Wednesday, July 4, 2018

third culture kids and America first

Like most holidays, the Fourth of July is kind of a funny thing to try to celebrate when you are living in a different country. For us in the village, we are the only Americans for a good distance and I’m terrified of fireworks exploding in someone’s face, so my inclination is really to just let the day slip on by. I think I’m giving it greater consideration this year only because our oldest has recently become more aware of her American-ness and honestly, it has made our whole family pause a bit.

These are turbulent times in the Colvin house, to be frank. I don’t know why I expected smooth sailing forever. I mean, we are raising third culture kids, famous for their angst and exhaustive search for belonging. Wishful thinking maybe?

For six years, Bronwyn believed she was actually, ethnically, Zambian. Everything about her life would have told her so. After all, she has spent roughly 2,153 days doing typical Zam-kid things like eating nshima, climbing trees, dipping un-ripe mangos in salt and digging for rats after the fires go through. She’s never heard the Pledge of Allegiance or the Star Spangled Banner but she can sing the Zambian National Anthem flawlessly – Zambian accent and all! And what always made us chuckle is that, until recently, if you told her she wasn’t Zambian, she’d fight you. (She gets her feistiness from her father, obviously.)

I think my bio kids have always known they are a bit “different.” They get teased, laughed at, stared at, stroked – every form of unwanted attention possible. They get pulled into pictures with people they don’t know, asked to “perform” at random times, and get reminded often that their Bemba is noticeably a second language.

Their otherwise beautiful Zam-life – up in the trees, making banana stalk babies and rolling in the dirt – has always outweighed any sense of “other-ness.” They’ve always attributed negative experiences to the indiscretions of those who cause them… but never to their being American.

Until recently.
posing at the Chief's palace

Our family did a thing earlier this year where we sent mom to America for two months which apparently un-caged a multi-cultural bird that has desperately been waiting to fly. America has existed for our kids only as a figment of their imagination. Out of all of them, Bronwyn has spent the most time in that country – a whopping eleven months, actually, which transpired for her between the age of two and three – a time when a child’s memory is totally accurate, of course.

And so our beloved six year old’s recollection of her parent’s birthplace is basically Grandma and all of the benefits of living in her house, which includes, but is not limited to:

No set bedtime
The absence of the word ‘no’
Presents just because its Wednesday so why not
Bathing in an oversized tub under 18 inches of bubbles
Eating whipped cream out of the palm of her hand at 7 o’clock in the morning
Watching Micky Mouse for six hours a day while being served fruit and cheese on a tray
Etc., Etc., Etc.

And so when mom boarded that plane and went off to gallivant around the United States, it clicked for the first time in our eldest’s head that that was a thing. And once a trip to magic grandma-land was within the realm of possibility, it was a short jump in logic to start begging the question, Well then why in the name of all that is good and right in this world are we not all going there?

Because America is, in her unformed mind, a place of perfect and utter happiness, going there naturally became the knee jerk response to anything unpleasant.

You are making me eat my vegetables? Fine I’m going to America!
I have to do math? Fine! I’m going to America!
I don’t want to share with Leonie! I’m just going to America!

Not that that her declarations ever materialized for her – I mean, the child still ate her vegetables and did her math and had to share with her sister – all without boarding a 747. But still the magical possibility of escape to never-never land not only stayed alive but also grew in influence.

Feeling out of place in this environment combined with the known possibility of going to a “perfect” one, had the effect of pitting the two countries against one another. America could do no wrong and Zambia became the scape-goat for everything. All those little reminders that she’s “different” – once brushed off as other people’s bad manners – now became a dark spot for a whole nation. All of that third culture kid insecurity now had a perpetrator in her mind. Zambia was the problem; and so it followed that America would be the solution.

She started communicating those feelings in different ways. Boycotting chitenge dresses and refusing to curtsey before her elders and suddenly hating nshima. Her teachers told me that she’s racist because she got “sick” during Bemba period every day. Eventually she gave voice to her internal crisis, telling us directly, “I don’t belong here. I’m too different. I don’t feel like this is my land.” (My land? Who are you, Abraham and Lot?)

We sat outside one afternoon, Jeremy and I did, pondering if we had blown it all, ruined our first born by asking her to straddle an ocean, something that even we – with fully formed frontal lobes – fail to do perfectly. As we sat and talked, we watched our emotionally entangled child tangle herself up in a tree, chatting away (in Bemba, mind you) with three of her besties, and then come down and ask if they could all stay for dinner. She doesn’t hate this place like she thinks she does, we assured ourselves.

And thus begins a new phase of parenting for us. For the record, this is way more challenging than getting them to sleep through the night or learn to use the potty. This new stage of helping them navigate a world in which they belong everywhere and no where at the same time – light a candle for us.

We want our children to understand that loving one place need not require hating the other. Acknowledging our ties to America does not require rejection of Zambia. A love of nshima is not infidelity to hotdogs. And because the “I’m going to America” line is clearly unproductive, we’re finding new words, – something more healing and less toxic.

We started reciting every single day, sometimes with her teary face resting in between our hands, these truths:

There is hard everywhere.

There is good everywhere.

God loves absolutely every person on this planet the same.

And so we do too.

Go and chase beauty.

Go and be kind.

Every. Single. Day.

We speak the hard words, and she repeats them – less resistant all the time. A rewiring of synapses until her soul agrees with what her mouth obliges to say. And as we go on joy hunts and count our blessings, Zambia regains its good standing.

nshima and lounging with her favorite uncle emmanuel

On the flip side, we continue to deconstruct the well-supported myth that America is the land flowing with milk and honey. She hears us rant about ‘the state of America’ enough that she’s not totally clueless, but really most of it is above her. And yet, as Jeremy and I discuss the drama of our homeland juxtaposed with the drama of our family, the irony is not lost on us.

America as a whole is not entirely unlike my six year old. Both are trying to figure out who they are. Both are guilty of blaming the “other” for discomfort and trouble. Both are fighting to preserve a fictitious image of an America-past where everything is apparently rosy. Both have been convinced that a love of one necessitates a hatred of another. The definitions of culture have become muddled and nationality is a vague construct. The relational strain is more palpable than ever. The good times are gone.

Raising a nation is quite different than raising a child, so I focus on the three littles in my care and pray for the rest. All I know is that in our quest to produce happy, functional, morally responsible human beings, we take a hint from America’s present crisis and we pass the following conviction on to our kids in as many ways a possible:

You are citizens of heaven, and that changes everything.

Human decency demands we think about citizenship through an ethical lens, but our Christianity demands we think about it through a theological one as well. There is no sense in fighting for “our people” and against “their people” when our citizenship is not of this world anyway. There is no reason to love ourselves and hate the other when we are all “other” because heaven is our homeland. There is no logic in building a wall or locking others up and out when our cultural identity is wrapped up in Christ.

This is not about politics. This is about eschatology.

This fourth of July, we in the Colvin home will give a nod to history and heritage and we’ll probably wave like goofballs in the general direction of Grandma’s house. But there will be no celebration of nationalism or patriotism or ethno-centrism, because as long as we have life on this earth, we as a family declare that our home is in heaven. We can meaningfully sing, God bless America and Zambia and any other place we might dwell for a while. We want the best for the people of Mexico and Russia and Pakistan and every location on this glorious globe. Any other attitude belies our faith.

There is no such thing as America first for a people whose anthem is
Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be done.

Nothing else can help our third culture kids make sense of their weird experience on this planet until they grasp this beautiful truth. We can belong everywhere and nowhere because the third culture to which we really belong is other-worldly. Home is not Zambia, really, and it’s not America, really; it’s heaven, really, and heaven is forever.

Our existence between here and there is defined by how well we love every nation, tribe and people while we’re en route. C.S. Lewis in Till We Have Faces wrote, “No man can be an exile if he remembers that all the world is one city.” It’s a small extrapolation then to say that you can rightly banish no man when you remember this is his city too.

I imagine God weeping bitterly as our ancestors drew fraudulent lines on a map and as proud men scrambled to claim more of it for themselves. And I imagine Clive Staples rolling over in his grave as his American brothers and sisters fight for the whiteness of their arbitrary territory.

We don’t get that angelic immigration stamp in our passports until the very end, but truly, we become better citizens of any country when we strive to make every place a little more heavenly. Jeremy and I pray that through our actions we preach this for our children again and again. Wherever we are, we welcome in every single person. Wherever we are, we seek peace for every single person. Wherever we are, we do justice to every single person. Wherever we are, we extend mercy to every single person.

This is not hardship, it’s the gospel.

Our children may always wrestle with place, identity, and the inherent awkwardness of being a third culture kid. When you eat nshima and pay in kwacha but read Beatrix Potter and watch the Lego movie you accept that all TCKs are a little eccentric. And through all the ups and downs, I pray they learn: the only way to live happily as a third-culture kid is to check the weight we give to our passports as we remember where we really, truly belong. 

Happy Fourth of July.


  1. Hi Bethany, I just wanted to pop in to thank you for writing such a great and thought-provoking post. It's now been over 3 years since I left Zambia, but I've read every single one of your blog posts since then and I continue to look forward to your insights and perspective.

    I was not technically a third culture kid myself, but as one of the only members of my ethnic minority in the community where I grew up in California, I experienced many of the same contradictions and thus had many of the same questions and all of the same angst as Bronwyn when I was her age. Heck, I feel many of these same things still now, some 25 years later.

    But despite the pain of the internal conflicts that often arise from having been a third-culture kid, they end up being more than worth the eventual reward of the lessons learned and the curiosity ignited and the humility and perspective gained. Provided, of course, that you are lucky enough to have parents who are patient and empathetic and self-aware and retain good senses of humor throughout. I was one of these such privileged, and your kids are too.

  2. Wow. A truth we all need to hear. Thank you!