By Erin Moore
I’ve been reading about “third culture kids” lately. The term refers to children who are from one culture but are living in a completely different one. It’s not a topic I’ve researched in depth, but lately it has greater meaning for me as my kids are getting a little older.
I was reading some essays by an American woman who grew up in Pakistan. She recalls her earliest memories as a child of about 4. I looked at my own third culture kids in awe. I realize as the mother of these three children, I can understand only a part of how they view and perceive the world as children growing up in rural Ethiopia. I understand it from an adult’s point of view, but it gave me pause reading these articles. I put down the essays, turned to my kids, and asked them what their earliest memories were.
I had forgotten our first seven months downcountry. While we were building a mud house, the four of us lived in a small, mud hut. Aidan was 3 and Gwynie was 1. Aidan turned 4 living in that house. I asked him, “Aidan do you remember that grass hut at all?”
“Yeah, I remember it was really small. There was one-half wall dividing the kitchen and living area. There was one chair (couch) and a small table. At Christmastime our tree sat on a table. I remember we walked to the tin house to sleep at night.”
I had forgotten my husband, Jake, and I were so determined to be out there that the four of us all crowded into a tiny, one-room hut. What were we thinking? And it never occurred to me that Aidan would remember that home. He remembered a time when he was bathing outside in a small tub and a cow came up to drink, paralyzing Aidan with fear. The cow had hot breath and big horns, and the size of its face so close to Aidan scared my 4-year-old.
Then I asked, “When you think of home, what sounds or smells or sights feel like home?”
They told me about the bird they hear only in Ethiopia, especially downcountry. It wakes them up every morning. Its rhythmic hooting can be heard all morning and sometimes in the afternoon. I like it too.
They love the sound of hard rain on a tin roof. They sleep better and feel more secure in their beds.
Gwynie loves the feel of open windows and a breeze on her shoulder. She said the sound of rustling leaves outside is more pleasant than having windows closed.
They love the smell of mud in the rainy season (something I detest), and the smell of fires burning and coffee roasting every day. They love their house being open to the wind, even though dust blows in.
They like bumpy roads and watching movies on their computer. “It feels more normal,” they said.
What doesn’t feel normal about America? I asked.
“It’s strange that the roads are all smooth, and that nobody walks anywhere,” they said. “Yeah, and your feet are almost too clean. At first it’s strange to have feet that are always clean,” Gwynie said.
“I like my feet being dirty,” Aidan said as he looked down at his feet, “that’s how feet should look.” Gwynie said, “People take showers every day, and everyone wants to be clean all the time in America.”
Then Aidan got more serious. “It’s strange to be around people who have so much money all the time. I know there are lots of people in America who are poor, but not like Ethiopia. Ethiopia has more people who have so little.”
“What about Oklahoma?” I asked. “Do you love the horizon driving from Stillwater to Pryor? How flat it is? How you can see everything all around you?”
Aidan studied me and said, “No, that doesn’t matter to me. But I like Oklahoma, because it’s where we have family and friends.”
I realized the flat land and broad open prairie is the only thing I picture when I recall traveling as a child. It says “home” to me, but not to my kids.
I am in awe at my third culture kids. They have traveled on more planes than most people ever will. They’ve said more hellos and good-byes in their 11, 9, and 6 years than most others may say in their lives. They have put up with countless hours on the road, camping, separation, heat, bugs, flat tires, and people staring at them because of the color of their skin or hair or freckles.
Their bathroom is outside; they’ve gone to bed sweating at night with no relief at times; they’ve had rats run straight through their beds; they sleep under mosquito nets.
They’ve walked through a dump where some of humanity’s most desperate live and come back reeking of filth and waste. They’ve also seen some beautiful beaches and amazing views on the Kenyan coast that most will never see.
They are comfortable in a grass hut or a huge mansion. They live in a place where they are the minority. They are happy to play in the dirt with Gumuz kids of a different culture, and they’ve played Xbox with kids of their home culture. Their hearts are always in two places.
I’ve watched my oldest hurt for the loss of leaving a place he loves as he goes to another place he loves, and I’ve wished he could have a piece of both at the same time. My children have so much joy and life and creativity and resilience. I love who they are. And today I thank God he’s writing their story through these experiences.
You Are Amazing
Aidan, Gwyneth, and Shea. You are amazing. You whose favorite bed is one with a mosquito net hanging over it and dirty feet resting at the foot of it. You who have heard languages of tongues that most will never hear. You who have more stamps in your passports from the journey than most will see in all their years. You who know how to stare out at the landscape of an Ethiopian countryside for hours without uttering a word. You who know the sound of hyenas at night and roosters in the morning. You who know the smell of diesel and the fragrance of frangipani, the scent of body odor and smoky huts. You who know the sights of black feet caked with mud and nursing women baring their chests without shame in church. You who know the sounds of a drum for worship and the stamping of feet in the dirt to keep time. You who stole the rolls of injera (flatbread) when you were barely walking and who let the old grannies spit on you or hold you in their arms.
Thank you for letting your dad and me live out this calling we felt before I felt the first kick from Aidan in my womb. Thank you for loving the place to serve and live we’ve found and for rolling with it all, always, always along for the ride.
I think you’ve saved us a time or two with your laughter, wit, humor, and innocence just at the times when we needed it to keep going. Strong. Patient. Resilient. You are true pilgrims, and we love you for walking this journey with us.
Keep telling us your stories, your memories, and how it is to be a child growing up where you are. I am learning from you even more now than perhaps ever before.
Erin Moore is a missionary and mom living in Ethiopia. She and her husband have lived with their children in Ethiopia for almost 10 years. They are sent by Christian Missionary Fellowship.