Missionary Kids, Downward Mobility, and My Friend Sarah--Guest Post by Brianna Meade
Brianna sent me this stunner of a guest post and I love how it swirls together several topics that are valuable to me: missionary kids (I married one), intentionality, downward mobility, and the facing the fears that are inherent when we interact with people who are so different from us. This is a lovely, thoughtful meditation, coming from the best place--in the very middle of a life being changed. I am so grateful for Brianna and her honesty here.
I'm a missionary kid who didn't want to be a missionary kid. Instead of "I'm from Thailand," I want to say "I'm from Chicago." In fact this is what I do say.
Being an MK is interesting in a, "Wow, that's cool, but I don't understand you at all" type way. Not so great for relating to people. Living in a hut in the jungle on the border of a third-world country doesn't help if you are desperate to fit in. People rarely know how to respond when it's brought up. It can be a conversation jump-starter, but it can also be the type of thing where you start to feel alone as the conversation fizzles out because nobody knows what to say.
When my past is brought up, I'll ramble on about Rice and Elephants and the Thai Language. I'll hedge my sentences and stories with, "I know you don't really want to hear this story, but..." I'm embarrassed by how I grew up, but the bigger issue is that I feel alone. I don't feel at home in Thailand and don't belong among Americans--especially American women.
I know what you are thinking if you know anything about missionary kids. Feeling like I don't belong is a classic MK attitude. MK's feel as if they don't fit in either culture. The whole idea of a "Third-Culture-Kid" came from the theory that those who grew up in two cultures only feel at home in a "third" culture that incorporates both--that is, in their "own" created culture. You'd think the one place I'd feel at home is among other MK's who have the same background, but I don't. I'm just as uncomfortable around other MKs as around girls who grew up in Chicago. During college, many MKs I knew found solace in International Dinners and Third-Culture Kid Retreats. I avoided all of this.
I don't talk about Thailand, ever, unless it is brought up. My years as a missionary kid were difficult and jarring and ended with a full-blown eating disorder that almost killed me. So when other MKs wax nostalgic for Asian noodles or dumplings or bring up how much they miss their "real" home, I feel disingenuous. I feel numb and apathetic.The twinge of sadness that exists just makes me want to run harder towards the American dream.
When I arrived in the U.S. for college, I tried to assimilate in order to avoid being the "weird" one. I abandoned my MK roots as soon as I could figure out how to dress in North Face jackets and procure boots that looked like UGGs. I tried to assimilate in every way. I steadily acquired pop culture awareness and memorized the names of celebrities.
I rarely claim my childhood in Asia (where I lived for 15 years--more time than I've lived anywhere else) as home. Was it my home? I was always an outsider there too. So where does that leave me?
Every once in a while during college, I would go to a Thai food restaurant and ball my eyes out. On the way out, I would swear never to go back to the restaurant again as I wiped snot off my face. It was too confusing and much too painful.
And so, when we moved to North Carolina, I was still hard at work leaving my past behind. So it seemed strangely serendipitous and out-of-nowhere that our apartment complex contained a greater percentage of people of Asian descent than it did Caucasians. Did this make me happy? Did it make me feel like I was home? On the contrary, it made me feel more exposed and maybe even a little uncomfortable. I didn't want to presuppose that I had anything in common with my Indian neighbors because I knew (and implicitly felt) that I was just as complicit in stereotyping people--just as likely to misunderstand someone and miss the real story. But in the process of avoiding any representation of my past, of side-stepping my roots and of trying to become someone else, I'd forgotten who I was.
One day I went to the park and found myself surrounded by a large Indian family and several Chinese mothers with their children. I was with my daughter in the sandpit and I felt that familiar feeling of being somewhere you have been many times. Of returning to a place that you have been away from for a long time.
Then we stumbled upon a church that was half-white, half-Chinese-American demographic and oriented towards reaching out to the cultural diaspora that was our town. I felt my shoulders slump a little and my butt relax deeper in the seats. I kind of wanted to cry, but it was a moment that again, I shared only with myself. It was the first time I felt slightly less alone in an American church. The first public place that it might be okay to work out my culture issues and feel safe.
It was also the place where a Southern girl (as American as mac n' cheese) taught me how to re-embrace a part of me I had left behind. This friend was named Sarah*. Sarah and her family are Jesus-seekers and wholehearted members of the small Presbyterian Church (PCA) that we are all a part of.
When I first talked to Sarah, she mesmerized me with her stories of intentionality and engagement. Every afternoon, she takes her boys out to the parking lot, sets up some yellow cones to warn drivers, and they spend the late afternoon riding bikes. By six pm, her Indian neighbors have also come outside and their kids join the fun. She positions her lawn chairs and hands out extra bikes that her family has collected to any kids that don’t have bikes. The Indian boys and girls call Sarah “auntie,” a term of acceptance.
One story Sarah recounted was a turning point for me.The Indian women in her neighborhood often come out in groups for their afternoon walks. One day, all the women came out, gathered their things, and left Sarah to care for all their children. Then this became the routine.
Sarah felt perplexed by this. Though she was thankful that they trusted her with their children, she felt left out. In Indian culture they explained, the communal aspect and “it takes a village” mentality meant that a single adult sufficed as a babysitter for all the children. One day, Sarah confronted them and said “I want to walk with you. I don’t want to always babysit your kids.” The women tilted their heads and giggled at her as she tried to convey her desire. The discussion was a mix-up of cultural confusion, clumsy language dynamics, and the desire to connect.
And so she joined their walk. She grappled and wrestled to grasp the conversation. She understood almost nothing during the trip.
This is everything that getting to know someone who is different than you should be. It is the initial terrifying jump into the unknown of possibly offending someone. It is the unwieldy silences between difficult vocabulary words in other languages. It is the complexity of relationship when individualism and village mentalities clash and bang. When the noise that goes up shatters into the loud dissonance of the family-frameworks and culture we have come from.
It can be a lesson in self-consciousness and embarrassment. It can mean perpetuating cultural stereotypes (sometimes unconsciously), and then backing up and understanding an individual story, turning around in your dialogue and realizing you have, perhaps, gotten it all wrong.
When Sarah told me this story what resonated was her feeling of being “outside” and out-of-her-depth. And I think this is important. When we think about downward mobility and cross-cultural interactions as vocation we are correct. But we also acknowledge that vocation is not easy, comfortable, or natural. Vocation can be gritty, like digging in a sandbox and getting granules of sand stuck under your fingernails. It forces you to question your motives—forces you to think about your own pride and perhaps even your own racism or aversion to cultural nuances. And this is not fun. This is far from fun—but it just might be vocation even though it hurts.
When I think about vocation, I think about writing, in which I feel the flow of an organic creativity that begins in my thoughts and ends up in my words on a paper. But I sometimes forget the agony and disruption of pen on paper, of trying to find the exact word I am looking for, of exhaustive editing and not explaining something well, or being misunderstood. Writing is vocation, but it is not easy, it is not trite. It takes time and patience and humility. Humility as we fight for words, fight to be understood and resist presuming or placing constructs upon other people and ourselves that do not fit or are not honest.
My neighborhood is composed of many Indian families. Should I reach out? By using the words “reach out” am I already conveying a kind of cultural superiority or colonizing mentality that exposes me? Am I okay with silence in between words? With trying to meet other people with open hands and finding closed hands or vice versa?
I think vocation means trying things on for size, even if the pants don’t fit you at the ankles and you have to roll the legs up a bit. Even if you were once-upon-a-time a missionary kid, but feel like that part of you has disappeared into the background. And I’m just at the beginning of this—at the starting line of “maybe I’m called."
Yesterday, I was coming out of my apartment and I noticed my Indian neighbor standing outside with a little girl my daughter’s age. I yelled, “Hello!” even as my words seemed to echo back at an embarrassing decibel. She looked around to see if I was saying hello to her, and the start of a loud and confusing conversation began. I walked up to her, and we exchanged the formalities of name and relation. Her name was hard to pronounce, and I rolled it over my tongue and under my breath several times, trying to grasp some fluidity. My little Zoe and her granddaughter eyed each other.
And then we had a moment. I don’t want this to seem like a “happy ending” or the conclusion to a story about race and culture and understanding. Because it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t conclusive and it wasn’t definitive.
This moment was mid-conversation. I think it was also mutual. I commented on her granddaughters absolutely gorgeous eyelashes—which were black and beautiful, and I said, “They look just like my daughters. They both have amazing lashes.” She nodded and laughed.
Was this moment as meaningful to her as it was to me? I don’t know. After this, we stumbled through another exchange. She asked her granddaughter to “high-five” my daughter (who refused to comply). Then I asked her questions about her family but I asked them too fast. I needed to go. We laughed and nodded goodbye.
And that was it. Perhaps my vocation for downward mobility is a budding one even though I have past multi-cultural experiences. Maybe it is for you too. Maybe you aren’t equipped. Maybe you're not sure you even want to go out in your neighborhood and meet people who have different backgrounds. Maybe, like me, you've left a part of you behind, and you need to reach out because it will help you even more than it will help them
Briana Meade is a 20-something writer and blogger at brianameade.com. She is a contributor to Early Mama, a site for young mothers and often writes about the intersection of faith, culture, and motherhood. She lives with her husband and two children in the Raleigh-Durham area and is a graduate of Wheaton College
For all posts on downward mobility, please click here.