Weird Culture Kids (WCKs) is a memoir by Ngoc Nguyen, delving into the struggles of finding one’s sense of belonging while growing up in different cultures. The term WCK was coined to designate people who do not fit into a specific cultural standard. What they do instead is to create their own “weird culture,” taking bits and pieces of different traditional cultures that they encountered while growing up and mixing them all together.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Did you grow up in different cultures and are currently struggling with fully identifying with any? Ngoc Nguyen has a perfect identifiable name for you: weird culture kid (WCK). “It’s like mixing everything together to build your own customised culture.”
Ngoc was born in Moscow, Russia, raised in Hanoi, Vietnam, and educated in an International French school for twelve years. At age fifteen, she moved to the United States to attend a Connecticut boarding school.
While this ‘build-a-bear’ approach to culture sounds great theoretically, it did leave a lot of thought as to how attainable it actually is. For most people, stability is highly desirable, especially when living in this uncertain world, and with that, constant change is not seen to be ideal. “It was an extremely long journey,” she admits.
“Ever since I was young, I’ve always felt very different. It’s quite paradoxical, but this was the only source of constant in my life.”
She cites a common example to illustrate this. “When I was growing up in Vietnam, I had to take off my shoes as soon as I stepped into a home. But when I go to my French friend’s place, they tell me to keep on my shoes when I enter. As of today, I still don’t know which one’s better.” She chuckles at this moral dilemma. However, these seemingly minuscule differences really built up, forming huge feelings of disconnect.
“I felt like people never fully got me. All the different facets I possess, like the things I like, believe in, and think about,” she continues, “When I was in my Vietnamese household, I felt so different from my family. I did things in certain ways that I preferred from the French culture, which my Vietnamese educated parents could not understand. And when I was with my European friends, I would feel extremely Vietnamese, because I would act in ways similar to when I was in my Vietnamese household. And so I’ve always felt like I was caught in between, not to say that was a bad thing, but oftentimes, it could be very isolating.”
To make things trickier, WCKs usually keep these feelings to themselves, because they fear it can come across as a very privileged issue. “I can’t blame my parents for sending me to an international school. They wanted the best for me, and I thank them everyday for that,” she adds. This leads to misplaced feelings of guilt for being ‘ungrateful’, and overall, just being frowned upon for vocalising issues WCKs face. “This is why so many WCKs are hesitant to, or feel guilty to share their problems they face,” she concludes defeatedly. We both agreed that another’s pain shouldn’t diminish your own. Every person’s feelings are completely valid and should not be negated.
But with every negative experience comes a silver lining. In this case, these feelings propelled her to document this aspect of her life in this book, and led her to ultimately find people all around the world who share similar stories in their own ways. Based on the hundreds of people she interviewed, she’s discovered the common theme of rootlessness, centering around the idea of not belonging to one country, culture, or nation-state. And with that, it has helped her identify with her own nation, a group of individuals who are connected through ‘common differences.’
Her propensity to turn her precarious circumstances around with a change of mindset left much to be admired, as she earnestly described all the amazing benefits of being a weird culture kid.
“Adaptability and open-mindedness are definitely a big plus,” she begins. “Being able to speak different languages is another. Also, you’re so wired for change that it gets hard to stay in one place for too long,” she chuckled. For those who identify with being a weird culture kid, and are still worried about society’s acceptance of them today, Ngoc shines a ray of hope and positivity. “I believe many countries are coming together, through globalisation and the power of the internet. There’s a much deeper connection and openness in our world today that has never been experienced before.”
The internet being a platform to connect with others is also helpful for those who are looking for a community, but are lost as to how to go about doing so. When asked about the whereabouts of these online communities, she shares that she runs her own Instagram and Facebook page to help put WCK’s in contact with one another.
Another huge community, in which she drew inspiration from, is Third Culture Kids (TCK), which also has their own Facebook groups and associations to connect TCKs. So, what’s the difference between WCK and TCK? For some context, the term TCK was popularised in the 1950s, by the US sociologist Ruth Hill Useem, explaining the phenomenon of children who spend most of their adolescent years in areas that are not their parents’ homeland. TCK was written in the time of the Cold War, where individuals involved in the studies were mostly Caucasian.
“I felt like there was no term for those who grew up in their parents’ homeland, but attended International school systems and those who came from other countries, such as Asia and Africa. WCK is a fresh take that feels somewhat more relatable for people who maybe are more like me.”
Before the interview came to a close, she shared with me a few lighthearted personal stories of interesting experiences living in different cultures, which in my opinion, really captured the essence of being a weird culture kid. “In Vietnam, when we say hi, we usually just bow or wave. But while I was studying in a French school, my friends kiss one another on the cheek as a form of greeting when they meet. That caught me so off guard. Fun fact, even the number of kisses on the cheek differs based on where you live. Some of my friends do two kisses, and others three.”
Another one of her favourite stories was again the ‘taking off shoes in the household’ concept. “Since young, my mom often used to say that only bad kids wear their shoes indoors, to remind me to take it off when entering someone’s home. There was once where I went to a friend’s place, and his mom, who was Australian, told me to keep my shoes on. I went home crying that day. I really didn’t want to be a bad kid,” she ends with a smile.
These stories, though humorous in nature, really highlight that it’s the minute details and aspects in culture that we aren’t consciously aware of, and almost take for granted as non-expats. Never did I have to think twice about what to do in a social situation, or to tailor my behaviour accordingly to what was deemed acceptable by the culture of society I was living in. For the WCKs out there, I hope Ngoc’s story serves as a strong testament that your own personalised culture is highly valued, and should be worn with pride. After all, isn’t normalcy just another form of mundane?