Somewhere between the first three to six months of being back in the States, the adventure of moving to a new place and all of the exciting activities that accompany it had drawn to a close. Life began to settle into new patterns and with each day that passed my life began to feel “normal.” Everyone in the family started going to their new schools: elementary for me, a combined middle and high school for my brother and sister and seminary for my parents. The routines of the morning became commonplace again: waking, eating, lunches, backpacks. It was good to be settling into routines again, but that’s not to say it was easy though.
One of the biggest changes was adjusting to living on a missionary budget in the United States, and it meant a lot of belt-tightening including sacrificing the little things. We didn’t buy something we needed unless it was on sale and we got hand me down clothes from friends or from the “missionary barrel” (used clothing from churches). Buying a toy was a special treat on birthdays or as presents from others. Mom clipped coupons and comparison-shopped for supermarket deals. We ate a modest diet of made-from-scratch meals with few snacks, and eating out was a very rare treat, made possible by supporting churches or birthday gifts from family and friends.
These changes illustrate the financial dilemma a missionary family faces when coming home. On the one hand, missionaries need to come home to re-connect with family, visit with their donors or supporting churches, tell about their work, expose their children to their “home” culture and take some time to retrain and regroup. On the other hand, doing so is far costlier than if the family were to have stayed on the mission field. The airline tickets, car, gas, housing, food and activity cost are normally exponentially higher. So while missionaries may have had to come home to help raise their funds for their missions work, the more immediate concern is being able to afford the trip home in itself. To help us through these times, our family was blessed by hundreds of individuals, churches and organizations who gave generously to help us adjust in each new place we settled.
Settling in meant, for me at least, becoming familiar with US churches. The first church we attended was the Pasadena C&MA church. It was very small church with only the pastor’s kids and our family in the children’s department. They were generous to us, but they were also hopeful that we would be active in church and in raising the membership. After a lot of thought and prayer, Mom and Dad decided that what we really needed was a youth group for us kids. After all, we had been without Sunday School, Awana and discipleship opportunities for the past four years. But it was also true that with both Mom and Dad attending seminary and studying late into the night, it was going to be impossible to meet their hopes of growing their church. It made a number of people very upset with us, but we really felt that we needed to change churches. As with many things in missions work, these decisions were tough and often not easily understood by others.
The second church we attended was a thirty-minute drive east of our apartment in Pasadena to the Glendora Alliance Church. Each Sunday morning, we kids would pack into the back seat of our station wagon, my sister sitting on my right, my brotheron the left, and me squeezed in-between. I would stare out the windows and watch the familiar landmarks pass by on the 210 highway: the Santa Anita Park, the Santa Fe Dam, the beer factory with its massive metal silos, and various signs and buildings. My first impression of the Glendora church was that the building size was much smaller than what I was used to in South Korea, as was the congregation. Most of parishioners were older, interspaced with some younger families. This church had an active youth group, and was involved in missions, with several of the families hosting missionaries during their time at home. It did not take long to settle in and feel welcome here.
One would think that the son of two missionaries, a pastor’s child, would be well versed at church, but I was not. Now that the services were in English, my parent’s expectation that I would participate in church activities was greater, but It took me time to learn the words to the often familiar melodies of hymns and the different rhythms of the service. As a first, I was dismissed from the adult service to go to Sunday school, where we would make Bible themed crafts, sing kids worship songs, and listen to stories illustrated with felt and flannel board. When Bible questions would arise, I, the missionary kid, was at a disadvantage. Many of the other kids had attended Sunday school for all of their short lives, supplemented by teachings at home. But I had never regularly attended Sunday school nor did I recall kid-focused Bible lessons at home. Instead, with my brother and sister being at least four years older than I, it was much more common to have discussions about Biblical theology than Bible stories (the why behind the stories). And at the dinner table, I would sit and listen to Mom and Dad’s conversations about worldview, existentialism, contextualization and other concepts that were abstract to a five-year-old. My lack of Bible knowledge was only one example of why I was different than the other kids. Many of the other kids were “classic” American middle class children – born to stay-at-home Moms and having played together since before they could recall. Their social calendars were already filled with school, playdates, sports and activities. Given the distance we lived from church, my parents’ schedule, my siblings’ schedule, and a discrete lack of funds, I knew that it was going to be unlikely I was going to be able to break in and form any significant friendships. Acquaintances yes, friendships no.
Closer by was the school I attended – Jefferson Elementary School. Sandwiched between the busy East Villa Street and the even busier 210 highway, the school was composed of a small collection of buildings to the east with a playground and asphalt play area to the west. Of all of the places God could have chosen to re-integrate a missionary kid back into American life, this proved to be the most helpful. He placed me into a bi-lingual English/Spanish classroom taught by a native German; Mrs. Hagenmeier. I was comforted by the fact that there were other students like me, trying to figure out life in America, albeit confused by the frequent use of Spanish. “I thought you said people spoke English in America,” I said to Mom after the first day. One of my greatest surprises was the support I was given for being left handed in school. In South Korea, as with many other traditional countries, the left hand was used for “dirty tasks” and thus viewed as unclean. Performing most tasks with your left hand was considered impolite and thus my left handedness was often strictly dealt with. Over time, I had learned to be ambidextrous, using my left hand in the safety of my home and using my right hand everywhere else. If I did use my left hand in public, strangers would stop by and tell me to change, scold me or even once, swat the back of my hand. But in my new classroom in the States, being left handed was not just allowed, but accommodated; I was supplied with a left handed desk and a pair of left handed scissors that didn’t dig into my thumb like the “ergonomically designed” right handed scissors did.
In the classroom, there was also a lot of cross-cultural learning to be had: our teacher would tell us stories about her native Germany; we would do work assignments and read books in both English and Spanish; we learned about American holidays and traditions as well as traditions from Mexico. We learned folk dances of old America as well as the Mexican Hat Dance. Every once and awhile, I was asked to share the South Korean perspective on a topic and it all felt like we were learning about culture and tradition together. But for all of benefits, there was still a problem with me fitting in. While everyone got along, there were also the usual cliques. The Mexicans played in one group, the cool kids were in another, the athletic kids in still another and so on. Instead of being part of one particular group, I would drift around between several; more interested in joining in the activity they were doing than being part of their group. I enjoyed swinging on the swingsets seeing how high I could go, how far I could leap forward from the moving swing and flipping off the swing backwards and landing on my feet. I enjoyed playing kickball on the asphalt field or tag. And while I enjoyed my first year at Jefferson Elementary, I don’t remember having any good friends per say. Acquaintances, yes, friendships, no.
It is normally at this point, somewhere in the range of three to six months after settling into a new country, that you begin to take account of the fact that you are a different person than most of these other people. You may look the same, talk the same and interact in the same way as the people around you, but something internally is intrinsically different. Let me be honest. Even as a five-year-old boy returning to America, I could easily see that there were some clear differences between my expectations of Americans and the reality I was facing.
The first struggle I had was with how much stuff Americans had. As we drove through town I would stare out and see houses with garages full of stuff – floor to celling, front to back. When visiting someone’s house, I would be amazed by the variety and quantity of toys and clothes. As I was digging my way through various bins, kids would say “oh wow. I haven’t seen that toy in ages” or would offer to give me a toy that they no longer played with. Other times, the kids would say, “Hey Dad, where is my [ball, bat, item]?” to which the Dad would go into the garage and begin a hunt among the mountains of stuff. “I know it’s in here, but I just don’t remember where” came to be a commonplace theme. For a boy who grew up with a “everything needs to fit in one suitcase” rule, it was overwhelming and honestly, disappointing. Having lived overseas, I had the honest thought about how much food, clothes or husing could have been provided for someone else in need instead of toys that were buried, garages that were full and closets over brimming with unworn clothes. Still, it would have been very rude to share my opinion on their stuff and probably wouldn’t have made any difference even if I did, so I just kept my mouth shut.
The second struggle was with American idealism. Americans (especially during the age of American conservatism) tend to think of most things in a very black and white way. At school you were taught the right and wrong way to do something and the right and wrong way to think about a subject. Listening on the radio to programs like Lou Dobson or Focus on the Family, I got the impression that there was a singular way to be a Christian, to raise a family, to navigate between a good clean Christian life and the ever encroaching sinful societal pressures; and it just so happened that the right way was their way. For better or worse, my parents had the approach of “it he is old enough to ask, he is old enough to answer;” and answer they did. During my three and four-year-old years in South Korea, I had barraged my parents with the ubiquitous “why” stage of childhood. Why are there Americans in South Korea at war with the Koreans in the North? Why are Americans liked and disliked by different people? Why are women and men treated so differently? And after years of honest answers, I was used to understanding the different sides of opposing viewpoints – the grey area in-between the black and white. Returning to first grade in America, I quickly learned that most kids had been raised in a bubble of safety and security. They had not been exposed to different worldviews, poverty, or trials – and were blissfully ignorant of such concerns. During class, when presented with a black or white answer on a topic I knew there was a greater depth to, I would ask a poignant question and often be told to ask the teacher later. During recess and at the end of school, my teacher would often discuss more difficult topics with me, which I was extremely grateful for. The end result was that when it came to discussions, I would prefer to interact with adults rather than with kids my own age. The combination of being observant and inquisitive meant that I had a very different understanding and perspective on most topics – which lead me to often question the idealistic nature of American thinking.
The third struggle was American ignorance about the world – and it came in three parts. First, it did not take me long to realize that the majority of Americans knew little about anything outside of America. When starting a conversation with someone about life overseas, I was normally met with a blank stare and two quick blinks. Second, most Americans were not interested in knowing anything about other countries. Following their blinks, as soon as I started talking about a South Korean perspective on a topic, there was a two to three-minute timespan of nodding and “uh-ha’s” before they start to fidget uncomfortably and look for an excuse to escape. Third, America is better. It didn’t matter that they had no knowledge about life in other countries, because America was better anyway. We had a powerful economy, powerful military and look, a space program. “Any body else got all those?” I pictured a cowboy saying in my head. So as much as I wanted to have a meaningful discussion about my life, there were few interested in listening. Fortunately, there were some people a home, school and church that I could talk to, but apart from a select few the rest were simply not interested.
Because of these major differences, I didn’t have a lot in common with most of the American kids I met. There were no other kids who shared my experiences, let alone anyone who had any interest to hear about my life. This made it very hard to form deep friendships. In South Korea, even friendships among kids would broach more difficult topics like safety, cross-cultural understanding, politics and religion. The shared difficulties and experiences of being children in a strange land formed a tight and deep bond among us – one that is difficult to forge except through hard times. The type of friendship I had with other kids in America seemed so much less potent, almost superficial compared to my other friendships – a pattern that would become even more familiar as I grew up.
Somewhere between three to six months, after searching for the familiar, the common ground between two continents, slowly the thought that “I want to go home” began to creep into my mind. And no matter where home was before, I wanted to return there, to the place that was, to the place that seemed familiar. You begin to feel a tugging on your heart strings for the friendships, food, smells and excitement that characterized life before. Over the years my Mother would talk to me about these feelings in reference to being a TCK. She seemed genuinely concerned about this whole TCK thing, as if it were some sort of disease. But I’ll be honest. I didn’t know what TCK truly meant during my entire time growing up overseas. In fact, it wasn’t until I got ready to go to college that I finally did some research on my own and understood what the fuss was all about. “TCK” is an acronym standing for Third Culture Kid. In Korea, I thought the term didn’t make any sense because I had only been part of two cultures – American and Korean. But the basic concept is that when a kid spends an extended period of time living in more than one culture, they never really fit into either culture, or any culture. Their world becomes a blend of the two, forming an upbringing in an existence of a third culture unique to that child. And it was true. As a white American, I would never and could never become a Korean – my experience would always be different. On the same note, after arriving home to America from living in Korea, I would never be an American again – I was intrinsically different because of how I thought, what I felt and the things that mattered to me. It was only after my own study that I began to understand and connect the difficulties I experienced as a child with being a TCK. I realized that I was not alone, but shared the same experiences- both positive and negative with other TCK’s.
Several months ago I asked my sister to write a piece on her perspective growing up in South Korea. Given that she was four years older and a girl, I was interested in hearing her viewpoint and different experiences. But upon reading it, I decided to make a special place for her story; namely this post. I hope you enjoy and thanks sis!
My memories of Korea are intermittent – a burst here, a burst there. Since I was four when we moved to Korea, many memories remain hazy but when they burst through are full of life and movement and people and smells. These recollections and impressions made me who I am, taking the Korean culture and norms and filling my North American mind until I became a hybrid of the two – a third-culture kid.
I remember packing up to move to Korea; crates being built, things being sold. A stranger showed up and wanted to buy my beloved swing set. I couldn’t watch the transaction happen and sat inside with my back against the door, crying. The next time I looked outside, it was gone. I knew its disappearance signified more than the loss of my favorite pastime; it was the start of a good-bye to everything safe and familiar.
At the airport in Korea there were people to greet us, their faces new and unfamiliar. One of the pastors gave me a stuffed animal that I clutched on the drive to our new home, a home with a metal gate to the driveway, rice paper doors separating rooms, and an ondal floor which gave us warmth in the winter. At the bottom of the drive was a garden; rosebushes and plants encased it to form something almost cave like. I would spend my afternoons there, imagining secret passages to other places and having pretend tea parties with imaginary friends.
There were so many happy moments: sitting on my Dad’s shoulders to watch Haley’s comet streak past; eating roasted chestnuts in the cold winter air, the chalky texture and nutty flavor combining into a wonderful sensory experience ; climbing up to thatch-roofed huts to eat melons on sweltering afternoons in the countryside. We took vacations to the coast where we would swim, read books we borrowed from a small library, and eat fresh plums and corn we purchased from women carrying woven baskets bursting with produce. And we attended church camps where the camp cooks kindly prepared boiled potatoes and rolled them in sugar since they were told Americans primarily ate potatoes and sugar.
I began kindergarten in Korea. My school was a wonderful mix of people and countries and cultural celebrations. I had children in my class from all over the world – embassy staff, business kids, and other missionary kids. Every once in a while, one of them would bring some sort of candy from America and we would all eagerly gather around to try it. American goods were always such a rare, special treat.
I remember the churches – so many churches, with crosses on top of the building that would glow red in the night. At church there was nodding and bowing and sitting and waiting and eating what was given and never wanting to offend by refusing something. I watched my dad preach and my mom sing in front of congregations both big and small. And I remember standing with my friend Young-ju, the way she’d hold my hand and we’d look around at the people praying loudly all around us and smile at each other. And there were sounds of crinkling packaging as people passed snacks forward to my brothers and me during the really long sermons.
These were the happy memories of childhood – calm, wonderful times full of rest and peace and feeling carefree. These are the memories that flow in free and easy, lapping against the shores of my experience, leaving me secure and happy.
And then there are the other memories.
There were the air raid drills, the running to get inside as the siren wailed louder and louder until all fell silent. And there were times the sirens weren’t drills anymore but real, when the defector didn’t wiggle airplane wings soon enough and then my memories become rushing tidal waves and my eyes well up with tears recalling the panic. There was the time my little brother burned his back so badly he was admitted as a civilian emergency to the U.S. Army base and I returned to the quiet house with a neighbor to wash small curls of sloughed-off skin down the drain so my parents wouldn’t have to do it when they returned. And there were student demonstrations at the university with tear gas wafting over the mountain and school cancellations.
At school, there was the character of “Mr. O” – a purple man-shaped piece of plastic who was supposed to help us learn about velocity or directionality or some such thing that was too advanced for my third grade brain. I lived in fear of that class and I worried about being called on and not knowing the answer. This was the year I can look back on as when I permanently stopped raising my hand to volunteer answers in class, worrying still about the shame of getting something wrong.
My memories of Korea – both good and bad – make up my childhood. Korea became my home and the culture of Korea became my own. It meshed and blended with what little I retained of my North American roots, making me much more Korean than American. I cannot separate Korean from who I am, nor would I want to. It was these formative years that gave me a lifelong love of Asia, a worldview that is unique, and all the positives that come with being a third-culture kid. Even today, when I venture into the local Korean store I still feel a tug on my soul; a sense of belonging amongst the aisles of Choco Pies and shrimp chips. A part of me always wants to yell, “I lived in Seoul!” or “I love kimchi!” just so the Koreans around me know why I’m really there – searching for the familiar smells and tastes, searching for my childhood, searching for home.
Thanks for following along! If you want to read other stories as part of this series, a full list can be found here: Child in a Foreign Land. If you are interested in following along, we have links for e-mails, Facebook, WordPress and YouTube on the sidebar of the website. If you want to share a link to this story/video, simply choose one of the buttons below this post.
© Divergent Life Media, LLC