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.

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