose when you want to be noticed as a foreigner by simply speaking in English. On the other hand, you can keep yourself under the radar when you choose to. In both business and social settings, you’ll always surprise people.

Animal in Nara Park

Making new friends in Nara Park

You’re Japanese, but don’t speak Japanese? 

When speaking, especially if you’re just learning, you will see developing reactions of shock plainly written on the faces of whomever you’re interacting with. This is perhaps one of the most difficult challenges for Third Culture Kids to overcome across the world. While in more Western societies, locals may warmly encourage you to keep speaking, locals in Japan may act with more shock and fear. This reaction is most likely because they feel they are unable to properly communicate in English with you.

The positive aspect is that locals will automatically speak to you in Japanese, allowing you to at least practice your listening skills. More “foreign” looking faces may encounter avoidance or attempts at exclusively English conversation. By understanding and overcoming this reaction, you can force yourself to learn Japanese quicker and interact more like a local yourself.

From a business perspective, at the very least, you must learn to introduce yourself in Japanese and understand how to exchange your meishi business cards. Even if you do not speak fluently, the fact that you can offer a good first impression during a meeting is valued.

You’re a native English speaker, but you can’t teach in Japan. 

Many English corporate schools may not accept you for teaching jobs in Japan. Although you are a native English speaker, some students expect to be taught by a person who looks “foreign.” In other words, they want a teacher who does not look like the actual students in the class. It may be unheard of in the United States and even considered downright discriminating, but companies need to cater to the needs of their clients. Many of the jobs in Japan in television entertainment similarly look for more Western appearances.

Sunset in Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan

Sunset in Arashiyama, Kyoto

Do you want to join me at the shrine? 

While locals may sometimes be intimidated by foreigners, because of your cultural connection to Japan, locals may feel more open with you. You may get invitations to fun cultural events like mochitsuki, the pounding of handmade mochi with a big hammer during New Year’s.

While most social events happen outside the home, you may even get invited to dinners or parties held at someone’s house. During company events, your colleagues may poke fun at you and assume the stereotype that you can drink and eat a large amount. These types of local cultural experiences are exciting, and you may find more opportunities like this available to you while working in Japan. 

There are several advantages and disadvantages of being a Third Culture Kid living and working abroad in your own “native” country. Depending on your perspective and using the knowledge you have gained from this article, you can customize your experience and make it as positive as you’d like. You may learn culturally more as a foreigner in disguise, and you will have linguistic and cultural expectations that you can force yourself to learn. It is a gift to have a bi cultural background and you should enjoy the opportunities that present themselves during your job in Japan.