Four years ago, our children were “littles”; now they’re “bigs”. Four years ago, they were Americas; now they’re third culture kids, both American and Ugandan. They’ve come back to a whole different scene, a whole new world. And they are whole new people as they try to figure it all out.
No where is that more apparent than in school.
Naomi and Quinn’s new school is about perfect for American missionary kids working through repatriation. It’s a small, christian school with a strong family atmosphere and an emphasis on love-centered principled living rather than rules and regulations. The classrooms are relatively low-density (about twenty to twenty five kids to a class) and the teachers are all strong, stable Christians with hearts for ministry and especially missions. Naomi and Quinn are both part of child-directed classrooms where the kids made the rules and agreed on them together and where problem behaviors are dealt with in an atmosphere of healthy conflict-resolution by the kids as a team. It’s people-centric here.
It’s also international. About 1/3 to 1/2 of the school is made up of foreign students whose parents work for the church or are involved in ministry or ministry training. Accents abound. So do cultural twists on the normal. Some children ask to for the “bin”bringing their teacher to a standstill while she tries to understand that they need a trash can. Others ask for “tom – ah – toe sauce” at the lunch table and get annoyed when no one knows to pass the ketchup.
All of this strikes me as the perfect atmosphere for our international children. At least it did until one of my children asks me not to mention Africa around their friends because they ” just wants to be normal.” ” Normal??!!” I think, but instead I ask what they think normal is and get the response, “both of your parents are Americans and you’ve lived in America your whole life.” I manage to do the low-key mom thing and wait a few hours to ask my next question, “how many of the kids in your class are ‘normal’?” Hmmm . . . . .turns out less than half. Which kind of gives question to the term normal but I (wisely, of course) don’t point this out.
It it then that I remember the term I learned long ago in missionary training, “invisible international.” A term which I now see so clearly, perfectly fits my kids. While many in their classes are clearly international, sporting accents and skin colors to prove it; Naomi and Quinn appear American, making them not “international” to their peers. And while others in their school have grown up in stable homes and communities within American culture and have a sense of place and home associated with this culture, our kids do not. They are international but invisibly. This is hard. I thought it would be easier in a place where other cultures are valued, but in some ways it is harder because they are not obviously “cultured”.
I stand by, ache in chest, as I watch Quinn in his third-grade classroom on the first day of school. Children are called to join hands and form a circle. Twenty-two of them do. One, my son, orbits the circle. From outside the classroom I watch, eyes squeezed for him, I watch the consternation on his face, the confusion in his eyes. “How do I join the circle?” I can almost hear him thinking . . . ” do I ask someone? do I just break in??” Quinn begins to understand how the classroom works, but slowly. His little two-student mission school could not prepare him for school here. He misses his old teachers, and the one-on-one atmosphere of mission learning.
Naomi quietly learns the rules of making friends in fifth grade, something more complicated than I knew and than she’s ever experienced. She learns the pecking order and the unspoken social rules. She learns when to speak up and when to keep quiet. She learns how to know which table to sit at in the dining area each day. She tries to find herself. To find how to talk about her joys and interests during class sharing. How can she explain that her heart-sister is a curly-haired, laughing, sickle-celled Kenyan-Ugandan? How can she be real with her old life, where rats and snakes and tarantulas were the worries of her day. Where her body was infested by mango-worms and she cried out to God and was delivered.
I am trying to talk this through with my kids. Trying to help them to bring their African world somewhere into this new world of choir and P.E. and “social agreements”. I’m trying to help them understand their uniqueness, their beauty, the gifts they bring to this often-bland and shallow American culture. It’s hard for them to imagine that people care, that people want to know, that their stories are important, that their photos are beautiful, that the hard-learned gifts of weaving and dancing and climbing and eating and language could be valued here.
And the truth is, I’m not sure of that either. Not sure if who I am will ever fit either. Not sure if I know or like my identity now. Not sure how to be American and African or either. While in Africa we were obviously foreign, always sticking out from the whiteness of our skin, the paleness of our hair; here we are too obviously American. Our hearts are nappy and chocolate in the African way, our souls multi-colored like Uganda’s kitangi cloth . . . . but no one sees that.
Invisibility is supposed to be a super-power. But right now, it doesn’t feel so super.