Today’s entry feels a little more self-indulgent and revealing than is usually comfortable for me. It is a critical part of my story, however, so bear with me.
Years after my family settled in the United States, I learned the term “Third Culture Kid” that describes the cultural dissonance often faced by missionary kids who grew up somewhere other than their country of citizenship. (Another term for much the same thing is “unrooted childhood,” which I wrote about a few days ago). Even though when I was a child and teenager I didn’t know anything about the idea of third culture kids or unrooted childhoods, I certainly knew what it felt like to leave one culture where I didn’t entirely fit in as a white American and enter another that was supposed to feel like home but didn’t.
The first few years following our return from Africa were emotionally painful in ways that have had a significant impact on my adult life. Re-entry is often difficult for MKs, although some adjust fairly easily. Why are some re-entries more difficult than others, and why was mine so painful? While the reasons are pretty clear to me, it’s hard to explain in a way that doesn’t sound like I’m either wallowing in self-pity or blaming others.
Not too long before her death but after she had already declined significantly, my mother was still apologizing for not having prepared me well enough for our return to the U. S. I think she knew there would be some culture shock and she wanted me to be able to fit in. She read American magazines and sewed clothes for me before we left Africa, but those efforts weren’t enough or she didn’t know how to do the right things. As a plain woman who had never in her life paid much attention to style and fashion, she was ill-equipped to help me in the way I needed. The first day I went to high school, I wore my best outfit – a wool plaid pleated skirt my mother made with fabric one of my aunts mailed to her in Zambia before we left and a matching sweater my brother had just given me for Christmas. The next day I wore the same thing again. As soon as I walked in the building, I knew I had committed a serious 1960s teenage faux pas by wearing the same outfit two days in a row. But no one told me; in fact no one told me much of anything and I was too embarrassed, self-conscious and shy to ask. Plus, I had always worn a uniform to school every day, so needing at least five different school outfits was a whole new concept to me.
I endured that second day of school, conscious the whole day of the social gaffe I had made, yet helpless to do anything about it. I was also self-conscious about other aspects of my appearance (e.g., hair style, my glasses). I never made the clothing mistake again. The other things were harder to change quickly, in part because of our family’s strained financial circumstances. (As proof of how deeply that relatively minor incident affected me, I still find myself thinking about whether I’m wearing the same thing in the same context in too close succession, despite knowing most people don’t care and probably wouldn’t even notice).
As I write this, I’m struck by how trivial this all sounds now, but it wasn’t trivial then. I was 13 and desperately wanted to fit in, and I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. No one was ever really unkind to me, but I imagined that other students must be talking about me to each other (“Did you see that new girl? Isn’t she weird?”). I was extremely self-conscious and insecure, always second-guessing myself. Probably the worst thing was the constant feeling of helplessness. First, I didn’t know what to do or how to do it, and second, even if I did, I had no money to do anything. Third, I didn’t feel like my parents could help me, because as religiously conservative people they were not particularly concerned about style and they had their own resettlement issues to deal with. I always felt like I didn’t want to bother them when I knew that their lives were already difficult. At the time, I didn’t have friends with whom I felt safe enough to ask for advice or other adults who mentored me. The result was that I bottled up a lot of pain. Most people probably assumed I was doing fine because they had no way of knowing how I was really feeling.
For the first few weeks at school, I struggled a bit with a couple classes; despite being ahead of everyone in some things, I was a semester behind in algebra and biology. I have one vivid memory from biology class. One day the teacher said we would have a quiz the next day. For me, the word “quiz” meant some kind of game, so I didn’t study, only to discover when I got to class the next day that “quiz” meant “small test.” Gradually, however, during those two and half years of high school and then into college, things improved, I got some help from others, and I didn’t feel like such a social misfit. I did well academically and made good grades. In fact, my academic ability was probably my saving grace socially. At church, I was invited to join the Bible quiz team, which gave me a sense of belonging with a smaller group of kids. Then, the fall of my senior year in high school, a new pastor came to our church. He had a daughter my age; remembering how hard it was for me as the new kid only 18 months before, I reached out to Mary and we soon became best friends.
Reflecting back on those first years following “re-entry,” it is not hard to get in touch with those feelings of embarrassment, self-consciousness, helplessness, and social anxiety and awkwardness. While I wouldn’t have been able to identify the emotion or admit it out loud in those days, I now recognize that I was also angry. However, I was much more likely to feel guilty than angry at the time – guilty for thinking so much about my own needs when my parents were struggling and because I knew I shouldn’t care as much as I did about how I looked and whether I fit in. I know my parents did the best they could with what they had (and based on my mother’s apologies to me well into her 90s, I know she wanted to help me). But the reality is that the choices they made affected me in negative ways and they weren’t able for whatever reasons to provide the kind of emotional support I needed. There was a time when I felt like I couldn’t get over my anger if I didn’t tell my parents how I felt, but that always loomed as an impossible thing to do without hurting them in a way I had no desire to do. Over time, the anger dissipated, and while I can still “get in touch” with it, I overcame the need for them to know. I have a great deal of love and respect for my parents and for their lives of service to God and the church; I just wish some things had been different. On the other hand, I suppose it’s also true that some of what I learned from my experience of re-entry has made me a better person as an adult.