I grew up as a missionary kid (MK*) in Melanesia, where we lived in a large highland valley where the tall grass and coffee grew well. This valley had just the right elevation to keep pretty ideal temperatures all year round. Go further up and you would hit mountain rain forest, with its mists, moss, and deep shades of blue-green. Go further down and you would come to lowland rain forest, bright green and humid, full of chocolate brown rivers and palm trees. Our valley, however, looked more like pictures you might see of Africa than like a Melanesian island country – this was due to the tall and broad trees that periodically dotted the hilly landscape of shoulder high grass.
As I said, this kind of valley was perfect for growing coffee. It was also good for raising cattle. Many of my adventures growing up happened in the coffee gardens, the hills where the cows roamed, or in the mountains that bordered our valley.
In high school a bunch of us guys started regularly camping out overnight in the grassland areas. A short half hour walk could take us from our compound, past the nearest village, and into the open country only populated by cattle. There we would camp out, sometimes on a hilltop, sometimes beneath a defunct electricity tower, sometimes stringing our camping hammocks in the small groves of trees.
We would stay up late, talking around the fire and cooking hot dogs or munching on beef crackers and tea biscuits. The conversation would inevitably turn to the current crushes we had. But the Spirit was also moving powerfully in my MK school during those years, and many nights we would sit under the stars and have deep conversation about spiritual things – following Jesus, fighting for purity, becoming godly men. Sometimes we would discuss theology such as end the times, spiritual gifts, or Calvinism.
It wasn’t all serious though. Sometimes groups of guys would pretend they couldn’t come on the overnight and then sneak up and prank the campsite. We got very good at making “cough bombs” out of cotton balls and chili peppers, which, if sneakily tossed into a fire, could clear a campsite in minutes. But even with no pranks the conversation would often turn toward the ridiculous.
Some nights we got rained out and had to trudge back home at 2 a.m. through the mud. I’ll never forget the feeling of laying in a soaked sleeping bag hoping against hope that the rain would stop. We didn’t ever bring tents with us, instead trying to predict by the clearness of the night sky whether rain was likely.
The cows in these grasslands almost always kept a respectful distance. They wouldn’t bother us, but would sometimes come right up to the edge of the circle of firelight and stare. This usually wasn’t a problem. A well-aimed piece of firewood would scare them off if they started getting too friendly. One cow in particular got a reputation for being a little threatening. He was a massive black bull with imposing horns and eyes that glowed red in the firelight. Because of his regular visits to the edge of the campfire and seeming ill-intent, he got appropriately nicknamed “Satan.” I recall once throwing some firewood at Satan and not being quite sure that he wouldn’t simply deflect it and charge down this skinny kid who foolishly thought he could scare him off.
There was one time, however, when the cows trespassed the mutually understood borders. I was a junior and had gone on an overnight with two of my senior friends, Jordan and Kees. My two friends had brought a tarp for the ground and two sleeping bags. I had brought a hammock, so we picked a spot close to a few small trees and they set up on the ground nearby.
That night the cows visited the edge of the firelight as usual, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. We stayed up late into the night, talking and cooking and having a good time. I think this may have been the last time I camped out with these close friends before they graduated and left the country.
That night I had very vivid dreams about cows. Unusually vivid. I recall hearing the sounds of their chewing as if it were real life.
Suddenly my eyes shot open. Cows had entered the camp – and were right on top of us. That chewing sound was not merely in my dream, but was coming from a cow eating the foot of Jordan’s sleeping bag – while he was happily sleeping inside it. I realized I was the only one awake.
“Jordan!” I hissed. “There’s a cow… eating your sleeping bag! Jordan!… Wake up!”
Jordan’s eyes slowly opened. In an instant they turned from relaxed to alarmed as he looked down and saw a cow about to chew on his toes. He sprang into action, leaping out of his sleeping bag and grabbing the nearest projectile at hand – an aluminum camping pot. Jordan, the pitcher for our high school team, then hurled that camping pot with remarkable speed and accuracy for it being so early in the morning.
The pot hit the cow square between the eyes with a metallic clang, then ricocheted off. The cow’s eyes went wide as he reared back from his fabric meal and let out an impassioned “Moooeeoooo!”
The strike was effective. All the cows made a quick exit from our campsite. Jordan stood stunned and Kees and I still lay peeking out from behind our sleeping bags. My hammock swayed in the wind.
What had induced these cows to try to eat us? Or at least to eat our sleeping bags? Had their imposing leader, “Satan” the black bull, put them up to it? Had we somehow violated the terms of our uneasy coexistence? Perhaps they were after our beef-flavored crackers? Did that make them cannibalistic?
Jordan picked up the aluminum pot, now with a large indention in its rim and side. And we began to laugh. We restarted the fire and made some tea. The early morning sun was shining, not yet blocked by the mist that would rise with the warming temperature.
We knew that we wouldn’t get to enjoy misadventures like this together for too much longer. The inevitable goodbyes were coming, when we would graduate and scatter all over the globe, as MKs tend to do. We knew we would dearly miss that place, yes, even miss “Satan” the cow and his brooding stare. We knew – despite what people said back in our passport countries – that we were blessed to get to grow up in that Melanesian country.
I remember times like this when I wonder about the things my own kids are missing by growing up overseas themselves, though in a very different part of the world. I pray they when they grow up, despite the hard things, they will look back with gratefulness at their own misadventures. It may not be grassland campouts and voracious cows, perhaps it will be sketchy border crossings and crabby hedgehogs.
Yes, there is a cost to growing up a MK, but there is also gain. Strange and unexpected gain, but gain nonetheless. I can’t wait to hear the stories they will someday tell.
*When I write I use both the MK and TCK abbreviations. They stand for Missionary Kid and Third-Culture Kid, respectively. Technically, a MK is a type of TCK. TCKs are those who have grown up in a foreign culture different from their parents’. Because of this, they end up developing their own, “third” personal culture. TCKs can also be military kids or the children of other types of expats or migrants. TCKs usually click the best with other TCKs, even if they have grown up in very different parts of the world.