Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Somewhere Between

Check out Somewhere Between, and bring it to your town with @TuggInc!

I really, really, really want to see this movie, and furthermore would love to see it with my daughters.  They are also Third Culture Kids, in a way.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Born Under an Assumed Name

How do you talk about a book that is overflowing with "aha" moments?  I read this book twice; once just to absorb it, and the second time armed with a pink highlighter.  Sara Taber's life could have been my life.  In places, it was.  She is able to put into words so many of the confusing, restless feelings that make up my psyche.  I could pick apart the entire book and point out the myriad parts of her life that paralleled mine, but there aren't enough megabytes on Blogger to include them all.

Sara grew up as a Third Culture Kid, the daughter of a CIA covert operative who worked in the guise of an embassy employee during the era of Red China and the Communist Horde.  Sara was born in Japan, but her earliest memories are of Taiwan.  After a brief stay in the U.S., the family moved to Holland.  In high school Sara attended boarding school in Japan while her parents were stationed in Borneo.  She spent her senior year at the American School in Japan.

Like Sara, I was a young girl in Asia (Japan), and lived in Belgium (next to Holland).  We also returned to Asia (Philippines) when I was in high school.  My sisters and I attended the American School in Japan.

Sara describes an incident in Borneo when she and her father trekked three hours into the jungle with a Catholic missionary priest.  They "slathered their legs with insect spray" and trod through the muck, listening to the drone of insects and watching gibbons hanging from a vine.  You can almost feel the oppressive. moist heat, as the jungle became "close and claustrophobic."  I will let her continue the story:

"Finally at the end of three hours, we saw a bright opening in the forest.  All around us was scrub, interspersed with fruit and rubber trees, and vegetable and pepper trees ... Walking ahead we found on the green a tiny hamlet of bamboo huts on stilts, surrounded by palm trees...

"On our approach, we passed a line of six or eight upright stones, animist figures like ancient beings, being licked by some scruffy goats.  I stopped a minute to circle the stones.  The figures seemed open-faced and friendly...

"Up a rude ladder, in one of the houses, a woman in a faded sarong served us tea.  She smiled at me and listened intently to the priest.  A boy led us to the hut on stilts where we'd spend the night.

"My father, [my brother] and I sat with our backs against the bamboo walls while Father Downey read for an hour from the Bible.  As he read on with the drone of an insect, I thought of the collection of small stone figures outside on the pasture.  It seemed so violently wrong to me.  I thought about imposition -- about the priest's imposition of his beliefs on people with their own perfectly serviceable religion.  I thought about missionaries ... how [they] imposed their ways on others with a sense of righteousness.  To a fault, I'd be wary of imposition always -- that of others and my own."

When I was a child, my family always attended the Episcopal church.  I still feel a semblance of "home" whenever I experience communion, hear the familiar hymns and see the brass candlesticks and crosses, with the priest in his gold-stitched cassock.  As most teenagers do, I turned my back on religion when I got to college.  As an adult, I was exposed to several faiths which insisted that they were the only true faith, and I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat when I listened to people mourn for all the poor lost souls in Africa who never heard about Jesus.  I was asked "Why can't you just believe?" and told that my salvation was in question.

Although I never went into the hinterlands of deepest darkest Borneo, like Sara, I did taste, see, hear and feel other religions.  Before entering a Shinto temple, I poured water from the temizu basin with a bamboo ladle over my hands.  I walked up a hill to catch my school bus, alongside a Buddhist temple, listening to the ting of a small bell, signifying wisdom.  I walked, shoeless and quiet into a Muslim mosque.  I never questioned the validity of their religious fervor, never judged them.  If anything, I felt awed by their quiet devotion and understood that there was a place on this earth for us all.  I like to believe that we are all children of the same God, but we call Him (or Her?) by different names and worship Him according to our cultural and historical geographical differences.

Sara Taber validated this feeling I have always had about evangelical religions.  Who are we to impose our beliefs on others who live as far away from our civilization as it is possible to get?  Hasn't their religion serviced them perfectly for thousands of years before we came along?  Look at the enormous feats of architecture (Angkor Wat) and sculpture (Easter Island) and art (the Cathedral of Notre Dame) that men have achieved in the name of their God.

I am reminded of my own father, who, having lived and worked all those years in Asia, developed kind of a Zen outlook on life.  He saw the world practically and realistically, understanding that we are all on this earth together, but in different shapes, sizes, colors and creeds.  He clung to his own Christianity, but had a huge respect for other faiths.  In a men's bible study late in his life, the question was posited:  "Why are you a Christian?"  Several of the men gave their stock answers, serving Christ, spreading the Word, ministering to the poor, etc.  When my dad's turn came around, he replied, simply and earnestly, "Accident of birth."

I can't recommend Sara Taber's book enthusiastically enough.  I have described just one small part of her story, but the book is brimming with many, many others.  I challenge any Third Culture Kid to read "Born Under an Assumed Name" and not find pieces of themselves scattered through the pages.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Third Culture ... Hair?

I have a confession to make.  It’s something I have kept secret for years, although some of my nearest and dearest may know the truth.  I have fought to keep it private, but sometimes the elements around me scream for me to confess, to come out, to make amends in public.  So here and now, I will make it known to the world:  I have curly hair.

My earliest toddler memories are of my sisters calling me “Fizz Head”.  Photos of me show a meringue confection of tow headed curliness swirling around my face.  Waves and ringlets dance chaotic around me, every day looking like I have just rolled out of bed.  When it got long enough, my mom braided it every day; over time I left the house in progressively longer braids, so tight that I felt like my eyes were stretched into slits.  Towards the end of the day, wild tendrils would pop out of the braids, and the ends would swirl into perfect soft-serve Shirley Temple coils.  I had an enormous wardrobe of matching ribbons, grosgrain, satin, yarn, you name it, one for practically each outfit.  On special occasions, would put my braids into loops, and I looked like a hybrid of Heidi and Pippi Longstocking.  

Mommy, Mommy, my braids are too tight!
By the time I was 11, my hair reached below my waist.  I finally convinced mom that it was time to Stop the Braids, and went to the more grown-up ponytails.  At this time, it was the early 1970’s, when long, straight, parted-in-the-middle hair was the style du jour (think Marcia Brady).  My older sister Lisa, also of the curly persuasion, started rolling her hair on huge (empty) orange-juice cans, or wrapping her wet hair around her head, securing it with bobby pins until it dried.  (This was long before the era of the blow dryer).  I tried to emulate her; I was her apprentice, learning her craft.  I don’t think I ever actually ironed my hair, although it was long enough. 

Argh, where's my flatiron?  Oh wait, it hasn't been invented yet!
There was a product on the market in those days called “U.N.C.U.R.L” made by Clairol.  I think I only used it once, and there is a lovely picture of 7th grade me, a new kid at Episcopal High School in Baton Rouge, with long, straight, perfect hair.  But walk out the door on a humid Louisiana morning, and it was curtains (curl-tains?) for me.  The damp air was my enemy.  When we moved to the Philippines, I lived in a humid bubble, always chasing the air conditioning, dreading a rainy day (which was just about every day). 

The fear of curly hair was my nemesis.  At the International School Manila, sitting in the Student Lounge during recess would strike fear in my heart.  It was an outdoor pavilion, and if I was out there for half a minute, it was frizzy mayhem.  I think I volunteered to stay in class to help clean erasers most of the time.  I once had a semester of P.E. first period of the day, and we had swimming!  I think the bandanna became my best friend.  There was that awful day in Singapore (even closer to the equator!) when my mom made me walk to school.  Horrors!

11th grade, Manila.
I missed out on so much.  There were trips to the beach and pool parties with classmates that I skipped.  All because of the damn hair.  It was a curse.  I don’t know if it was because of the taunting and the teasing when I was young (“Fizz Head!”) or my devotion and worship of my sister Lisa.  When she died, perhaps I was continuing her legacy of elegance and straightness.  In a way I was trying to keep her alive in my mind.  Not so much trying to be LIKE her, but to BE her.  She had been ultra-popular in high school, cheerleader and singer.  She used to ride her moped to school in Belgium, her long straightened hair billowing from underneath her helmet.  Crowds of teenagers with guitars used to crowd into our house, motorcycles parked willy-nilly in the driveway.  My dad would tape their jam sessions on his reel-to-reel Aiwa recorder.  My mom would sit amidst them, one of the gang.  I would peep in from behind the door, loving the sounds of the twelve string, and admiring the girls with their long, straight hair.  I wanted to be one of them, but I was relegated to admiring from afar.  I probably got into Lisa’s makeup, again trying to transform myself into what she was.  She was the epitome of cool, and I always fell short of reaching her status.

I was always on the fringes (no pun intended).  My psychotic relationship with my hair kept me always on the outside, like the 12 year old me watching the jam sessions behind the dining room door.  Why couldn’t I just embrace the curls?  I had friends with beautiful curls.  I loved how it looked on them.  I envied their nonchalance.

Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!
When you're the New Kid at school every few years, like most of us of the TCK ilk, it's bad enough when you're just new, not to mention awkward and angly, all knees and elbows.  But to add self-loathing and heightened self consciousness, it is that much harder.  I suppose that if it wasn't my hair it would have been some other minute imperfection that I perceived.  Like a lot of teenagers I would have found myself hideous no matter what.

I think I have finally made peace with my hair, although I recoil at humidity.  I still straighten my hair, despising the process all the while, but hating the alternative more.  Recently I went to bed with wet hair, too exhausted to do anything about it.  When I woke up, I looked like Cosmo Kramer.  Literally.  I am able to laugh at myself now, but I still won’t come out of the curly shell.  I have fantasies about cutting my hair completely short, traveling to the jungles of deepest Borneo and not having to worry about a thing.