Many missionaries deal with culture shock by pining for the golden land of the mother country, dreaming of a place that no longer exists. It is a potent mix of nostalgia and present discontent. Back home everyone’s always on time. The lights never go out. The water’s always potable and cold, straight from the faucet. The roads. The police. The cellophaned meats. Back home it’s not rice and beans every meal. Everything’s better and all the food you ever loved as a child is there.
True and real civilization.
When we lived in Nicaragua one of my Dad’s best friends was a salesman. I don’t remember if he sold meat before the ‘79 Revolution or if “the government” decided that his product would be meat. Because he refused to pledge allegiance to anything but Christ, he got poorer and poorer product. We hated his hot dogs. They tasted like rancid fat and sand. Dad, though, would buy them. We would spit them out.
He took us once for supper to The Purple Cow, a diner with coke floats and hot dogs. We were certain it wouldn’t have those nasty red sticks Omar peddled. This was a fancy place. We drank our floats and fidgeted about the booth, talking of nothing but hot dogs. They came. We sniffed. We whined, “Omar.” Eventually, Omar was given only bones to sell. Soon after we left Nicaragua, he found his way to Mexico, crossed the border into the U.S., and worked to bring his family north. Sometime in the mid “80s he was granted amnesty and residency.
Parental memories form so much of a missionary child’s sense of home. This inheritance of myth and nostalgia mixed with growing up in another country explains the dislocation of so many missionary children.
If Dad longed for anything, though, it was Italy. He didn’t share much with us, however. His mother died of cancer while he was in college. Childhood memories were hard. And, though his dad remarried, his mother wasn’t there to pass-on family history, to tell us stories of his childhood. When the family gathered, however, siblings would reminisce. Most had to do with “the family mission,” like how he, his siblings, and his cousins torched a roadside shrine in some northern Italian village, thinking they were advancing the cause of Christ.
Mom hardly ever spoke of her childhood. In part, I suspect this is because she too grew up out of place. Her mother, a Puerto Rican war bride, desperately tried and quite succeeded in raising her two children as anything but Puerto Rican. Dark-eyed, olive-skinned, and black-haired in Texas, she was terrified they might be taken as Mexican. Mom did tell us, though, that her own father had her trained to come on a whistle. And, once my wife and I had kids, she told me she was quite headstrong until three, when her father finally “beat it out of her.” At times I’ve wondered if this is why she doesn’t speak of her childhood. Then again, I’ve never asked.
As children we were not fed a diet of Halcyon days in the U.S.A. Our parents spoke of college in Texas and California and those first years of marriage in Italy. We, too, worked hard to keep our scraps of memory: prancing about a Milan apartment with underwear in our butt-cracks pretending we were Sumo wrestlers while Dad studied, the time it snowed and he made a sled out of cardboard and plastic trash bags and pulled us all the way home from preschool, walking down a street in Milan with Mom on a winter day looking for a lost car that had fallen through a hole in her coat pocket, a woolen rust and brown and beige plaid coat.
Furthermore, Mom had learned to cook in Italy. Home food was always homemade Italian. Also, she dutifully learned a repertoire of national dishes wherever we went. Thus, in Nicaragua our fare was Italian and Nicaraguan; in Costa Rica, Italian, Nicaraguan, and Costa Rican; in the Dominican Republic. Neither our food memories nor our deep family memories ever linked back to the U.S., unless it was a family reunion.
In which case, we were singing about heaven.