Thursday, April 15, 2010

There's no place like home... but where is it???

           My son asked me recently if after 25 years in Mali, I’m more comfortable here than in the U.S. He was surprised to hear that America is still my comfort zone, for he feels the opposite.

I’ve been thinking about what factors contribute to both our feelings.

For me, the amount of time spent in Mali comprises half my life, but the formative half was spent elsewhere. By the time I moved to Africa, my personality, habits, and worldview were firmly established. Furthermore, it’s not as if I moved to Mali and stayed here. My missionary career has been punctuated by frequent visits back home which has maintained my attachment there and probably compromised my bond with my adopted homeland.

Also, I have lived as an American in West Africa. Although I have contact with Malians every day, I don’t live like they do. If you came into my house, it would be very familiar to you, with running water, flush toilet and the usual kitchen appliances. We have TV and our kids have a Game Cube. We only got regular electricity 11 years ago, but before that we had solar panels and batteries. Should I feel guilty for that? I don’t because in my case it has been the key to my longevity here. I don’t know long I could have stood “roughing it” in a Malian lifestyle. One friend compared this to running a marathon vs. a sprint. The sprinter puts in his all for a short distance and then quits, because he is finished. The long-distance runner must conserve his resources in order to arrive at the Finish Line. Short term workers may “go native” and immerse themselves totally in the culture. It’s harder for career missionaries to do so if they want to last. (I want to note here that I know career missionaries who are much more immersed in the local culture than I am, and I have the utmost admiration for them. I am simply stating my personal limitations.)

For these reasons, I am still much more American than Malian and look forward to retiring in the USA.

Benjamin, on the other hand, says he is much more comfortable in Mali. There are good reasons for this as well: his formative years have been spent here. The USA is a place to visit.  Even though he has lived there a year or more at a time, we have rarely returned to the same home and he never attended the same school a second time until he went to Dakar Academy. No wonder three of my four children have declared their intention to live and work overseas as adults. This is typical of Third Culture Kids.

However, I have to add, with all due respect to Benjamin, that the Mali he relates to is no more the Mali of the Malian people than mine is. He is a true Third Culture Kid, with elements of both American and Malian cultures in his make-up. He is probably more comfortable than I am in a village and he tolerates the heat better, but he grew up in an American home and enjoys all the trappings of our culture as well.
        Having said all that, I haven’t even gone into the whole thing of how MKs can never answer the question, “Where do you come from?” Should they give their passport country or the place they grew up; Mom’s hometown, or Dad’s? Because they have spent so many years at boarding school, my kids aren’t always sure whether to say Mali or Senegal.

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