Scalpel's Edge

A surgeon's notes

Third culture


There’s no doubt that living in a foreign culture has been an amazing experience for my children, but it comes with challenges as well.

My kids can’t wait to return to Australia because they remember – a bath in more than a bucket, drinking water directly from the tap, more than one bathroom in the house, glazed doughnuts, and MacDonalds hamburgers.  However, I can also imagine the things they have forgotten – carpet, and central heating, warm water from any tap.  There must be a thousand things that they have forgotten about Australia in two years, things that won’t seem strange to Luke and I, but which might be exciting discoveries for the kids.

Mission literature (which I never knew existed) talks about “third culture kids”.  This is the concept that kids that grow up in missions end up with a mixed culture.  In our example, they are not Nepali, but they are also not fully Australian.  They are, to some degree, outsiders in both worlds.  They live for this time in a third culture – that of the expatriate. I think this holds true to a degree, and I can imagine even more so for longer term missionaries.  

My kids know Nepali kids and can be polite to them, and, to a degree, culturally appropriate.  But they will always be the foreigners – often photographed against their wishes, and mobbed by nepalis in a crowd.  And I imagine when they return to Australia, they will not automatically fit in.  They will be the kids who went to a tiny composite school, and who eat weird food, and talk frankly about patients who die, and know what poverty looks like.  On balance, though, after just two years overseas, I imagine my children will return to feeling at home in Australia, even if it takes them some time.

I know people here whose children grew up for most of their childhoods in Nepal and I  have heard them talk about the loss of homeland.  These kids have no “where I grew up”.  I know friends whose children have returned to “their” country with only memories of Nepal, and the struggle to deal with the foreignness of “home”.

It occurred to me recently that maybe mission adults live like this, too.  We had friends visit this week who once lived here for two and a half years. I get the impression that they are no longer fully american.  They feel comfortable in their home country, but at least part of their home is still here.  

As we prepare to leave, it becomes clear that leaving is more complicated than arriving.  My husbands plans change regularly, but he feels he will always be tied to this country and town.  His wishes and dreams are more here than at home, at least for now.  My surgical heart is wearied by working in this foreign place, and I need to return for a breath of familiarity.  But I recognize now that surgery in Australia will be anticlimax, and maybe loss. My initial excitement when I arrived in Nepal about grass roots diagnosis and treatment will be balanced on my return.

There is no doubt that I miss Australia, and it will be a relief to read cultural cues without stumbling.  However, I can’t ignore what I see on the face of all those who return to visit.  The memory, the homecoming, and the inner fracture.  Living overseas, even in a crazily foreign culture, is different to visiting.

If we have a signal inside our heart that always points home, what does it mean, when your signal points to two different places, even if just a little?

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