Outside the big window
There was a buzzing street light
And a dripping AC
And a confident frog
Chirping up in a tree
And there were two little boys playing with toys
And cars driving by
And a jet in the sky
Continued at A Life Overseas . . .
Outside the big window
There was a buzzing street light
And a dripping AC
And a confident frog
Chirping up in a tree
And there were two little boys playing with toys
And cars driving by
And a jet in the sky
Continued at A Life Overseas . . .
Growing up in Taipei didn’t give my daughter much exposure to colleges in the States, so when she got older and came across the WB series Felicity on DVD, she was excited to find a tutorial on the college experience. Since then, she’s become a university student herself and has learned that real college life contains a lot more schoolwork and a lot less draaaaaama than Keri Russell’s version. But Felicity still holds a special place in her DVD collection, and in her Third Culture Kid heart.
When I told my daughter I was reviewing Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang’s solo show about being a TCK, Alien Citizen, and that Lisa had appeared in season two of Felicity, she was impressed.
Yes, Felicity gave Lisa her first TV role, in 2000, but it was far from her last. Since then she’s appeared in a number of television shows, as well as movies and stage productions. Most recently, her TV credits have included Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Schooled, Bob Hearts Abishola, Big Little Lies, and Fresh off the Boat. (Want to see a sampling of her on the small screen? She’s Margo in the Brooklyn Nine-Nine clip at the end of this post.)
As I wrote about in my review, Lisa has a lot of cultures packed into her life. She’s the daughter of an American mother of European descent and a Guatemalan father of Chinese-Spanish descent, and she grew up in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, Morocco, Egypt, and the US.
After watching Lisa in Alien Citizen—and on TV—I wanted to find out how being a TCK affected her development as an actress, so I asked her a few questions. Thanks, Lisa, for the conversation:
In Alien Citizen, you say, “In the theater everybody’s weird. We use our imaginations to create a world that we step into together, kind of like being dropped into one that you have to adapt to.” Tell us what led you to acting and explain more how the stage become a refuge for you as a TCK.
My mom is an actress and had worked both professionally and in community theatre since before I was born, so the smell of theatres and the excitement of the creative process were a “home” to me from a young age. I started acting at school and in community theatre as a kid in Panama, and my love for it only grew as I grew up.
The stage became my refuge as a TCK because it allowed me to express all the facets of my personality, as well as all the facets I dared not explore in real life, without argument. The audience might like or dislike my work, but for two to three hours on stage no one could interrupt me to argue with or dismiss my experience. I wasn’t being a bad guest, nor was I losing the possibility of making or keeping friends, when I portrayed a character on stage . . . even if she was angry or rude or rebellious, or vulnerable or scared. It was a great release.
To quote an essay I wrote for the anthology Writing Out of Limbo, “I also became an actress because the lifestyle bears a resemblance to the TCK lifestyle, with added perks: the immediate family of casts and crews, the insulated world of the play or film, the inherent loss of one another at the end of a project. Actors have no choice but to live in the moment when we are acting, just as we lived in the moment as kids when we experienced a new school, a new airport, a new language for the first time. There was only the here and now, and however frightening it might have been at times, it was also exciting. Based on this, one might expect all actors to have had mobile childhoods. Many have.”
Probably the most famous TCK among actors is Mark Hamill of Star Wars, but there are plenty of others: Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, Kathleen Turner, and many more.
“One might expect all actors to have had mobile childhoods.” I can’t help but think about the converse of this phrase: “One might expect all who have had mobile childhoods to be actors.” How has your experience as a “cultural chameleon,” playing new parts in new locations, influenced your ability to inhabit new characters?
My experience as a TCK gave me extra skill at playing characters with regional and international accents or dialects. I’ve played everything from a Cuban lawyer to a Japanese mother to a French maid to a Cockney convict and more, and I’m very grateful that my upbringing made those roles possible for me to play convincingly. Many were “open casting,” racially speaking (I was an actress of color playing roles originally written as white), so I had to convince the audience with my accent and behavior that the character was embodied in me. I’m proud to say it worked.
Being a TCK also taught me to show automatic respect to cultures of which I’m not a member. So when I’m playing a character from a country I’ve never been to, I avoid stereotypes and do a lot of research on that country and the region the character is from. I look for the recognizable and relatable behavior that will make the role seem true as a human being and as a member of that culture and not a cartoon.
Finally, diving into a new role is very much like moving to a new country: there’s excitement, thrill, terror, and dread . . . all at the same time. With every role, as with every country, like every actor I know, I ask myself, “How am I going to do this?!?”
Your SAG-AFTRA resume says that you can portray 24 ethnicities. That’s quite a range. Can you share about any particular role that stretched you or that taught you something you didn’t know before about a place or culture?
One role that required a lot from me was Matilde in Sarah Ruhl’s wonderful play The Clean House. Matilde is a Brazilian standup comic who has moved to the CT/NY area (I decided it was Fairfield County, CT) and is working as a maid. She hates cleaning and she doesn’t much like the town she’s in, so I deeply understood her. Nevertheless, the role was challenging because I had to learn to speak Portuguese, because Matilde opens the show with a long-form joke in her native language. Since she’s Brazilian, I had to learn a Brazilian accent. I tried for São Paulo and hoped for the best.
I can never fully explain the courage it took to open a show by delivering a long-form joke directly to the audience in a language they and I didn’t speak, while sounding utterly confident and helping them “get” the joke.
My courage as an actor grew a lot during the run of that show.
You act out many characters in Alien Citizen, including your parents. How has creating and performing the play helped you understand what it was like for your mother and father raising TCKs?
Giving myself permission to write about the hard parts of my upbringing, and then include some of them in the final draft, helped me to process those experiences so I could then overwhelmingly see and acknowledge all the good in my TCK life. I had to be honest about the difficulties in my family’s dynamic, and bear witness to some of it in the show, in order to move past that and see how much my parents succeeded as parents and how hard it must have been for them to pick up and move and navigate different cultures over and over while raising two kids. My brother and I knew we were loved, without question, and that’s not always a given in families.
Also, interviewing my folks for a “special feature” in the DVD helped me understand how it was for them. They’re very clear that there was no help or guidance whatsoever from the international schools or my father’s employer regarding the emotional challenges their kids would face. That shocks me to this day. My heart goes out to all the families over decades and centuries who’ve relocated and had to learn how to cope emotionally on their own.
You offer workshops to help others wanting to share their stories in solo shows, personal essays, memoirs, and the like. What would you say to TCKs who would ask, “Why me? Why my story?”
Every human being’s story is part of the great, infinite prism of the human story. We have always relied on stories to help us feel connected, and learn how to behave and how to understand one another. Your story will resonate with people you expect and people you would never expect to relate to any of it. I know this from personal experience.
Ask yourself: What is it costing you not to have your voice, your story, in the world?
And remember: Our stories and our feelings about them matter. Honor them.
Hear the call
Like St. Paul?
Kneel to pray
Lots to say
Change the world
Not quite yet . . .
I’m from the Midwest. Specifically, I’m from Missouri. You may be surprised to know that my state is a rather cosmopolitan place, with towns named Lebanon, Cuba, Mexico, Paris, Amsterdam, and Cairo.
Lisa Liang, on the other hand, is not from Missouri, or anywhere close by. She has lived in Cairo, though. But her Cairo is the really big one in northeastern Egypt, not the really small one northwest of St. Louis. In fact, one of the reasons she created her one-person show, Alien Citizen: An Earth Odyssey, was to answer the question “Are you from the Midwest?” that she’d heard so many times.
So where is Liang from? Um . . . yeah, about that.
Liang is a Third Culture Kid, which she defines early on in her show (standing on a chair and in a teacherly voice) as “someone who has spent a significant part of their childhood outside their passport country or in a culture that is not their parents’ culture and doesn’t have full ownership in any culture.” Third Culture Kids, or TCKs, have a hard time answering “Where are you from?”
She labels this section of her play “t/c/k 101,” and her whole performance is something of a class on what it means to be a global nomad (another term for TCK). But it’s not a dry, pedantic lecture. Maybe that’s because it’s more like the show-and-tell part of school. Stepping off the chair, she literally lets her hair down and acts out her “business brat” life, scene by scene, character by character.
Liang was born in Guatemala, to an American mother of European “hodgepodge” descent and a Guatemalan father of Chinese-Spanish descent, with her father’s job at Xerox taking the family around the world—to Costa Rica, Panama, Morocco, Egypt, and . . . Connecticut. All the while, as she faced the challenges of changing places, cultures, and friends, she was, she says, “trained by all of the adults around me to concentrate on the positives and never complain.” After speaking this line, she quickly slaps her hands over her mouth, something she does many times during the play to show how skilled she became at silencing herself so as not to offend or stand out.
But the younger Liang had reason to voice her concerns, and as we watch Alien Citizen, we become her sounding board. There are the times when she was called names, misunderstood, threatened, and verbally abused. But there are also the positives of living cross-culturally, and she shares those moments as well. Her stories are rich and funny and painful and heartbreaking. And while they’re unique to her, they will resonate with others who understand the significance of such terms as “home base-ish” and “transition fatigue” and “foreign school.”
Foreign schools. International clubs. Places where expats gather. Those are the kinds of places where Liang spent much of her growing-up days overseas and where many of her stories take place. There was the time at the Churchill Club when she had her first kiss. And then there was the time outside the Moroccan American Cultural Center when two young men verbally and physically threaten her and her mother.
Here’s where I need to include a side note. I have the delusion that my blog is followed so closely by some in the cross-cultural community that they would read my review, buy Liang’s DVD, and immediately start playing it for their son or daughter’s TCK sleepover. To them, I say be aware that Liang’s play includes a few occurrences of the F-word (along with some derogatory epithets aimed at her). One instance is when the men outside the cultural center used it to attack Liang—a more extreme example of what she experienced often as a female walking by herself on the sidewalks of Morocco. Another is a time when she used the word herself as years of emotion burst forth in a moment of road rage while driving in the States.
In a Q&A session after one of her performances, an audience member asks what part of her life is the most difficult part to tell in her play. She answers that it is acting out the harassment in Morocco, being afraid that she’d be accused of portraying all Moroccan men, all Muslim men, in a negative way. But, she explains, rather than painting entire groups with a broad brush, she’s simply telling her stories. “I’m saying what happened to me,” she tells the audience. “That’s all I’m saying.”
When Liang came to the States for college, she was again faced with a culture in which she didn’t fit. Many of her classmates wished they were going to other schools instead of Wellesley, but for her, it was her school of choice. And her roommate was a Christian whom she describes as a “fanatic.” She shows us her roommate screaming out her belief that her Jewish ancestors who died in the Holocaust are in hell. “You don’t know how it makes me feel!” she yells. Liang is stunned by the belligerence and self-centeredness she hears—and claps her hands over her mouth again in horror.
Alien Citizen reminds me of Letters Never Sent, written by Ruth Van Reken, TCK expert and co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. In Letters, Van Reken writes to her missionary parents about the difficulties she faced growing up abroad. It is good that Liang has found a way to remove her hands from her mouth and tell her stories. Van Reken agrees. About watching Liang’s play, she writes, “It was profound for all of us . . . brings laughter and tears to anyone who has lived this life or knows others who have. It is a great show, presenting the gifts as well as the challenges.”
In Alien Citizen, Liang gives a vivid, outside-in view of the places where she’s lived, where the mundane becomes exotic and the exotic mundane. There’s drumming on turtle shells during Christmas celebrations in Guatemala, walking barefoot across the road to buy orange Fanta in Panama, wind surfing in Morocco, and riding in a car spinning on the ice in Fairfield County, Connecticut. It’s because she’s given herself “permission to speak of the pain” that she can be grateful for all the wonderful things she’s experienced. And through Alien Citizen, we get to experience it all, too.
Alien Citizen is available for purchase on DVD and for rent in streamable HD. The DVD includes a Q&A with Liang and the director, Sofie Calderon, and interviews with Liang’s brother and parents. There are also institutional DVDs that include a digital study guide with over 35 clips from the film, each followed by questions to promote learning and discussion.
[photo courtesy of HapaLis Prods]
Inspired by Laura Numeroff—
If you send an MK some cookies, she’s going to want to eat a couple.
But first she’ll ask her mom if she can walk down the street to get some apple soda to go with them.
On her way, she’ll see a stationery store.
That will make her think about buying a card to send to you.
In the store she’ll find one that says, “Thanks You! Very! Very!”
Then she’ll decide to make a card herself.
For that she’ll need some glitter, so she’ll ask the clerk (in his language) if he has some “really small colorful things,” while making “sparkly” motions with her hands.
He’ll probably reach under the counter and pull out a bag of marbles.
Finish Reading at A Life Overseas. . . .
There have been a lot of books written about Third Culture Kids but not so many for them, especially for young TCKs. Swirly, written by adult-TCK Sara Saunders and illustrated by Matthew Pierce, helps remedy that. It’s a picture book that tells the story of a little girl, Lila, who moves with her family overseas, returns back to her family’s “home” country, and then lands at another, new, destination, all the while trying to figure out where she belongs.
Since 2012, when Swirly was published, I’ve seen it displayed at conferences and included on TCK reading lists, but it wasn’t until recently that I purchased a copy to read myself. I also shared it with my wife, and she read the last few pages to our college-age daughter, who’d grown up overseas. It brought tears to my wife’s eyes.
I wanted to hear more from Sara, so I contacted her, and she graciously agreed to answer a few questions:
First of all, where are you from? Just kidding! Better question—Where have you lived? Tell us about your cross-cultural experience as a child.
I was born in the United States, which is my passport country and both of my parents’ passport country. We moved to Nigeria when I was almost 8-years old and lived there for ten years. But I was away at boarding school in Kenya most of the time from age 14-18. My parents were missionaries for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, serving in a mission hospital. As a young adult I have also lived and studied or worked in the United States, Thailand, Mexico, Nigeria again, Kenya again, Uganda, and now Lebanon.
Finish reading at A Life Overseas. . . .
When we brought one of our sons back to the States to start college, we heard a presenter at the new-student orientation stressing how we should let go and give our children the space to develop independence. We needed to resist the urge to call the dean after the first failed test, to keep in touch but not hover and interfere—in other words, not to be Helicopter Parents. That wasn’t exactly what we wanted to hear. Since we’d be living on the other side of the globe, we were looking for ways to feel closer, not farther apart.
But we also understood that most other parents weren’t in our situation and that we’d have to figure out, largely on our own, how to be the best Passport Parents we could be.
OK, I made up that parenting style, but I’m not the only one to create a new name for ways to raise children. In fact, we in the US have developed something of a cottage industry for parenting-label creation. It’s gotten so that there are so many classifications that it’s hard to keep them all straight. So, as a public service, I’m going to run through the ones I’ve come across. Most of these are American-made, but I’ve thrown in some cross-cultural examples as well for good measure.
So we’ll start with variations on helicoptering. . . .
While helicopter parents hover and intrude, Attack-Helicopter Parents swoop in ready for a fight when their children are threatened. They’re also known as Blackhawk Parents, Jet Fighter Parents, Stealth Fighter Parents, Stealth Bomber Parents, and Drone Parents—though Drone Parents can also be those who use high-tech to track their children’s every move. Traffic Helicopter Parents keep their distance but give advice when needed, while Satellite Parents don’t hover at all but instead are simply disengaged and uninvolved.
Other countries have their own versions of helicopter styles. In Hong Kong and Japan, in-your-face overly aggressive moms and dads are known as Monster Parents. Mothers in Gangnam, a wealthy district of Seoul, Korea, who micromanage their children’s education have gifted the world with the term Gangnam Moms. Kyoiku Mamas (“Education Moms”) are Japanese mothers who are overly concerned with their children’s academic success, and Pig Moms are wealthy Korean mothers who coddle their children as if they were piglets.
Tiger Mothers certainly don’t coddle their tiger-cub children. Coined by Chinese-American Amy Chua in her 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, this parenting label refers to an Asian style of strict parenting aimed at producing successful children. Not to be outdone, around the same time, Chinese dad Xiao Bayou wrote a book titled Beat Them Into Peking University (the title was later changed to the less threatening So, Brothers and Sisters of Peking University). He and other self-proclaimed Wolf Dads tout an uber-tough brand of raising over achievers. Cat Dads, on the other hand, are Chinese fathers who use a more sensitive, less authoritarian approach to child rearing.
The Singaporean versions of Tiger Moms are are called Lion Mums, which led researchers at Singapore’s Institute of Policy Studies (as reported in The Straits Times) to come up with the term Loving Lion Parents, for those who take a somewhat softer approach, prodding their kids to earn good grades without sacrificing a happy environment.
Recent college-admission scandals in the US have brought attention to the kind of parents who are eager to remove all obstacles and challenges from their children’s paths. They’re called Lawnmower Parents, Bulldozer Parents, Snowplow Parents, or Curling Parents (you know, after the sport where someone sweeps the ice in front of a “stone” to help it reach the target).
Stage Moms push their children to be actors, while Soccer Moms, Hockey Moms, Dance Moms, Cheer Moms, Sports Dads, and Tennis Dads devote time and effort toward their kids’ success in their respective activities.
In the face of all this over parenting, some have chosen to be Free Range Parents, giving freedom to their children to promote independence. This is not to be confused with Jellyfish Parents, who are overly permissive, expecting little from their children. In 2014, Psychiatrist Shimi Kang, born to Indian-immigrant parents in Canada, wrote The Dolphin Way: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Motivated Kids without Turning into a Tiger. She rejects tiger parenting and jellyfish parenting (she created that term) and instead tells moms and dads how to be Dolphin Parents who, she says, are “firm but flexible.”
More animal-inspired parenting options include Hummingbird Parents, who hover farther away, giving freedom, but fly in to help when needed, and Elephant Parents, who nurture and protect, particularly when their children are young.
More examples in the category of over-parenting are Sherpa Parents and Concierge Parents. Sherpa Parents, like Himalayan guides, do the heavy lifting and carry their children’s loads as they scale the mountains of life. And Concierge Parents serve their kids as if they were guests in a hotel. These are the opposite of Couch Potato Parents, who simply yell commands at their youngsters with no involvement or follow-up.
And then there are Facebook Parents, who overshare about their kids online.
Lighthouse Parents (from pediatrician Kenneth Ginsburg, in Raising Kids to Thrive: Balancing Love with Expectations and Protection with Trust) allow their children to explore the seas of life while they stay on the shore, pointing out dangers. Similarly, Submarine Parents stay under the surface but rise up when their children need them. And Duct Tape Parents (from Vicki Hoefle in Duct Tape Parenting: A Less Is More Approach to Raising Respectful, Responsible, and Resilient Kids) step away and keep their mouths closed to teach their young ones how to navigate life on their own.
Finally, I’ll end with mothers and fathers who are Dragon Parents. My first thought was that these were Tiger Parents on steroids, but that’s not it at all. While many of the labels above are used to snarkily point out parental shortcomings, this one has a much more profound message behind it. The name was coined by author Emily Rapp in a 2011 New York Times essay titled “Notes from a Dragon Mom.” She writes about caring for her little boy, Ronan, who had Tay-Sachs, a terminal genetic disorder. She presents a sobering picture:
Ronan won’t prosper or succeed in the way we have come to understand this term in our culture; he will never walk or say “Mama,” and I will never be a tiger mom. The mothers and fathers of terminally ill children are something else entirely. Our goals are simple and terrible: to help our children live with minimal discomfort and maximum dignity. We will not launch our children into a bright and promising future, but see them into early graves. We will prepare to lose them and then, impossibly, to live on after that gutting loss. This requires a new ferocity, a new way of thinking, a new animal. We are dragon parents: fierce and loyal and loving as hell. Our experiences have taught us how to parent for the here and now, for the sake of parenting, for the humanity implicit in the act itself, though this runs counter to traditional wisdom and advice.
Most of us will never need to be Dragon Parents. Instead we’ll be free to choose another model for raising our children. But whatever the path we take, we’ll all do well to learn, along with them, from them, “how to parent for the here and now.”
[photo: “Mother elephant with twins in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, East Africa,” by Diana Robinson, used under a Creative Commons license]
A group of five women, all daughters of missionaries, recently went on NBC’s Today to share their stories of sexual abuse in New Tribes Mission boarding schools. One dorm father, whom the women from Fanda Missionary School in Senegal name as their abuser, left the school in 1988. Another dorm father, named by the women from a school in Aritao, the Philippines, was removed from his position in 1993.
It’s been more than 25 years since the latest of their abuse took place, yet these women are still bringing it up. Why?
In their interview, Today‘s Kate Snow asks the five to pick a word to answer the question “What’s this about for you?”
“Truth,” they say. “Justice.”
When Snow commends them for their strength in speaking up, Kelly Emory, who is not only a victim but also a daughter of the accused abuser at her school, says,
I’m strong for the little girl that was never able to say anything, and I’m strong for her, and I’m a strong woman. And I’ll do my best to protect anybody who sees this and wants to speak out. You can come and talk to me. Come and talk to me. I will protect you.
Another of the group, Jaasiel Mashek, in an article at NBC News, says, “If we don’t speak up, it’s going to keep happening. And we’re going to pass on that mentality of covering it up to the next generation. It’s got to stop.”
That’s why they’re still talking. They don’t want it to happen again. They don’t want the rest of us to forget. They don’t want us to think that silence is a remedy.
After the interview aired, Larry M. Brown, CEO of Ethnos360 (formerly New Tribes Mission) responded with an apology and a thank you, writing,
We wish to express our deepest gratitude to these women who came forward and others who have raised awareness of abuse. It is because of their willingness to share their painful stories that . . . preventative measures have been put in place, and we want to publicly thank them.
I want to thank them, too. I know I still need to hear their voices. Their stories are not new to me, but I’d already swept them to the corners of my memory, stripped of faces and details, kept where I can know that they exist without having to acknowledge them often. But I need to remember, really remember, because otherwise it’s too easy for me to give in to my tendencies to ignore hard things, to avoid confrontation, to give the benefit of the doubt when faced with suspicious activities, to hope that things will take care of themselves, and to protect the mission. In this I’m not alone.
And sadly, children in New Tribes Mission haven’t been the only ones to suffer abuse—sexual, physical, emotional, verbal, or spiritual abuse—from missionaries. In 2008, the production company Good Hard Working People produced the film All God’s Children, focusing on accounts of abuse that took place from 1950-1970 at Mamou Alliance Academy, a Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) boarding school in Guinea. The film is available online in 10 parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10.
In the following video from The Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS—now thirtyone:eight), Wess Stafford, president emeritus of Compassion International, tells of his own experiences as a victim of abuse at Mamou:
Beverly Shellrude Thompson, one of several former Mamou students we hear from in All God’s Children, gives another reason for speaking out, saying that “truth-telling is an integral part of my healing, because as a child I didn’t have a voice.” In 1999, she helped launch MK Safety Net to provide a forum for MKs and TCKs to share their stories, to network, and to learn how to bring their concerns to church/mission leadership. Former Fanda students have contributed to a similar site titled Fanda Eagles.
As part of the process of addressing the problem, New Tribes Mission and C&MA have produced public reports detailing the abuse at Fanda and Mamou and examining how the organizations responded. The investigation of Fanda was conducted by GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment):
Other groups, as well, have created their own reports on the abuse of children on the missions field. These include
In calling attention to this information, I want to make it clear that I am not on a vendetta against missionary boarding schools. I know many fine people who serve overseas in such places, selflessly and righteously watching over and educating the children in their care. But while writing this post gives me pause, I am convinced that these accounts still need to be heard.
I understand that not everyone agrees. “Some,” say the writers of the Presbyterian Church report, “strongly believe that the Church would be better served if those who believe they have been abused or are aware of past abuse would keep such information to themselves.”
They then go on to present and dispute three myths:
The current mission of the church will be hurt by revelations of past abuse on mission fields.
The reputations of former missionaries, current staff, or advocates will be damaged by the investigation of allegations against them.
What is in the past is best left alone.
That is why those five women aren’t staying quiet. It’s because the truth needs to be told, and because these myths aren’t true.
(Kate Snow, et. al., “Ungodly Abuse: The Lasting Torment of the New Tribes Missionary Kids,” NBC News, February 7, 2019; Larry M Brown, “NBC Story Follow-Up,” Ethnos360, November 15, 2019; James Evinger, et. al., Final Report of the Independent Abuse Review Panel Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), PCUSA, October 2010)