There I stood at the counter, like a tree kangaroo in the headlights. The fast food worker in his visor and apron was clearly a little perturbed.
“Wait, I get to choose what bread I want? Um… what kinds do you have?” I did my best to make sense of the various options I was given, nodding as if I had actually heard of them before. “Um… Italian!”
“Cheese,” the worker then mumbled.
“Oh no,” I thought to myself, I have to choose the cheese too?” So I asked again, “Uh, sorry, what kinds of cheese are there?”
The worker sighed and rattled off, “American, cheddar, provolone, pepper jack.”
“…Cheddar, I guess.”
What was with this place? Didn’t they know that they, as the ones who work at the restaurant, are the ones responsible for making these decisions, expertly putting together delicious flavor combinations so that I could just pick the one that looks the most delicious from its picture? Why were they asking me to do their job for them?
“Sauces? Toasted?” This guy was relentless! And I was getting nervous. I noticed one of my new classmates nearby was clearly enjoying this exchange. Time to bring in an interpreter.
I whispered, “Laura! Is this normal? Help!” Laura composed herself, graciously intervened, and helped me navigate the rest of the unnecessarily-complicated sandwich process.
I, a missionary kid from Melanesia, had now ordered my first Subway sandwich ever. It was a decent sandwich, but I have to admit I was a bit rattled. It took me a while before I was ready to brave the Subway sandwich interrogation line again. Perhaps this even played into my working later for the competition, Jimmy Johns.
The most daunting place for a missionary kid is their passport country, the country which is supposed to be their home. This is because Missionary kids (MKs, or Third-Culture Kids – TCKs) thrive in the role of the obvious outsider. They have grown up in countries and cultures where it’s clear that they are foreigners, and thus shouldn’t be expected to know the unwritten rules. Most cultures give a certain grace to outsiders, and MKs find themselves at ease in this kind of relationship. They are glad to play the respectful learner and guest. Many cultures also give a certain honor to those outsiders who have surprisingly assimilated, and MKs also thrive in playing this role. It’s just plain fun to be a foreign kid who is able to speak the local language, cook local food, and play local games.
But when MKs come back to their parents’ country, they are often expected to be cultural insiders. The fact is they are not cultural insiders. While their parents have passed on some aspects of their home culture, there are big gaps. MKs in their home culture can sense that there are unwritten rules functioning, things they’re expected to pick up on, but they’re not picking up on them. And no one has spelled them out. They can feel like they are in one of those dreams where it’s exam day, but somehow you showed up for the test without studying, and then you realize you’re not even wearing any pants. MKs are very adaptable, and might play it off like none of this is happening internally, but these dynamics are often present, especially from junior high through the college years. They aren’t as much of an issue for younger MKs, who are mostly free to enjoy the strange adventures of the motherland as a kinfolk-filled curiosity.
Why is it so hard for MKs to seamlessly pick up on the culture of their passport country? It probably has to do with the nature of culture itself, which is fluid and regularly changing, and with the way in which culture is typically learned – more by osmosis than by direct teaching. Learning culture just takes time, years of it. When I would share in my college years in the US that I grew up overseas, I would often get an “Oh, that makes sense!” response. It took quite a few years before the responses shifted to, “Oh, really? Wouldn’t have guessed it.” Over time, you assimilate, you “catch” things you were missing or someone just spells it out for you. “I was supposed to be tipping my barbers this whole time? Oh, no!”
If you get to spend time with MKs who are back in their home country on furlough/stateside or for school, there are ways you can help. You can offer to be a safe interpreter. Not all MKs are the same, of course, but for many it would be very kind and appropriate if you offered to field any and all questions they might have about their home country. Ask if there are things they find confusing or strange, or even difficult. Try to be observant of MKs in situations where they might be feeling out of place or unsure of what to do or say. Offer to go with them if they’re attempting something for the first time. If they get embarrassed, try to engage, ignore, or laugh with them as seems most kind for that particular person and situation. Like an employee in a retail store who asks if you need any help finding things, you might get rejected at first, but if you invite communication, you just may find your MK friend coming back to you later with some good questions.
We MKs and TCKs are a complicated bunch, but just like anyone else, we need good friends who will take the time to talk and listen and process… and occasionally help us order sandwiches.