A couple of weeks ago, Trish and I had lunch with Judy Merwin, a delightful character who exudes energy and optimism. She intended to take us to a Korean restaurant but it turned out that every Korean establishment in Nashville is closed on Tuesdays. (I don’t know if Tuesday is a Korean holy day of some sort or every Korean establishment in our area have made an agreement to be closed the same day. Perhaps there is no explanation.) Anyway, Red Lobster was her second choice and so that’s where we ended up.
When we were seated, Judy pushed a book into my hands and said, “My children said that you need to read this.”
I quickly looked at the cover.
THIRD CULTURE KIDS: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds; by David C. Pollack and Ruth E. Van Reken.
I looked up at this woman, a widow now for many years, and veteran missionary to Korea. She and her husband spent twenty years in that nation. They sold their car to pay for passage on a freighter and arrived with fifty dollars and no promise of income.
That sounds crazy to most people now but I’ve know folks like that all my life. Missionaries used to go abroad with a one way ticket and a suitcase or two. Contrary to the way movies tend to depict them, most of these faith-based missionaries were adventuresome, broad-minded people who believed their faith could change the world. In most cases, they were less narrow-minded than their counterparts at home. Most learned the language of the country in which they lived, became well-read in its literature and history, and very often married their children to the people of their adopted country.
There are not many of them left and when I meet one of them, I listen. I have the very highest respect for them and their work. I know their story has not been depicted well by either religious or secular people. They are not the angels the religious press makes them out to be. They are not the crazy bigoted fools the secular press makes them out to be. They are just believers who like adventure and who are fascinated by other cultures.
“Read it!” She said laughing. “You’ll understand yourself better.”
So I did. I stopped reading everything else on my list and read Third Culture Kids, cover to cover, just because she asked me to.
A third culture kid is someone who grows up significantly affected by two or more cultures. They can be missionary children, military brats, adopted into a family that is racially different, or have two parents of different nationalities or race. They often speak two languages or more.
They feel rather at home in more than one culture but not fully at home in any.
Check. Check. Check. I am definitely a third culture kid.
I am a patriotic American. My ancestors were all here before the revolutionary war. I love American history and am continually fascinated by the genius of the American political system. (Until this past month, when I began to ponder the advantages of a parliamentary system or perhaps even the return of the monarchy!)
My English is flavored with a slight Appalachian lilt. Who would suspect that sometimes I am searching for an English word that corresponds to the Spanish one that popped into my brain first?
There is no current word in English for example that can replace “asi.” “Thus” is somewhat an equivalent, but sound ponderous in spoken English. Also, there is no current word for tu. “Thou” doesn’t even make it past the spell check!
And what does one do about a craving for ceviche or for the smells of eucalyptus on a cool Andean evening?
The trouble is, when I was living where all that was available, I missed hot dogs, rhythm and blues, and traffic lights.
Both the richness and the challenges of my life have come from being betwixt and between.
When I returned to live in my native country at age thirty one, I was delighted. This is my home. I love it here. I had no idea that my sojourn in Quito, Managua, Iquitos, and Montréal would never be over, that every part of my life there would live on in relationships; my tastes in food, music and architecture; and the way I experience and proclaim my faith.
I speak three languages in dialects Europeans find amusing because I learned them from farmers, taxi drivers and fellow church members in various parts of North and South America. These languages fight in my head like children: “choose me, no me; I was here first, and so forth.”
I have had the distinct feeling that sometimes people who believe nearly as I do about politics and religion still think I am not quite coming clean with everything. I see it in their eyes: I am holding back; not quite on board with all the things they are absolutely certain about. Something doesn’t seem quite right about the way I fit into a wide variety of worship styles and feel right at home in all of them. Why is it that I like the parts of town where there is a little bit of everything from everywhere?
I’ve grown to like my globalized culture. Loren Cunningham once laughed at my depiction of feeling “betwixt and between,” and introduced me to the word glocal to ease my frustration. I looked it up. Glocal describes a globally minded person who is rooted in a local culture.
That’s much better than the word I once used to describe myself. A therapist once asked me to sum up my life in one word. Back then, I chose the word “exile.”
I explained that I had always choked up when hearing the 137st Psalm, “How can I sing the song of Zion in a strange land.” I also explained that when I read that Psalm, I hear Bob Marley singing: By the rivers of Babylon.” (If you haven’t heard it, stop reading this blog and go download the song! Goodness gracious, let’s keep our priorities right.)
I have decided that following Christ makes anyone into a third culture kid. We live as loyal citizens in our nation and participate in its culture. However, we are slowly acclimating ourselves to another culture altogether, one that does not always fit neatly into the political and social categories created by our native land. We fit and sometimes don’t fit. We belong and yet don’t belong.
Betwixt and between is the condition of all who take the gospel seriously. Gradually, our loyalties to that other country rise higher than our loyalties to the one in which we live. Some people are OK with that, others not. And that’s just the way it is.
Ceviche, by the way, is raw fish soaked in lime, garlic and delectable flavors. It can only be properly mixed by a Quecha-speaking person in a bamboo hut as pork sizzles outside on a charcoal fire while a lady wails a melody from a loud speaker about “amor, alma and la vida amarga. “
This just doesn’t mix well with hot dogs covered with chili and slaw, consumed to the sound of Willy Nelson singing To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.
Add Crêpes de Brittany to the sounds of Les Amants du Saint-Laurent and you will have committed a culinary crime that will make the papers in Paris.
But it’s what makes people like Judy Merwin interesting. And me. And all the wondering nomads and their children and children’s children who make up our fascinating and sometimes difficult-to-navigate way of life.
Exile is not quite the right word. Oh, I found it! It’s E Pluribus Unim.