Growing up not in America

A friend asked me: What was it like growing up NOT in America?

I wrote about some of my experiences of growing up outside my passport country. But, what was the experience like? From one perspective it was like the experience of any other child growing up anywhere - it was the life I knew.

I did realize that my primary language was not the first language of the rest of the citizens around me. I knew I looked different: blue eyes, blond hair, and taller at 13 than most Japanese adults. I knew my parents’ jobs were different than that of most people. I knew that my extended family was a long way away. But with living away, I didn’t feel out of place - it was my normal.

 

Context

In fact I did feel out of place when I returned to North America (NA). The people there talked about cultural things I was not familiar with. note Some of these things were uninteresting or seemed trite to me. People didn’t have experience living where I had lived. This difference was much more than if I had just been living in a different part of the same country.

A lot of conversation was about movies and TV shows. I didn’t have context for these conversations, so I didn’t know what they were talking about.

I still don’t watch movies very often these days. However, I try and keep track of the movie stories and actors anyway because they are so much a part of the North American cultural experience.

I suppose all kids experience some alienation from others which they experience as a sense of loneliness. However, some of my most lonely times were when I was in my passport country.

The part that is particularly interesting is that the change from Japan to Brazil felt almost completely natural. I immediately had more in common with my new school classmates in São Paulo than I had with almost anybody from my school in San Jose, California. It did help that there was one kid already there in Brazil that was a friend from years earlier in Japan, but I connected up with the other kids very quickly too.

These days, a person like me is called a Third Culture Kid (TCK), of which Missionary Kid is a subset. I think my experiences have been a great advantage in our globalized world. However, I realize also that I have a job and skills that are valuable in a global world, so that is a place of privilege.

A very key part of success for re-integrating TCKs into their country of citizenship is the family home life. With regard to missionaries, many have strong personalities simply to be able to get in to the work and to sustain themselves in the face of adversities. Sometimes this results in legalistic or authoritarian views or character. Kids in TCK contexts may need love to sustain them possibly more than kids in stable fixed cultural contexts. I have heard some very tough stories about kids that came from parents that were attempting to represent God to the world, but missed representing God's love to their own children - with disasterous results.

My parents were sturdy, but not rigid. My father set the tone for this by living from principles, but with a heart of graciousness. And that made all the difference.

 

I did know I had an interesting life.

Out of Time

There were a number of interesting parts of my experience that I was aware (or became aware) was extraordinary to many people:

  • When I was very very young (~3 years old) we came back from North America by ocean liner boat. My family was traveling with some other missionary families and apparently it took a couple of weeks to make the crossing. I have just a couple of memories that I believe are from that trip. note
  • The next time (~1968) we travelled (back to America) by jet plane. So, even though my family had limited money, I experienced this before most people in the world. note
  • When I was quite young (~1965) I traveled by steam power. Sometimes I would ride with my dad on local-service trains powered at the front by steam engines. note
    • The most significant thing to me was that on the hot summer days we needed to close the window by our seat, otherwise cinders from the engine fire would blow in and get into your eyes. I had a plan to make a periscope with a glass covered opening that I could use to look forward in the direction we were going.
    • Then I noticed that sometimes instead it would be a Diesel at the front of the train. After just a few more months all the steam engines were gone.

    Note that this was in a country that was coming back from the consequences of a lost war, and it was in a rural area on the other side of the island from the Tokyo cultural center.

    In the 5 years from our last trip, air travel had become more cost effective than by boat.

    We did have to stop briefly in Hawaii for refueling because the airplanes of that era did not have the range of the ones made today.

    For example, I remember being in a meeting with other families where they were all listening to a recorded Sunday message. The message was being played on a reel-to-reel tape machine.

    (Note that the memory is related to an interesting machine. :-)

  • When I started school, it was a one-teacher, two-room schoolhouse. note

Other teachers joined as the number of kids grew, but Miss Hunter was an exceptional constant my whole time at our school.

 

There were aspects of schooling that I found tedious and boring. I didn’t like being inside and having to work on book learning when I was young. After I got over the basic literacy hump I liked learning, but found it hard to do the work of learning things I wasn’t interested in. Now that I can choose what learning to pursue, I think I have a lot more fun.

Of course, this aspect of experience, of problems during education, are just part of ordinary human experience of many people. :-)

Japan

Train service was good in Japan. We usually had a family car, but often it was convenient to take the train. I remember that at larger train stations, vendors would walk the platform with trays supported by a strap over their shoulder. They offered a variety of things to eat or drink. You opened your window, got the attention of a vendor walking by and bought what you wanted, setting it on a narrow table against the window. I remember getting hot green tea which was in a clear plastic container that looked like a tea kettle; you poured it from the kettle into a little cup that had been the lid of the container. Quite good.

 

I spent most of my childhood at the campus of a Bible School that was for Japanese young people. The school for the missionary children was also there. For families that lived in cities at a distance, the kids would stay on campus at a hostel and go home on weekends. At first I boarded there with another family to go to school. Then my parents became the hostel parents, so I stayed there all the time.

I started boarding away from home when I was 6 years old. At that time, my family was somewhat distant (a four hour train ride - not cheap), and again, we had little money, so at times I had to stay up to a month away from home. The family I stayed with was a good family, but it wasn’t my family. I think their family style had less physical touch, so I missed the greater closeness in my family. This part was painful.

To get home I took two trains. On the first shorter segment, there were other kids from school that I traveled with. Then, I changed trains and eventually got home after dark. The first couple of times my dad rode the trip out, met me at the changeover stop and we rode back together. He would bring a book and read stories out loud to pass the hours. Then he bought me my first watch so that I could know when my stop was coming up. The next times I did the trip by myself - as a first grader!

This place where I lived was by the ocean (the Japan Sea, a 15 minute walk). There was a road through our property that went up the mountain in our "back yard". There were woods all around, and there were rice paddies that went up the valleys. Even young children could go around just about anywhere because everywhere was safe for them. (Still pretty true for Japan.) For us kids, there were so many interesting places to go and things you could do.

Usually we only went down to the ocean with adults, and we only went farther up the mountain if they knew we were to go there. But otherwise we ran and played in the woods, around the rice paddies, & etc as we liked when we had free time outside. With school, chores, homework, music practice, play and of course sleeping and eating, we had full rich lives.

A village was very close (on the way to the ocean beach). And a city was about 6 km (4 mi) away. My main personal transportation was by foot or bike and I think I may have gone to the city by myself only a couple of times in all the years I was there. Mostly I just stayed around school. When I would go home during boarding times, we would do family stuff on the weekends (including participation at the Japanese church my folks worked with). This meant I didn’t spend much time in Japanese culture on my own.

The really amazing thing to me during the time in Japan was our cabin by Lake Nojiri in the mountains. (See On Being an "MK".) Again, I will mention that my family did not have much money. note But we had a summer cabin in a place that was almost perfect! I was an avid reader and I knew that most people didn’t have such a thing. But I loved my time there and treasured those summers. note

So, Nojiri was a time of vacation. I did not realize that it was more than that until later. What I did notice was that in Brazil we didn’t take vacations. It didn’t matter for a few years, but I remember having a family talk later about that with the result that we took a "stay-cation" that year (~ 3 days). I accepted what we did, but I didn’t understand why things were so different in Brazil.

Nojiri continued to be a ideal in my mind and one day many years later I was talking about it with my dad because I thought it would be cool to have my own cabin. He pointed out that it also was a retreat for the adults from the stress of working in a culture that was so very different. They could be with their peers in an island of culture that was familiar.

Dad’s main point to me was that I was unlikely to re-create my childhood experience, but it allowed me to see why he was motivated to build that cabin and go there in the summers. I realized in Brazil that his situation was different - he was more experienced in this kind of life, and I think the Brazilian culture was a better fit to him. In addition, during the summer he would change up the kind of work he would do. I think this functioned as enough change for him that he did not notice any lack of vacation.

Nojiri, however, was very different for me than it was for him, so I missed it and the experience of being there!

For instance, we were always limited for how much jam we could spread on our bread. I liked sweet stuff on my toast, so I always pushed the limits.

Years later after my mom had retired, I was visiting her and put the jam sparingly on some bread. She told me to put more on and make it taste good! That was a surprise and we laughed together. But in Japan we just had to be careful with what we had.

My mom had trained as a music teacher, and she was a music missionary. She taught music at the schools I went to and she developed us kids into a string trio as part of our family ministry. So we were performing together in churches and other venues in Japan, NA & Brazil.

Brazil

My experience in Brazil was less culturally distant from NA. After a couple of years I had sufficient Portuguese that I traveled in the big city of São Paulo on my own, going to my cello lessons, or buying electronics parts downtown. note

If we had stayed in Japan, I would have gone to school in Tokyo (probably boarding away from home again) and I would have continued learning Japanese to some proficiency. So that part might have been equivalent to my Brazil experience.

Strangely, it doesn’t seem like my experience of being in Brazil brought many things that add differences to my answer about the question. There was continuation of school, music, ministry, family and personal life. I matured into my teen years, so my understanding of things and what I could contribute was improved from before.

It is true that Brazil was a contrast from Japan, but from my perspective it was a continuation of the same. It was cross-cultural, meaning I was always being in a state of learning about a world that I didn’t understand deeply yet. It continued my experience of people that almost always respected that I came from a different cultural context and were gracious to me about goofs that I made.

In fact I would need to use all these same skills to be able to settle down in my life after leaving Brazil. NA was another new culture that I needed to learn and adapt to.

I still feel like I am different than most of the people around me. Sometimes that allows me to connect more easily with people because I know that we have differences, but I also know that we also have more things that connect us than some people realize. Cultural differences are very powerful, but cultural similarities are also powerful.

2021-02-14 updated 2021-08-24   © 2021 Larry Grove