I distinctly remember the first time I was ashamed to be labeled an American. My mother, sister and I were treating ourselves to pedicures in the capital of Uganda, as was our tradition when we made the 9-hour drive to civilization from the African bush. The three of us took our seats in the lush spa chairs and relished the luxury of finally having our dust-caked feet made pretty again. We chatted quietly with each other while the three Ugandan nail technicians scrubbed our calloused soles.
Suddenly two white women thundered into the salon, their nasal bellows making their presence explicitly known. “Oh, my God,” one said to the other. “I’ve never woken up with so many mosquito bites in my LIFE. They told me the nets were supposed to keep those little devils away from me. I’m complaining to the hotel manager when we get back.” Their floor-length skirts, bulging backpacks and the paper-bead necklaces hanging down their fronts immediately labeled them as tourists. I watched the Ugandan women scrubbing our toes pause their work and exchange mildly annoyed looks.
The woman working on the particular challenge of my feet glanced at me and asked, “Where are you from?”
“I was born in the US,” I replied casually.
She stopped her vigorous scrubbing and looked me full in the face. “Really?”
I was confused by her reaction. “Yes, why?”
She shook her head and went back to scrubbing. “You’re not loud enough to be from the US.”
I eyed the boisterous women who had taken the seats next to mine and suddenly wanted to be as far removed from them as possible. I am NOT anything like that, I told myself. It was in that moment that I realized, if people like this represent my “home” country to the world, then I don’t want anything to do with them. Or my home country.
I started noticing other things that my African friends thought of American culture, and their harsh opinions molded my own. Americans are mean. They don’t value relationships like we do. They’re ethno/egocentric and come onto our turf with a god complex, thinking they have all the answers just because they have all the money. I started seeing these negative traits in my own people more clearly than I ever had before, not only when short-term mission teams stumbled onto African soil, but every time I logged onto social media, as well. With the seed of bitterness taking root in my heart, I stopped calling them “my people.”
So, imagine my disdain the day I stepped off the plane and was smacked in the face with two things: a wall of muggy Midwestern air, and the knowledge that there was no going back to the semi-arid African heat that had become my safe haven. I was here for good.
That seed of bitterness that was planted halfway across the world took root and sprouted leaves as I outwardly expressed my joy at being “home” to my friends and extended family, but inwardly I seethed, refusing to claim this place as my own. I had mixed a cocktail of homesickness and jade for myself, and I sipped on it for the next year and a half. I sipped and sipped until, eventually, I was drunk off my own bitterness.
As TCKs, I’ve found that we all have a bit of an aversion to our passport cultures. It was easy for me to commiserate with my siblings and my other internationally-raised friends, but eventually these conversations became toxic to my soul. Others’ small frustrations with American culture fueled my fire. I’d sip on my tonic of bitterness and feel justified because, “Hey, other people feel this too!” But really, I was just tearing down my own country in the name of tolerance and acceptance of other cultures. (Oh, how oxymoronic!)
I couldn’t tell you exactly when it happened, but there came a time when I realized that I would never treat another culture the way I treat my own. I am mean. I am narrow-minded and prejudiced and contemptuous toward the country that will forever be printed on the cover of my passport. I will forever be Rylee Beck, born: 11/12/97, nationality: USA. Regardless of the experiences I’ve had and the countries that feel more like home than this one, I am still inextricably tethered to America. And I have a choice: I can continue sipping on my cocktail of discontentment and contempt, or I can learn to love America in all of its brokenness.
I’m learning that one must see their home culture for what it really is. It’s easy to recognize the flaws and ways that your country of origin falls short; but, like the foreign countries we’ve all grown up experiencing and learning to love, our passport country is uniquely its own. It has its own things to offer and insights to provide. It has the good and the bad. In my last two years being planted in Southwest Missouri, I’ve learned that this place has its ugly parts. But it also has its own sort of humble, simple, surprising beauty. I read somewhere that true love is knowing and seeing someone for who they really are—flaws, shortcomings, sin and all—and still choosing to accepting them. I guess you could say that I’m learning to fall in love with my passport culture.