Debbie: To Live Elsewhere

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.

Eleanor: Fluently

 “But inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce and that is who we are.”

Anthony Marra , A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

My name is Eleanor Chin.  I was raised in the United States, in the Bay Area in California.  Best known for its veritable traffic jams, increasingly bizarre tech unicorns, the astronomical cost of living, and extremely liberal political bent, it is also home to a significant Asian-American population. 

My father is Chinese-American, my mother is Caucasian.  Adopted from China at six months, I grew up speaking only English, and mostly spending time with other purely Caucasian families. 

From a young age, I had a natural inclination toward foreign languages and mythology traditions from other lands.  I was very good at Spanish, I taught myself French, and I played around with a few other languages.  I was a hopeless dunce at mathematics and sciences, however – a trend that would continue into my later schooling. 

At age eleven, I began attending a Chinese school with many Taiwanese immigrant families.  I was wildly in love from day one – the tones, the script, and of course, the miniature toys the teachers would bring us as homework motivators.  For the first time, I began to be conscious of my Chinese heritage, noticing that my family’s values, priorities, and habits were significantly different from other kids in school.  I used to hang out with a bunch of white girls, but I started seeking the company of other Asian-Americans.

I took my first trip out of the United States at age fourteen, to Vietnam.  It was a significant experience, and I came home with a renewed love for Asia and its languages.  I got more serious about Chinese, finding a private language tutor, reading more books about Chinese history, and actively pursuing friendships with people from China and Taiwan.  I also began to read memoirs about Chinese-American experiences.  Outstanding: Growing Up Asian, by Cynthia Meng, and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua brought into striking relief a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t an “authentic” Asian American. 

As I observed my family and community, I found myself to be at odds with myself in multiple directions, enhancing this belief.  First it was the academics.  There is typically a lot of pressure in an Asian-American homes to bring home excellent marks in school, particularly in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related subjects.  I never experienced this kind of pressure, and as I was a complete dunce in maths and sciences anyway, I was extremely grateful.  But still, I felt that I was cheating somehow, that I should experience that kind of pain to legitimize my experience as “truly” Asian-American.

Then there was the violin.  I started playing of my own accord.  My parents never made me practice, and I never partook in any violin competitions, let alone win any of them.  This bothered me a lot.  A common theme in the “real” Asian-American world is the prevalence of developing inner discipline through a musical instrument.  I played the violin, like a “regular” Chinese kid, but I wasn’t very good, because I didn’t practice enough—to me, it was worse than if I didn’t play at all.  I was really ashamed of myself, as if my credibility in being Chinese-American hinged on how many violin competitions I won. 

Finally, there was Chinese.  I was very, very good at learning Chinese.  I had more fun in Chinese school learning words than I had in youth group throwing water balloons.  It might have been the drug of being so spectacularly good at something so effortlessly, but I was totally, completely in love.  I think I poured so much into learning Chinese because I desperately wanted to have a meaningful relationship with my Chinese self.  A relationship that wasn’t at odds with the cultural norms, and that would also be understandable to my non-Asian friends. 

 I went off and lived in Taiwan and China, one year in each place.  In both places, I found that I was more culturally American than I thought.  Despite my significant language abilities, and sometimes in light of them, I found myself once again estranged.  Now, I was not only a bad Asian-American, but also a bad Asian. 

Why did I ever learn Chinese? I asked myself.  The last ten years have been an extreme waste of time.

Jhumpa Laheri, author of In Altre Parole, once wrote of missing the Italian language, “that emotional distance is always more pronounced, more piercing, when, in spite of proximity, there remains an abyss.”

My Chinese had already hit a glass ceiling years ago, so I subsequently tried to define myself more fully as a linguist by pursuing Japanese and Korean, which are close cousins.  Fluency evades me though; my emotional connection to these languages is just not as deep.  Or maybe it’s because I’m still burned out from a decade-long linguistic journey that brought me right back to where I started. 

Language shapes existence, and so despite being thankless, onerous, and insanely demanding, I remain in awe of and inspired by foreign tongues.  The word I cannot pronounce may not be in Chinese, or for that matter, in any language I know.

I trust that someday though, I’ll speak it fluently.