My husband and I arrived back in southeast Asia last Wednesday. We checked into a hotel for a couple days to get over jet lag and reacclimate to our second home.
Our family lived here for eight years while our boys attended a school for PW kids. Then we moved back to the States for our eldest son to attend college. For the last nine years we’ve been making two trips each year for two months each time. So we feel at home here.
For about a week before we leave the US and for a few days when we arrive, I feel like I’m changing gears. Everything here is quite familiar and I’m quite comfortable, yet everything is so different from the US. When we try to describe life here, our friends back home tend to think different is bad. We try to tell them this is a modern city with all the conveniences. They could eat western food all the time if they chose to. They could buy everything they would want here. Yet they still seem to think we are some kind of different breed to be able to come to this part of the world.
Then after we’ve been here for a few days, all this seems so normal, we can’t quite remember why we feel it is different when we are back in America. There’s a particular candy we like here called Valda Mints. After a curry meal, they taste so good and refresh our breath. We took some back to America with us one year and were shocked at how strong they were. Our palates had gotten used to stews and baked meats again and the Valda Mints were far too strong then.
One couple, who have been long-time supporters of ours, came to spend a couple weeks with us a few years ago. We took them to local restaurants to eat and around town to shop. We knew they would find the food different, but certainly not bad. We knew the right hand driving would make crossing streets dangerous for them for a few days. And we even knew the cadence of the English spoken here might be a bit difficult for them to understand at first. But we were shocked when the husband said, “I could stand on any street corner and look around me for 15 minutes and everything I saw would be new and different to me.” We began to see through their eyes what seemed normal to us.
Ruth Goring Stewart wrote a book called, I am Green. She was writing about the third culture kid experience. Children who are raised in a culture other than their own for more than half their developmental years are called third culture kids. In her book, Ruth likens her north American home to a blue circle. In that blue circle she lists things she likes and dislikes about north America. Then she likens her South American home to a yellow circle. In that yellow circle she lists things she likes and dislikes about South America. Then she has the circles overlap and says she is green. She has incorporated some of both cultures and she “lives” within a culture uniquely hers because of her two homes.
Although I didn’t grow up overseas, I often feel the same struggle to fit in, no matter which culture I’m in. I want to bring into any conversation another point of view. American’s pride themselves in being tolerant of diversity, but the people of this Asian country have succeeded in living in a plurality of cultures. Asians think they are the only ones with a problem of “face” or “losing face.” We tell them the problem of pride and shame exists in America as well, we just haven’t given it a convenient name. In America we are free to pray openly, but may feel a bit self-conscious praying over a meal in our secular society. Here in Asia everyone practices their religion openly. Although the practices are quite different from one faith to another, no one would ever question our praying over our meal.
Although our sons have been back in the States for nine years, they still miss some social cues and slang that came from TV during the years they lived overseas. They didn’t experience all the fads and missed out on things like Little League and Boy Scouts. On some days they might say they are sorry they didn’t have some of those things. But over all, they are happy for having such a wealth of experience their peers in America don’t even know they are missing. During high school, our younger son found it easier to relate to kids who had spent some time outside the US. Now as he is in his career, he brings a more creative outlook to his team because he thinks differently than most of them. Being a third culture kid has its advantages.
As PWs we live in the balance of two or more cultures. We can have a stabilizing effect on our families if we can help them see that what they are experiencing is normal. We are much richer people for being able to look at a culture and see what is good and what is bad about it. Our children can grow to give their generation a broader view of life.