Born in the USA, Debbie moved to Nigeria with missionary parents before her first birthday. Beginning at age six, she lived in a boarding school eight months per year. Now she’s writing her childhood stories, seeking ‘Above all Else’ to find where God was in all of it.
I’m an adult MK/TCK who grew up in Nigeria. Mostly.
Born in California on my parents’ first furlough, I flew to Nigeria at nine months old. Our cosy village station lay nestled in a semi-circle of hills studded with rocky outcroppings and savannah brush. But beginning in first grade, I was sent to boarding school 300 miles away, only returning home for Christmas and summer vacations.
During those lengthy separations from family, I suffered from intense homesickness. Many nights I cried alone in bed, feeling abandoned by God and my parents. By fourth grade I toughened up and accepted that way of life as normal, but the wounds remained.
Every few years my family and I left Nigeria and flew to my parents’ home state of California. Those long furlough journeys included visits to New York to debrief at mission headquarters and side trips to various states to connect with relatives and supporters. So many were strangers to me. I quickly grew close to my cousins, then was torn away as we traveled across the States.
Quite often I hear TCKs say, “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.” But each time I hear that phrase, I swallow a lump in my throat, and it sinks like a stone to the pit of my stomach. I feel like I’m failing at being a happy Christian. Why can’t I say those words? I wonder. Am I ungrateful? Do I have blinders on? Am I wallowing in the negative?
Yes, there were happy times on my station of Egbe, in the Nigerian bush. But they were overshadowed by the knowledge I’d have to leave my home with the big climbing trees, grassy yard, and the dusty paths leading to friends’ homes, and head back to boarding school.
Boarding school. The very words bring up hard feelings: cloistered, imprisoned, squelched, claustrophobic, closed in. How does one recover from that?
I always wanted to live in a two-story house on a square block in a neatly manicured neighbourhood in America. The idyllic homes we visited on furlough every Sunday after church, when a family invited the missionaries to dinner, were beautifully decorated and the kids’ rooms were full with dolls and books and toys.
However, my adult American friends now tell me stories of trauma in the perfect-looking homes of their childhood I once envied. Dads who focused too much on their work and not on their kids. Moms who spun from crazy-happy to crazy-crazy in a split second. Grandmothers, cold and angry, who crossed their arms instead of hugging. Grandfathers who did unthinkable things to their little girls. I now realize my life wouldn’t have been perfect in America anyway.
I still can’t say that I’m grateful for all my painful childhood experiences. Or, “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.” But I’m at least longing a little bit less to have lived elsewhere.
To hear more of Debbie’s stories, encouragements, and reflections, check out her blog ‘Above All Else‘.You can also find her on Instagram and Twitter.
“My TCK experience was a lonely one, full of transitions and travel and impermanence; and my way of dealing with that was to create art. As a child, I wrote songs and poetry and stories because I believed I was the only one who felt the way I did.”
Hannah spent much of her time in Ghana without the company of other TCKs, unaware that other people like her existed.
In an interview with TCK Care, she explains, “I didn’t know anybody else like me. No one had ever told me they felt like me, so a lot of my art in my younger years came out of that sense of ‘I must write because there’s nothing out there that really expresses me.'”
It was only when she returned to the USA for university that she found a community of TCKs online, who shared her experience and emotions.
“That’s why I made [the website] – to be a resource for people to find other TCKs who feel things similar to them. It’s like, ‘hey, you’re not alone in this, we all feel this way.'”
Now, Hannah’s website is a source of comfort, inspiration, and solidarity for TCKs all over the world, with a wide range of contributors. She’s collected a range of poetry, music, videos, and paintings dealing with themes of identity, home, and culture, and she is still open to submissions! If you like to express yourself through art or are interested in other peoples’ TCK experiences, Culture Miks just might be the place for you.
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.
“Oh, Malawi,” he replies with a genuine smile. “British, huh? You are our colonial masters!”
This is a real conversation that I’ve actually had multiple times, with people from different African countries. Every time it has been said with a smile, and every time I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I didn’t even know that Malawi was a British colony. The truth is, I didn’t learn a thing about British colonial history at school. I had to start learning the hard way – from the people who almost exclusively learn about the shadier British/European exploits in history class, because they bore the brunt of it.
What is Colonialism?
The ancients, by their system of colonization, made themselves friends all over the known world; the moderns have sought to make subjects, and therefore have made enemies.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – what do we mean by colonialism? National Geographic puts it like this: “One nation subjugates another, conquering its population and exploiting it, often while forcing its own language and cultural values upon its people.”
Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state.
Now, building empires and taking over other peoples’ land is not a modern phenomenon – think of the Ancient Romans! But what we think of as modern colonialism kicked off in around the fourteenth century with the Age of Discovery. Basically, a number of European countries (notably Portugal, France, Spain and England) began discovering new trade routes around the coasts of Africa and the Americas. They found that a lot of these countries were rich in materials not found in Europe – so they took what they wanted.
So by the time the twentieth century swung around, the majority of the world’s countries had at some point been colonised by Europeans.
This may all seem a long time ago, but let me put this in perspective: Macau belonged to Portugal for 400 years. It was ‘returned’ to China in 1999 – that’s only 20 years ago! Comoros only gained independence from France in 1975. Seychelles got independence from Britain a year later.
There is a widespread view in many of the former colonies that decolonisation has not brought about significant economic or cultural independence.
Maja Mikula, Key Concepts in Cultural Studies
The fact is that a lot of decolonisation – that is, the ‘conquering’ state withdrawing to let the colony become independent – is not distant, long-forgotten history. It has happened in peoples’ lifetimes, or their parent’s lifetimes. And hundreds of years of history leave their mark.
Asking people to face up to the problems of racism in their midst is not always welcome … It is always easier to point the finger of blame than to look hard at our own prejudices.
Facing Today in the Light of History
How can I, as a pale-skinned Brit, respectfully and thoughtfully travel to and befriend people from countries that my ancestors oppressed?
Ignoring or downplaying colonial atrocities is the moral equivalent of Holocaust denial.
I don’t go out looking for conversations about how my country went out and built an empire. It makes me so uncomfortable and angry to think that my ancestors ever thought that they were superior to their ‘exotic’ friends, or that they had any right to kill, destroy, and take control in the way that they did. I hate that that’s what history looks like. But I also can’t ignore it.
That said, what I’ve found is that many people would never accuse me of those crimes. I remember walking around the Old Summer Palace in Beijing with a Chinese friend:
“It’s so sad that this beautiful place got destroyed,” I said, as we wandered through the marble ruins. “It…it was the British, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, well,” she said. “I think the French helped too.”
“No need to be sorry,” she chuckled. “It was a long time ago. And it wasn’t you.”
So if my friends aren’t too bothered – if my Kenyan friend likes to joke that things went downhill after ‘my grandparents’ left, and my Hong Kong friend cheerfully shows me around the British-built police station – do I still need to think about this? It’s all in the past, forgiven, right?
First of all, if I’ve hurt someone, I don’t get to decide when they forgive me. So although in general, my travels to previously colonised countries have been completely pleasant, I know that there may still be people who don’t look kindly on Europeans. It’s hurtful, but it’s understandable.
Secondly, in a horrible, subliminal way, colonialism affects how we view ourselves as a nation. We’ve grown into ugly habits of seeing ourselves as the helpers, the teachers, and just generally doing things the right way. Everyone else is ‘the other‘. Can you see how this kind of deep-rooted false assumption – even if we’re not aware that we’re thinking it – will make us seem arrogant and patronising as soon as we leave our own countries?
Imperialism never ended, but merely mutated into new forms. The virtual empire knows no boundaries. Until we begin to recognise and confront it, all of us, black and white, will remain its subjects.
So…can British people still go to places like India and Egypt and Papua New Guinea? Of course!
Here are a few points I like to remind myself of when I travel to countries like that.
I am not at fault, but I represent a country that is. That means that although I had no part in what happened, I acknowledge that they did, and that they were wrong.
Cultural superiority is a lie. My country is not better than yours, our art/language/food/philosophy is not to superior to yours. We are different, developing and working things out at different rates. I do not go to other countries to educate them on the ‘Western way’.
We are equals. We are humans of equal value, and I will treat you as such. Your story is as important as mine, so I’ll listen.
Visiting previously colonised countries is not necessarily awkward. Be aware that there have been past hurts, but that your friendships can transcend them. We remember history so that it doesn’t happen again – maybe your next friendship can be a symbol of a more united, more loving world.
Can we be a generation that doesn’t shy away from past suffering, but tries to heal relationships, and build a better world learning from past mistakes?
I think so. I hope so.
Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.
T’Challa, Black Panther (don’t judge, it’s a great quote)
These are issues with no easy answers. What’s your take?
How important is it to keep wrestling with these concepts, and addressing the past? How do you do that in a respectful and humble way?