As published in apulife_2015_summer
Not of This World
I was a scrawny, tow-headed, seven-year-old tomboy in rural Minnesota when my missionary parents packed up their idealistic plans, bible translation books, and enough clothes to modestly cover three kids and two adults for four years and moved us all to Africa.
After six months of “jungle training” in a Cameroon village, we knew how to make toys from balsa wood and tin cans, how to escape a village as army ants invaded, and how to “dash” those in power with a bribe/fee/gift to keep systems flowing and families fed. When we flew into Accra, Ghana, we looked out the oval windows toward the melting tarmac where tanks, soldiers, and machine guns aimed at our airplane. We learned that changes in government, even when for the good, can be sudden and terrifying. Eventually we made our way to an isolated jungle village, Pusupu, where we learned to live simply and dealt with the challenges of adjustment. For the next decade, I migrated between two worlds as different from each other in climate and culture as bleached Norwegian lace and vibrant Kente cloth.
Today, young people experience this cultural crisscrossing more and more as businesses send families around the world, couples marry across ethnicities, and children call their classmates by names spoken across the globe. Growing up without the stability of a single home or the consistency of a single culture impacts a child’s development in many ways and continues to influence and shape that person for life.
Cross-cultural kids (CCKs) are as diverse as their experiences. Children of military personnel, diplomats, business professionals, and others share a similar set of influencers—international moves, cross-cultural living, and a governing organization—regardless of the country, number of transitions, or type of organization. As a missionary kid, I moved across national borders with parents who served an organization, but they always reminded us that “home” was the United States, not Ghana. Often called Third Culture Kids (TCKs), we developed thought patterns, value systems, and beliefs common to TCKs (e.g., military, missionary, foreign service, or corporate kids) but often incomprehensible to others who did not grow up between and among cultures.
TCKs can seem repressively self-controlled, even robotic, in their interactions, because we’ve learned to be conscious of and cautious about our behavior to avoid damaging the reputation of the organization, our parents, or our God. This self- and other-awareness can make TCKs irreplaceable in situations where every movement and word matters, such as international business meetings, diversity trainings, or even a State of the Union address.
TCKs can seem disloyal and even heretical in their allegiances and beliefs because we’ve learned to see and respect the values of multiple, sometimes contradictory, cultures and religions. This makes us hesitant to support any single, exclusive claim of rightness, superiority, or godliness. Such intellectual and spiritual humility can mold TCKs into mediators between enemies, clarion calls to complacent faith, and translators among global Christians. TCKs tend to change schools, jobs, homes, and even friends suddenly and frequently. Our only constant is change, and we don’t have to be near family to be close to them. This adventurous and flexible ambition can make TCKs uniquely suited for employment positions with frequent moves and changing responsibilities, or ministers to changing populations. They bring new energy, creative insights, and a ride-with-the-waves approach to any situation.
But a childhood of constant change can also result in homelessness and rootlessness. Nowhere is home, no people are permanent, and no ideas/beliefs are completely reliable. This often prompts a search for something constant.
For those of us who follow the Savior, tremendous reassurance and hope arise from a simple truth: Jesus Christ is one of us! When He was a child, God sent His parents from Israel to Egypt and then back to Israel. In the Gospels, we find He was expelled from Nazareth and had no home. He moved often, ministering to an ever-changing audience. And He had little respect for the authority of the Pharisees and Scribes, calling on them to serve God, not traditions. And He gave homeless TCKs a place to call “home,” not in this life, but in eternity with Him.
But on this adventure to our true home, we need guides and travel companions. APU’s TCK Network, a student-run, faculty-supported club, helps TCKs learn how to drive, fill out financial aid paperwork, receive mentoring from upperclassmen and faculty, and contribute to the community in unique ways. Four retreats each year provide a type of international experience in the nearby mountains. At the International Chapels held every Friday and in the on-campus International Center, they can visit with globally diverse APU students. And at every graduation, I place a cord of twine and cowrie shells around the necks of TCKs as a reminder of the mission they’ve been given from the ultimate TCK: They have been shaped to change the world on their road toward home.
The walls of my house reflect the collision of colors and cultures that have shaped me: white lace, vibrant Kente, brilliant silk. In the hallway, surrounded by my family pictures, a phrase greets me each morning: “Home is where your story begins.” I have so many stories in so many places that I don’t know where one or another began. I am not at home in this house, or this life, or this world. I doubt I ever will be. But with a Savior who understands me, a university focused on God-honoring diversity, and a new freshman crop of TCKs to meet each year, this life is an adventure with a forever home in sight.