Updated: Apr 23
When I first came across the term third culture kids (TCKs) in the mid 90s, I dismissed it as having little to do with me, since I did not identify with a mysterious “third culture" of displaced persons whose passport cultures did not match their host cultures. A missionary kid (MK) friend who had grown up in Lisbon near me invited a TCK support group over to her home in San Diego. I listened politely to everyone and left feeling, as usual, like a piece of forbidden fruit in the vegetable patch. What did I have in common with these people? (Couldn’t I even join a club that would have me?!)
But I’ve since come to understand more about the TCK phenomenon, now that I’ve returned to the land of my birth. I’m clearly an expat, my T-shirts are weird, but I’m also a bona fide citizen of this country. This is not a normal combination. I’m not even a residente não habitual because the Portuguese embassy refused to grant me a residency visa. They said I was still a citizen. They were right. My birth certificate somehow made it through the Salazar dictatorship when the PIDE secret service guys followed my father and the other American missionaries around Portugal, made it through the Revolução dos Cravos (the Carnation Revolution) when Celeste Caeiro placed red and white carnations in the muzzles of the soldiers' guns, made it through the contra-revolução that subdued the excess socialist joy following the deadly repressive regime, and then made it through all the confusion of joining the União Europeia ... until someone (who?) carefully entered the details of my old purple mimeographed and green-stamped birth certificate into the current government computer system. Ironically, since my christened name is Jewel, and since my citizenship ID must follow my birth name, I am now after an entire lifetime as Joia trying to learn how to sign this strange name. (Portuguese friends, exclaiming the traditional ai que joinha! when greeting a baby, were no doubt surprised to learn from my parents that this was, indeed, my name. It was not on the list of Salazar-approved baby names. Nonetheless, Joia stuck.)
So earlier I minimized the significance of TCKs because military brats and diplomat kids had no idea what it is like to have your passport culture not only be considered dominant in terms of being the obviously superior colonial culture, but also to have that same culture be considered the one and only Way, Truth, and Life in an absolutist, evangelical sense. I responded to the TCK concept pretty much like I responded to the Biblical Job: that's all you're dealing with? Because to me Job was a lightweight—all he had to do was sit in the desert and lose things! Okay, forgive my insensitivity...but he didn’t have to act as if nothing happened, he didn’t have to keep getting up each day to go to work, teach classes, pay bills, raise kids, he didn't have to soldier on regardless of what had just been inhumanly amputated or mutilated. He wouldn't last two seconds in my life, as a black woman said about someone (actually anyone).
I watched as missionary kids returned to the US, most either remaining within the evangelical bubble or rebelling against it. I did neither, an option generally ignored by True Believers. This false dichotomy is, however, considered sacrosanct: you are either with us or against us. You either sign the Wheaton creed and pledge never to smoke, drink, dance, and play cards, or you gleefully engage in these activities and flaunt said behavior directly in the pious faces of your horrified relatives. The idea that you were never part of that belief system to begin with, and thus not impressed by its magically construed opposite, is not on the checklist.
Not playing into the false dichotomy does not protect you from persecution, though. You still get punished for just being the same person you were in your home country. Only in the States someone might see and therefore think less of your family. You still get disowned for getting raped, since it was your fault. You still get shamed for your coping mechanisms, whatever keeps the PTSD at bay. Your accomplishments on the honor roll, at the music conservatory, in grad school, your publications, your world travels…none of this counts because you are outside the fold, you are a sinner. Plus, you are personally depriving the believers of such a fantastic testimony! If you’d only repent. God loves a sinner. Such freaky mesmerizing stories from redeemed sinners, hopefully also erotic as hell.
But if you’ve never left a fold, you’re not likely to consider returning to one. Especially when the ones who keep bringing up their in-fold status make it clear you’ve already been excommunicated, that your fleece is dirty and revolting. Then you start to internalize the idea that you are dirty and revolting. This was not first experienced after the bloody rape at eighteen. This was my response after finding out that dancing in flannel PJs to the newly released Rubber Soul album at a sixth-grade Massachusetts slumber party was evil. Hmm. How could I not have known?
Many decades later I was spending Christmas Eve at the home of my best friend since kindergarten, the "Portuguese Montessori" Jardim Escola João de Deus. We had the traditional bacalhau dish with potatoes, garlic, onions, and olives, excellent wine, homemade arroz doce and a bolo de rei. She at one point announced, “You know, even though we are Christian, my parents never worried about me going downtown to the Baptist church with your family.”
Even though we are Christian. These, then, my friends, the Catholic and therefore unsaved targets of American evangelism, these parents were not concerned that their daughter would lose her faith and her grounding while hanging out with the American missionaries.
And she didn’t.
For that matter, neither did I.
21 SEPTEMBER 2018