I remember it like it was yesterday. The orange glow reflecting off the horizon out of the airplane window. The oversized ornate book with glossy pages showing geisha girls so refined. My four-year-old legs just barely dangling off the edge of my seat, anxiously twitching in anticipation.
My mother leans over to my seat sounding out the words I couldn’t yet read. “This is mount Fuji…It’s in Japan” she explained. My little eyes beamed over the pages, groggy after a 17-hour flight. “This is where we are going to live.” She explains for the first time that we weren’t going back home. Home was going to mean something different now, something altogether new.
My parents attended language school the first year. They were stationed with two other American couples in an insulated little row of three houses they were owned by the organization they worked for. I met my Japanese nanny, Mrs. Megumi, who would be watching me during the day. She was a kind, gentle spirit with caring eyes who didn’t speak English. I was still mastering my tongue when I was thrown headfirst into Japanese culture.
We took walks every day through the neighborhood together. I would point at something, she would say a word, and I would slaughter it. This was the routine. Her gracious freckly grin would reassure me and then patiently say it again. I’d mutter along for a while till it resembled something close to the word. Her eyes smiled again and I loved her for it.
I went to kindergarten the next year. I would see Mrs. Megumi there at lunchtime since she worked in my school‘s cafeteria. She was always handing out the peanut butter jelly option for the kids who were unsure about the meal. I would get a PB&J every day just to say ‘konichiwah’ and catch a glimpse of those beautifully kind eyes. She would always smile back no matter how busy she was. I learned very quickly however that not everyone was so welcoming of foreigners.
It was about a week after my fifth birthday that five boys from the neighborhood a couple of years older than me noticed me on my skateboard. Initially, they came over seemingly to just poke fun at me, then escalating to surrounding me and getting in my face. The oldest boy doing most of the talking spat on me then sucker-punched me in the stomach pushing me off my skateboard to the ground. The other three kicked me in the stomach and stomped on my hands. Wiping the tears out of my eyes I limped back up to my house to find my mom cooking in the kitchen. She washes the blood off my fingers and wipes the gravel gently out of my cuts. She sighs and looks at me seriously, “Don’t ever let them see you cry.” My mom had grown up in a rough neighborhood.
A third culture kid is someone who grows up as a foreigner in a foreign country. You are not from the culture you grow up in, but you are not really from the culture of your parents either. I wasn’t shaped by the experiences of growing up in America. But I didn’t experience Japan as Japanese either. I went to an international school that was incredibly diverse. Much like an international prep school, you would find in NYC. Kids who went to my school are in a third category; because none of us fit into a nice clean little box.
I grew up with questions like, “Why do we bow, not shake hands? Why do we cover our teeth when we laugh? Why do you not put your chopsticks straight up in your rice?” To me, reality was never a given, and culture was just one way of looking at the world amongst many. When I moved to America I learned to hate the word ‘weird.’ To me, its breadth and commonality signify a ubiquitous and myopic view of the world.
There’s an old saying; “He who only knows London, London never fully knows.” I see that now. I see how the heroes of my childhood were always individuals, and how the villains were collectivists. The heroes saw commonality in diversity, and the villains only saw diversity in commonality. It is as though the heroes knew that we were all made in the image of God and that we get a clearer picture of who he is when we have eyes to see each other in him. They believe in a common thread. That the face of God would be disfigured without all of the different parts. Villains seem to just want to graffiti everything, even the face of God. They never seem to understand that the world they create is monochrome and so up-close that everything is out of focus.
When I read the Bible I see a Jewish man, blue-collar, dark skin, speaking Arabic. I see a culture that is made its way through history bumping into other people, times, and places. I see them coming into who God is making them. I see God using them to make me into someone better. Sometimes the Bible baffles me, offends me, and is hard for me to wrap my mind around. All this friction creating heat, warmth, light, and sometimes even destruction. Sometimes the sun can burn you, but there would be no life without the sun. Help me God to learn to live in the orbit of your glorious truth. Help me to learn to love all the contours, lines, and colors of your kind gracious eyes.