“Don’t laugh too much at me!” I have sometimes warned our team overseas, while chuckling with them about yet another piece of American culture I’ve somehow never known until that point. “I am a vision of your children in the future! Teach them well… or else!” At this point our teammates who are parents usually laugh a little less heartily and shoot nervous glances at their kids, knowing that what I am saying is only too true.
When you are raised between two cultures – your parents’ and the foreign country’s where you are living – there are bound to be important things that you miss. Returning to your family’s homeland can be fun, but it’s also always loaded with potentially embarrassing exposure of these inevitable knowledge gaps. A third-culture kid (TCK) must do his best to plug these gaps in ways that lead to as little red-facedness as possible. Learning to laugh at yourself is key, the only real path for survival.
When I was sixteen I believed that spaghetti was grown on large watery farms, similar to rice. Thankfully, this emerged around my family’s dinner table, and not while on a youth group outing on a furlough. As I recall, it took quite some time for my family to convince me that spaghetti was indeed made in factories, and not in some kind of noodle paddy.
Then there was the time as a new college freshman where I ate at a Subway for the first time, freezing like a deer in the headlights when the man behind the counter asked me what kind of bread I wanted for my sandwich. And it wasn’t just the bread, but the meat, the cheese, everything. Even though he was the one who worked at the restaurant, he demanded that I choose item after item for my sandwich. A snickering classmate bailed me out of that one.
Then later in college, I joked around with my fiance’s dad that we might need a shotgun wedding – not actually knowing what a shotgun wedding was for. “What?!” I remember saying, mortified. “That doesn’t just mean like a quick wedding?”
Be kind to those TCKs that you know. It’s a steep learning curve. Culture is usually learned by absorbing it over many years, in a kind of relational osmosis. But when you have been living in another culture, you end up absorbing different things. Sure, those things are very important for that culture, but they don’t always equip you to navigate the cultural waters of the passport country.
To this day, I rely heavily on my patient wife to debrief social situations. “Wait, do we say that in America?” “Do you think I used that phrase right? They looked at me a little funny.” But now that we’ve been seven years overseas – and are now heavily shaped by Central Asian culture – even she’s starting to experience similar dynamics. Admittedly, I don’t always successfully hide my joy at now having a companion in my cultural perplexity.
One more story from college stands out as an illustration how local use of vocab can lead to profound, and humorous, confusion for a TCK who is scrambling to try to figure things out. I offer it as a lesson to all those parents and “aunts and uncles” of TCKs out there. You’ve got quite the job on your hands. To any TCKs out there, may God help you.
For a couple of years I worked doing furniture delivery two days a week. It was a great job for a college student. I could take classes the other three days in the week, and work long days twice a week for good pay.
But it was hard work, arguably the most physically demanding job I’ve ever had. Lugging reclining sofas or king mattresses up multiple stories or jamming them through narrow basement doors is no joke. Most customers failed to measure their door frames and hallways to make sure the new furniture they had bought would actually fit. The two of us manning the delivery truck would do our best to put up with customers’ foibles, but sometimes things would tend to build up.
One day my boss and I were sitting in the truck on a nice suburban street. He was fuming. We had a heavy day of deliveries, all carefully planned out, and the next customer was not home when he said he would be. I could see my boss’s jaw clenching as he sat and stewed, periodically spitting his chewing tobacco juice into a bottle unfortunately placed on the console between us.
At last, the customer’s car pulled up behind us. It was a police car.
“You go out and talk to him,” my boss said, staring straight ahead. “I need a few minutes to cool down.”
“Uh… OK,” I said, putting on my smelly rubber work gloves.
As I stepped down from the cab of the box truck, the customer walked toward me. He was a very tall, well-built, African American man, probably in his forties. He was wearing his police uniform, but even without this, he had a commanding, stern presence. “Like a drill seargant,” I thought to myself.
“Hi!” I ventured, showing some friendliness that I hoped would counteract my boss’s angry words earlier on the phone, “We’ve got your furniture. You can show me where you’d like us to take it.”
The officer did not acknowledge my greeting. Instead, he walked up, put his hands on his hips, and stared down at me. I waited, unsure of what was coming next.
“D’yall have a problem with booties?” he asked.
I stared at the officer, not understanding at all why that particular combination of words had just come out of his mouth.
“Um… sorry… what?” Surely I had misheard something.
“D’yall have a problem with booties?” he asked again, stern and commanding.
I continued staring at him, confused. An internal monologue started running through my brain, flashing through in a matter of seconds. It went something like this,
“Once again, an American has completely ignored giving a greeting, which always throws me off. No matter. Time to figure out what’s going on. What is this? Some kind of attempt to get a laugh? Some weird way to connect? There’s no hint of a smile on the officer’s chiseled face. No, he isn’t joking, unless he has an amazing deadpan. What am I missing? Something inside me is starting to panic. There’s got to be some meaning to his strange question I’m missing. I mean, I know that booty can be used for pirates, and well, for human anatomy, but neither meaning is fitting this context at all. Maybe some kind of cultural reference? American culture? Black culture? Police culture? Furniture delivery culture? Is there even such a thing? You’re running out of time! Oh look. There’s his gun.”
The officer had cocked his head at me now, still staring.
“He’s on to me,” the internal dialogue continued, “He knows I’m a fraud, not really from around here at all. Booties? Why booties? Why now? Someone help! I’m just a kid from Melanesia. How did I end up here, on this suburban street, trapped between this imposing officer and an angry boss, trying to untangle the semantic range of the word booty?”
I simply had nothing to say in return. My brain had run its form and meaning programs through all the archives and had come back with absolutely zero results. So I stood there, mouth half open, having no idea what to do next.
“C’mere,” said the officer in his booming voice, shaking his head at me, and motioning for me to follow him into his garage.
We walked into the garage and he stooped down to pick up a small box. He pulled something out of it. It was some kind of opaque white fabric thing, which he put on one of his hands and stretched open with his fingers.
“Booties. For your feet.” He said to me, measured and slow, as if bearing with a very slow student.
Suddenly it dawned on me. Booties must be some kind of fabric thing you put over your shoes in order to protect the carpet when walking in and out. Booties as in boots! Things for your boots. A rush of relief washed over me. Form and meaning had come together at last.
“Right! Booties. For our feet. Sure. That’s, uh, that’s fine,” I said, trying to smile.
The officer was still looking at me, seeming concerned. Thankfully my boss just then walked into the garage, his face back to a normal shade of pink. He grabbed a pair of booties from the officer, apparently knowing full well what they were, and went inside to see where the furniture was to be placed.
I was left alone in the garage with my thoughts. “Man, how have I never heard about booties? Oh well,” I shrugged, “TCK issues.” And I went to begin unloading the truck.
Photo by Wise Move SA on Unsplash
2 thoughts on “Do I Have a Problem With What Now?”
LOL! Spaghetti, shotgun weddings and booties, oh my!
My first lecture in my very first class freshman year of college was all about the Puritans. It was American Lit. and much of the hour was devoted to breaking up into small groups and discussing what we knew about Puritans. I literally had no idea what Puritans were…
“What are Puritans? Why does everyone else know about this? Am I some sort of idiot? Oh man, I’m going to totally fail college. It really is going to be harder than high school, just like they said…. Ok, so they were some sort of religious people… Pilgrims! I know a few things about them. White collars, tall hats, giant belt buckles, the Mayflower…. I’m totally faking like I got this. Do they know I’m completely guessing here? Is anyone else feeling as lost as I am?”
I walked out of that lecture feeling like I was way in over my head and probably going to flunk out of college. A bit dramatic, but that ended up being one of my harder classes because the teacher had higher standards and grades harder than most. I can laugh at it now, but I wasn’t laughing then.
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Classic TCK bluffing skills right there!