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  • Writer's pictureJoia

Today's rhaps is on ... TCK "Re-entry"

Updated: Jan 28

Artist’s view of Europe's ATV-5 returning from the International Space Station, 2014

"Re-entry"is the term used in the TCK—Third Culture Kid—literature to describe a child's assimilation back into the family's original home culture, after growing up in a different host culture.

The idea evokes an image of a spaceship returning to its starting point, a sturdy vehicle crashing through the bumpy global atmosphere, its final fall broken by a splash of welcome and recognition...

...except not all of us experience this miraculous journey as intended.

Some of us are loosely tethered to the outside of the spaceship, perhaps accompanying the family by virtue of duty and appearance.

How to explain a missing daughter?

(Forgive me for imagining that honor killings may be the kinder solution. If they be quick.)

I returned to Portugal in 2018, where I was born a missionary kid to evangelical parents in the 1950s. What had happened here?

By the time my family landed in Boston in 1964 for the final missionary furlough, I was already an outcast. What my parents brought from Portugal to my siblings and subsequently to the next generation was the given "reality" that I was Other, that I needed to be "prayed for."

So, what happened, and when did it take place—was I seven, four? When did I make this very human choice to wander lost outside the fold of the saved and blessed?

My hypothesis in third grade was that I had committed the unpardonable sin that St. Paul spoke of in the New Testament. I wasn't sure exactly what it was (blasphemy against the Holy Ghost?) but it definitely signified eternal damnation. Children are very logical, and this was indeed a logical conclusion, given my circumstances.

A more grown-up "glass half full" interpretation might be that, regardless of my transgression, my family took me in, accepted my deficiencies, hauled me back to the US, and kept praying for my salvation. I was damaged goods...but I was their damaged goods.

Still, the TCK literature puzzles me.

The original descriptions of TCK (Ruth Useem in 1967, Ruth Van Reken and David C. Pollock in 1999) comprised three groups: military brats, diplomat and missionary kids. More recently the tendency has been to expand the definition of Third Culture Kid to a wider group of cross-cultural families, though distinct elements still separate the earlier groups. Ann Baker Cottrell in 2007 emphasized an important feature as the source of the work done by the parents:

"This last point is what distinguishes TCKs from other expatriate kids whose lives are otherwise virtually the same. TCK's parents are sponsored; they do not work for host country organizations or for themselves."

Sponsored work, a truly unsexy concept, hit me like a rock.

Whereas refugees and immigrants painfully assimilate to their new cultures, losing their children to formerly unimaginable modernity and slang,TCK parents have no such intent. They are in the new country only temporarily, bringing specific cultural expertise to the army base or embassy or church. Their government departments and mission boards back home are paying the bills and calling the shots, keeping the home culture impervious to excess foreign influence.

I assume, therefore, that even when the home culture is not explicitly colonial (as in, "my culture's better than yours"), its imperial superiority is never really in question. The agriculture, military might, diplomatic ties, scriptural authority—whatever is brought from the home country is supposed to supercede the local flavor. But in the case of missionaries, what is brought is not only a better way, but The Way. Evangelical truth is not a 'better truth,' butThe Truth. For a child to be pushed outside of this family system, then, what is entailed is a rejection on a universal scale, not just by that particular family or town or country...right?

Taken by itself, to be outcast from one's familial beliefs in Arkansas or Wisconsin can send a person to Fundamentalists Anonymous for life, but what I'm wondering about is that spaceship...if TCKs are expected to re-enter their parent's home culture at some point, what happens when that spaceship door slams in their face? If a global diaspora of TCKs like myself grew up attuned to the voices and behavior of more than one culture, what happens to us rejects? Do we sprout more fully in the host culture? Can we "re-enter" a home culture that is hostile to us? And how exactly do we function, anywhere, if the rejection is meant to be cosmic as well as terrestrial?

Just south of Lisbon is the peninsula of Tróia where Roman artifacts were discovered, dating back to the early centuries of our Anno Domini. My father and brother worked one summer on these ruins, digging through layers of pottery and bone.

Perhaps I do similar archaeology, unearthing the layers of culture and language that inform my own heritage, the remnants of violence against a lesser caste, the lost bits of a TCK biography written through time and scarred by space.

Roman ruins of Tróia


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