Can Betty Crocker and Cheese Pizza Save the World?

How Third Culture Kids can help us bridge the ocean of loneliness

I grew up square in the centre of the continental United States, in a Kansas suburb just west of Kansas City, Missouri. Ours was such a town that you could criss-cross the state line for groceries, for church, for baseball games, for any old thing you liked. The KC metro area is not much bigger than greater Dublin with a population of approximately 2 million, though the amount of land sprawls to include 8,400 square miles.

My part of town was middle class, though we were on the lower end of the middle, living in an old pink house with a disintegrating roof. Now that I think of it, that little suburb called Fairway was not all that different than our Lucan neighbourhood. We had a corner grocer down our road, a local vet, and a retro petrol station with one rotary pump and a garage for car repairs.

And the primary school I attended was not all that different than the Educate Together school my younger two children attend here, as nearly all public schools in the US are state funded and nondenominational.

The only discernible difference in the school my children know and the one I grew up in is easy to spot. It’s in the faces, you see. My school in a Kansas suburb was almost entirely white. The school my children attend in a Dublin suburb is as multi-cultural as you can get.

When this new school was built in our neighbourhood, we prayer-walked the place, wondering if God was asking us to enrol our children in another new school. They’d already moved between states and counties and countries; shouldn’t we just leave them be? We’d no idea what the make-up of the school was, if it was ‘good’ or not. We only knew it was close and seemed to be more like our own public school educations than the religious-based one they were currently receiving (wonderful though it was).

In the end, we enroled, they were accepted, and easily found their place in a rainbow of faces, faiths, and cultures. It didn’t take long for us all to feel extraordinarily lucky to have found it.

It surprises me even now, even still, how children who grow up in a culture outside their parents’ passport cultures somehow, instinctively, just know one another. They flock together, bound by the shared experience of being slightly displaced.

These children – whom we now call Third Culture Kids – don’t exactly belong to their parents’ home culture, and they’re not entirely at home in their current one, either. They are a mixture of the two; a living, breathing third one altogether.

Sure, many of them were born in Ireland, including our youngest. But our children’s friends’ families come from all over, as they so happily informed me at not one, but two birthday parties we threw this month. Eight tiny nationalities were seated around our kitchen table, at one party or the other, pointing with excited fingers to the place on our giant map from whence they came: Russia, Syria, Pakistan, Poland and Chechnya (which took us a surprisingly long time to locate), to name just a few.

As these eight faces crammed around our kitchen table, noisily munching on pizza and cupcakes, half a world away, in my home state of Kansas USA, three men were arrested for plotting to blow up a Mosque and an apartment complex – the home – of Somali immigrants.

I sat at a table with eight immigrant children, including my own, and pondered a world in which they might not be not safe.

Not just a world, my world. My home.

Suddenly the beauty of my Kansas childhood was shattered for me, and the blessed uniqueness of Ireland – a place so many of us have moved to for opportunity or for ministry, or fled to for safety – felt oh, so fragile.

D.L. Mayfield, author of Assimilate or Go Home, wrote about this latest troubling event in America. She comes to it as one who has earned her voice, having spent the last decade living alongside Somali refugees.

In an essay entitled, Apartments of Resistance, she writes:

‘I have never known what is feels like to be acutely aware that it is my people, my culture, that wants to eradicate others. Or maybe, just maybe, I have known. I just never wanted to admit it out loud...

The great wells of cultural isolation, the ocean of loneliness we all swim in—it overwhelms me. So I keep doing the only thing I know how to do: I knock on doors and sit on couches. The apartments of refugees are where I am doing battle for the light. I am fighting for my neighborhood, my community, and ultimately, my country... This is the only strategy I have for these days and times, and in the end I think it is the only one that will work.’

The only thing I know how to do is throw birthday parties for a 10 and 7-year-old. I know how to follow the directions on a box of Betty Crocker cupcakes, how long the icing should sit out to get all nice and gooey. I know to make sure there’s a pepperoni and a cheese pizza for the children who are Muslim.

This is hospitality; at least, it's the only way I know how to do it.

I also know how to show up at the school when they are in need of parental volunteers, which direction to walk after drop-off to have a small conversation or two. I know when to offer prayers for a child who fell in the yard or when to wish someone a happy Eid.

And I know how to commiserate with one who is far from home, whether by force or by choice. I can point out where we all came from on a great big map of the world, and like children, we can swim our way towards each other, bridging an ocean of loneliness.