How do we learn to belong?


The opposite of belonging is fitting in
-Brené Brown-

Belonging. It’s a simple word with a lot packed into it. Is belonging something that just is and can’t be changed: we either belong or we don’t? Or can we learn how to belong?

I’d say yes. The older I get, the more I think belonging is a verb and an ongoing process. It’s not an end point that we have to strive to arrive at.

Poster. TCKs of Asia presents an open forum: How do we learn to belong? Third Culture Stories from Asia. 'The opposite of belonging is fitting in' by Brene Brown. Date, time & registration link.

The good news is, I think ‘belonging’ is something that we can initiate.

But it needs regular maintenance.

The bad news is, we spend a lot of our time trying to look for it ‘somewhere out there’ as though we’re looking for gold that’s already in the ground somewhere. We fall into the trap of believing we’ll miraculously stumble across it one day and find it. And then we get frustrated when we don’t find it.

So, how do we learn to belong?

I’ll be sharing more about this topic with some of the folks at TCKs of Asia in December.

Come join us for the conversation!

Online
Saturday, 12 December 2020
9am New York – 3pm Lagos & Amsterdam – 10pm Singapore & Perth

Growing Up in Transit: The Politics of Belonging at an International School - book cover (Asian Third Culture Kids)


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The First Goodbye

Before the pandemic began, my nephew left for another country and I wrote a little tribute to him soon after. This is an edited version of two previous posts.


My nephew is aged two years and a bit. Sometimes he speaks little sentences, sometimes Frenchy jibberish.

When a plane flies overhead, he hears its far away howl no matter the commotion in the room. Ears perked up and eyes locked with yours—he gasps: ‘Awat? Kouki!’

Photo of a toddler at an airport looking out the window at airplanes. This is his first move and first goodbye.
My nephew looking out the window at an airport

They both mean ‘airplane’. In my nephew’s toddler language, ‘awat’ is short for pesawat and ‘kouki’ is short for hikouki. The first is in Indonesian, his parent’s language, and the second is in Japanese, his grandmother’s language

So, we pick him up and dash outside to the backyard chasing the sound.

Sometimes we see nothing, and we just wait until the howl drowns out. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of the flying steel as it goes across the sky from behind the roof to behind the clouds.

At times like this, his arm is raised high and his little finger points at the sky. Still sitting in your arms, again, he gasps: ‘Kouki!’

One day last month, he fell asleep and woke up at the airport just after daybreak in another country. He and his parents were on their way to move across the Pacific Ocean. He looked out the big windows—and oh, the delight! So many airplanes, so close to him.

Auntie wasn’t there, but I could hear him squeal from across the seas.


It’s now been a couple of weeks since my nephew left Indonesia. It broke my parents’ heart and mine. We were the ones who had been left behind, not him, but we didn’t think he’d understand.

The other day, we video called him. ‘Jiiji! Baaba! Auntie!’ squealed my nephew as he called out to his grandpa and grandma in Japanese. As for me, he calls me ‘auntie’ because the Japanese version—obachan—is one too many syllables for a two-year old.

In his broken, toddler Indonesian, he told his grandparents that he wanted to come over to their house the next day. My sister, who was sitting next to him, explained that it was too far. We agreed with her.

So, my nephew asked us to come over instead. His eyes sparkled at his own brilliant solution to the problem.

But still we told him that we couldn’t. ‘Why?’ he demanded. It was still too far, we said. We would need to take an ‘Awat’ or ‘Kouki’, we explained.

He told us to take that airplane. We explained again. My sister tried too. My brother-in-law also chimed in to help.

Then, my usually hyperactive nephew fell silent. He continued to sit there, squeezed between his mother and father, on the new sofa in the new apartment. But his eyes were on the floor. He didn’t look at the phone screen again or say another word for the rest of the call.

At two and a bit, he understood neither distance nor time. What he understood was that he was there but we were not.


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Where are you from???

When I was younger, I used to hate the question, ‘Where are you from?’ It wasn’t because I didn’t like answering but because those asking didn’t usually care to know the full answer. But if they did, I would have loved answering.

These days, I’m often curious about other people’s backgrounds. These days, identities are crisscrossing at such speed that even I – who study this stuff – can’t keep up.

For example, does this video confuse you as much as it confused me? An Australian friend who does research on Indonesia but has nothing to do with Japan sent it to me. I saw this and thought: Wait? What? Who? Huh? Eh?

Say so – Doja Cat reacts to Rainych’s Japanese cover

Where is the pink singer from?

Usually, guessing where people are from is my specialty. But this one did my head in.

Who is this cat woman? … Why is she a cat, anyway? (Yes, I am so out of touch with pop culture—thank you, Age.)

And who is the pink singer? … Her Japanese is perfect … so, is she Japanese? … OMG, she even raps in Japanese. … But she’s wearing a jilbab (the Indonesian word for hijab), so she can’t be Japanese … Or can she be? … Maybe she’s a hafu (a Japanese translation for ‘half’ and used to mean ‘mixed race’) like me? … Or is she Malaysian? … Where is she from??

In an effort to untangle my confusion, I did what my teachers taught me to do (as if) and dutifully googled the crap out of all the keywords I could find on the video. I hereby, ehm, report the results.

Cat woman is Doja Cat. Someone who originally sang the song, ‘Say so’, in English.

Original ‘Say so’ in English by Doja Cat

The pink singer is Rainych Ran. According to an interview with The Magic Rain, which publishes content for the ACG (Anime, Comic and Games) community, Rainych is ‘an Indonesian singer who’s best known for performing song covers from various anime titles’. At the time of this writing, Rainych’s Japanese cover of Doja Cat’s ‘Say so’ has amassed over 13.5 million views.

Where is Reo from?

Then, just as I was starting to make sense of things, I found this reaction video by a Japanese guy named Reo, which got me confused again. Reo is not a traditional Japanese name. It sounds like a Japanese pronunciation of ‘Leo’.

Reo’s Japanese reaction to Rainych Ran’s Japanese version of ‘Say so’.

Plus, Reo’s YouTube channel targets Indonesians wanting to learn Japanese. He speaks rather slowly and clearly in his videos and they all have subtitles in English and Japanese. But he only uses hiragana and katakana and avoids the difficult Chinese characters for the Japanese subtitles.

The questions that bombarded my brain next were: Why is he targeting Indonesians learning Japanese? What’s his connection with Indonesia? Is he learning Indonesian himself? Or is he a Japanese-Indonesian hafu? Is he a kikokushijo or returnee student who used to live in Indonesia as a Japanese expat kid? In other words, is he a Third Culture Kid (TCK)?

‘Japanese privilege’?

Or is he targeting Indonesians because we have a large youth population who loves the internet and think highly of Japan? There are quite a few Japanese YouTubers who don’t seem to have pre-exisiting connections with Indonesia but are specifically targeting the Indonesian audience on the internet. Why?

Could they be capitalizing on the privilege accorded them due to Japan’s status in the region—a status that exists thanks to Japan’s colonial history? Perhaps they are using that privilege to target the Indonesian youth audience because it offers a potentially large and easy market to break into in the world of internet algorithms?

(For the sake of transparency: I am mixed Indonesian-Japanese myself.)

If they are using that privilege, however, does it matter? Personally, I feel the privilege needs to be recognized and acknowledged but I’m more excited about the connections that young people are making across cultures and, basically, saying eff you to national boundaries.

Where is Datenkou from?

I haven’t found the answer to my questions about Reo kun. But I did find out that the Japanese version of ‘Say so’ was not translated by Rainych chan as Reo seemed to think.

Japanese version of ‘Say so’ covered by Raiynych Ran

It was translated by Datenkou. After a long search down a rabbit hole, I found the info about Datenkou’s involvement with the translyric right there in the description under Rainych’s own video above. (Lesson learnt, next time check in the obvious places first!)

So, was this the end of the rabbit hole? Uh, no. Once I found Datenkou, I started asking: Where is Datenkou from??? His Japanese translyric of ‘Say so’ is perfect. Is he Japanese? Wait, is he singing Anggun’s ‘Mimpi’, an Indonesian song? His Indonesian accent is perfect!

Cover of Anggun’s ‘Mimpi’ by Datenkou.

But, before I go further down the Dantekou rabbit hole, let me point out that Anggun is Indonesian and a trilingual singer. She sings in Indonesian, French and English. Her voice is incredible—cool and husky. Here’s her version of ‘Mimpi‘.

Okay, now, back to Datenkou. His Twitter profile says that he’s an agricultural researcher and he speaks Japanese, English, Indonesian and French. He lists Japanese first and he’s in Tokyo. Is he a Japanese Third Culture Kid? Hafu?

I suppose I could message him and ask. But he probably gets asked, ‘Where are you from?’ a lot, so let’s leave him be.

But, all this crisscrossing—gotta love it.

What do you think?