What does it feel like to be a TCK (third culture kid)? Have you ever tried and put yourself into Tarzan's shoes? Or maybe Mowgli's?
Or Cowbow Sam's? (if you know that story - it is one of the kid's favorite stories about a baby who gets accidently dropped in the dessert and he gets adopted by some coyotes.... )
I feel like if you can imagine what it felt like for those people upon realizing they weren't who they thought they were - that has how my whole life has been.
I grew up in Papua New Guinea. In case you aren't aware, my skin color does not match the skin color of the loved ones I grew up with. It never bothered me or my friends there - but it's a thing.
One mama there, Wongow (pictured above - I'm sitting with her daughter), told me that even though my skin is white, my bel (literally stomach, but refers to the English idea of heart) is black like hers and that truly, my insides are black like the country I am from.
But - I have white skin. I don't look Papua New Guinean - I look very white, very expat, very American. My passport country is the USA. I speak English like a native English speaker - because I am.
I also speak Tok Pisin like a native Morobe Province speaker - because I grew up as if I was a native Morobe Meri. In fact I've been told by meri's from other provinces that my accent is one of Morobe Province.
My skin doesn't match what comes out of my mouth when I speak Tok Pisin. It also doesn't match my heart and the place I call home and can relate to the best.
I came back to the States on furloughs 4 times before graduating high school. Basically that means the time when the missionaries go back to their home country (the parent's home country) and report back to the financial and prayer partners with updates about what is going on and how they can continue to support and pray for them. ach furlough was 9 month long besides my 11th grade year - that was a full year. (So I spent roughly 3 years and a couple months in the US comoared to the 16 years I spent in PNG.)
Everytime we'd come back, everyone would say "Welcome home!" and "It's so great to have you home!"
EVERYTHING in me would revolt at the word "home." What in this vast land of nothing familiar was home? I wasn't home. I wasn't anywhere near home. EVERYTHING was different, foreign, unfamiliar and ugly.
But - I had no choice. I had to figure out how to adjust because there was no choice but to adjust.
Part of the challenge was that I didn't look different. Again, my skin color didn't match my insides. I felt like a foreigner, and really, I was. I should have been in the foreign exchange support groups and getting extra support from people who understood kids from other countries and cultures. BUT, I look and speak like I grew up in the United States.
No one looks at me and thinks "foreigner, immigrant, you don't belong here," and yet I feel like all the above and sometimes wish someone would see me that way. I don't belong here. Most of the time I spent in the States, I didn't want to be here. It was a counting-down-the-days-until-I-could-get-back-home type of stay.
So what about now? Certainly after living in the US for about 10 years now and living in the same house for over 5 years I feel like I fit in, right?
Actually, no. It helps having a family.
A church family.
Friends who know my skin doesn't match my insides.
But I still struggle with "home."
I've noticed it a lot with my kids. The word home is very fluid for me. Wherever we are staying, that's home. We occasionally go on roadtrips, and stay with friends, visit tourist points, and then of course return to their house. I naturally say "Let's head home. Im referring to going back to the peron's house we're staying at, or the hotel, or camp site. My kids assume we're traveling back to our literal home where they've been growing up. I had to learn that I can't say "home" meaning wherever we will be that night when traveling, because it gives the kids anxiety about the long trip back and they aren't ready yet.
Mr. Barefoot and my first dance song was a little different. "Your Arms Feel Like Home," by 3 Doors Down. Why? Well, here's some words. See if you can see the theme.
"It don't matter where I lay my head tonight, your arms feel like home."
That's exactly what I wanted- no matter where we were, Mr. Barefoot's arms would be home. I think anyone can understand this idea. But for me, it's a more literal phrase - I don't really have a home, but I'm choosing to have you, Mr. Barefoot, as my home. Every day. Every night. Your arms are home.
It took me a LOT of years to figure out what my time in Papua New Guinea meant to me NOW. I went through a season of just trying to blot it out. I live in the US now with my US husband and US kids and US family and friends, so I'll be US. As a TCK, I can do that. I hide the parts of me that don't fit in, and blend in. No one has any idea.
I tried to make PNG dissapear. I was almost embarassed to speak in the language, to show any signs of missing it. Somehow it made me feel like I didn't belong in the States, and that's scary for a TCK. Not belonging where I have to be. I'm not going back to PNG to live. This is home, here in the US.
I can relate to Elsa from Frozen:
"Conceal, don't feel, don't let them know...."
Thats what I was trying to do. Shut it out. Forget it. Embrace this new person I am.
But... those moments would come.
When I begin to get sad - what about everything that defines me? That's important too. What about my history? My people? My language?
It was about then that my brother got married and flew over a couple friends of his from PNG. I got to spend a few days with them and it re-ignited my fire for PNG.
All of a sudden, these men from across the world understood me in a way no one here in the States did. This was my culture, my home, my PEOPLE. For the first time in YEARS I felt understood again and like I was seen.
Don't get me wrong, Mr. Barefoot is amazing. He has encouraged me to embrace my background more than anyone. He gave part of his wedding vows to me in Tok Pisin because he knows that's my heart language. He has written me songs in Tok Pisin. He calls me by my name in Malê. He has encouraged me to teach the kids Tok Pisin and Malê.
But I wasn't at the point I could, until after seeing how much more alive I became after interacting with the PNG people who came to the States.
That was about 2 years ago. And it has taken me about 2 years to begin to embrace that I'm not from the US. Yeah, my passport says I am. My voice and accent sound like I am. I even sound very MinnesOOOOtan now. But, inside, I'm still New Guinean.
I always will be.
PNG shaped me and formed me into who I am. My likes, dislikes, my language, my idioms, what I understand to be appropriate and not, the culture, the people - it's who I am.
Now that I've been able to embrace the chamelion that I am without feeling embarassed about having a US passport but feeling like I'm from another country, I've been able to share more with my kids.
Little Love, who shares a middle name with a Malê word, has been the one to pick up the most Tok Pisin (because I've been speaking to her more in it.) I find I can have conversations with her and she'll respond. It is one of the most uplifting things for me ever. This little girl is helping me have closure, helping me process through the loss I feel of not being able to be in Papua New Guinea.
Since she's been born, I have begun to speak Tok Pisin and Malê to my kids in public. I've carried them around in my bilums. I've embraced the fact that my culture is not the same as people around me and that's okay just because I look and sound like them.
One day both Mr. Barefoot and I hope to bring the kids back to PNG. I'm so excited for that day (who knows when that will be.. tickets for a family of 6 are nothing short of a fortune which as a family of 6, you never have).
But until then, I'm still over here embracing my chamelion nature - I'm a white skinned Papua New Guinean with a USA Passport living in the US with my wonderful family and I'm home.
I'm a TCK.