My father likes to retell the following story to anyone who will listen:
“We were making our final descent into Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, straining our necks to get our first glimpse of our new home. When suddenly, Curtis said ‘I don’t feel good’, and proceeded to throw up over everything. Needless to say, we didn’t get to see our new homeland from the window of the airplane.”
Everyone always laughs, I smile if I’m present, and my father proceeds to tell another story.
I remember when this happened and it is one of my first memories of moving to and living in Brasil. I am not ashamed of what happened–I had no control over it. Honestly, I don’t have any feelings toward it. However, I don’t find it quaint and humorous in the way my father does. It is only recently that I realize these little incidents, these stories, these memories that have become family-lore are not amusing, in fact, they are manipulative and harmful.
But more on that in a bit.
I was four years old when we uprooted our lives in the US to move to Brasil. I was old enough to understand what was going on, but young enough for me not to care about it. My sister was born within the first year of having moved. Our family was always an insular unit: the epitome of strangers in a strange land. It was always just the four of us. If we ever socialized with other people, it was always the other missionary families. With time, I made friends at school and developed a few Brasilian friends. But nothing was ever lasting. We moved on average every two years until we lived in Recife–in the mid 80s and Sao Paulo–in the late 80s. We lived 3 years each in those places.
We returned to the US twice and stayed on average a year. The first time we lived with my grandparents. The second time we rented a house in the small Indiana town where my mother grew up. The whole point of us coming back to the US was not to visit relatives or to rest and relax. It was so that my father could travel around the country, visiting churches, preaching and doing revivals in order to raise money to help cover expenses in Brasil. Most of the time he would travel alone, but there were times, if he was preaching at a local church, we would go with him.
At the time, I was proud of the fact that I knew all three of his sermons by heart. I was proud to stand at the display of Brasilian curiosities that my father would unpack at every location and explain to everyone what they were. I liked being the interesting bilingual missionary kid.
But in actuality, those were not the things I liked.
I liked being intriguing. I liked being unique. I liked feeling needed.
It was nice to have people want to talk with me, even if they were just being polite and primarily all adults. It was rarely other kids my own age.
When we were in the US, I was enrolled into the local school. Usually starting in the middle of the school year and then leaving in the middle of the next. I was always the weird kid that never had the cool clothes that were currently popular. I also never had any friends. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized I had moved so many times, I didn’t know how to make friends. I never had the chance to develop and hone normal childhood social skills.
As a child, I always felt more at home in Brasil. I went to international schools and shared commonalities with the other international students. We would talk in our own pidgin of Portuguese and English. I understood that the world was a much bigger place than small-town Indiana. But I always felt confused about that. Why was I more comfortable living in a foreign country as opposed to my “home” country. I just assumed it was because I had lived there since I was 4 and spent more time in Brasil. My parents would always explain away my failure to blend back into American culture as “reverse culture-shock.” Again, they would laugh at the family-lore of me making mistakes and having a difficult time adjusting.
It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I discovered a book called Third Culture Kids that this confusion made sense to me. According to the book, “TCKs are raised in a “neither/nor” world. It is neither fully the world of their parents’ culture (or cultures) nor fully the world of the other culture (or cultures) in which they were raised.” For the first time in my life, after reading this book, I felt understood.
I started the process, as an adult, to sift through my abnormal childhood, my awkward social skills, and the missed opportunities using the framework of this book. My goal was to make sense of how all of these things have shaped the adult I am today.
People would often tell me that I am so lucky to have grown up in another country. For the longest time, I would agree with them. I felt very fortunate to be bilingual and to have had the opportunity to live in Brasil during my formative years.
Defined as “especially having a profound and lasting influence on a person’s development.”
I have reaped the benefits of being bicultural and having a greater understanding of the world around me and it has definitely had a profound and lasting experience on me. I love Brasil, but it does not define who I am.
I wonder, however, about the “profound and lasting influences” I missed out on because I grew up in a foreign country. What would a “normal” childhood have looked like for me? Where would I have “grown” up? Would I have a through-thick-and-thin best friend?
My therapist has described my childhood as oppressive. I would have to agree with him to some extent. I was prevented from having a normal childhood because of my father’s spiritual calling. I was expected to be and act a certain way because I was an “MK” and a “PK”.
Back to the story of me throwing up on the airplane. I have often wondered why he felt the need to work this anecdote into his sermons. Was his point that it was my fault that he didn’t get to see Christ the Redeemer from the airplane? Did he resent me for it? Or was it just a silly anecdote to him.
I don’t know.
I don’t know because my father finds humor in situations that others might find embarrassing and subtly jokes about it. This was my norm growing up. It was a subtle anecdotal joke about something that happened to me but he was in control of the narrative. As I have gotten older, and processed this through the lens of an adult and a father, I realize that these stories and jokes were not innocent nor were they humorous. I don’t care anymore that he told this story, but it is the ulterior meaning that raises so many questions for me.
My father’s actions and their impact will be a theme that runs through the next few essays.
So, did I ultimately enjoy growing up in Brasil? Yes, I believe I did.
Would I have traded that for a normal childhood?
That’s something I’m still pondering.
Reken, Ruth E. Van; Pollock, David C.; Pollock, Michael V.. Third Culture Kids. 3rd Edition (p. 4). Quercus. Kindle Edition.