By Anna McShane, in honor of her grandson — My name is Ethan. I am an American, but I live on the 31st floor in Macau, south China.
From my first breath, my life has been different from most Americans. I was born in Hong Kong, delivered by a British doctor with Cantonese-speaking nurses. The first sounds I heard, beside my parents’ voices, were not all in English. My pediatrician was a Chinese doctor with a yellow bowtie. I looked different from all the other babies in the nursery.
My first foray out into the world to come home from the hospital was not like my cousins’ trips home. Their parents put them in a car seat and buckled them in for a few minutes’ drive.
My trip home took three hours. My parents took me by taxi to the government buildings to get my birth documents. My mom sat in a big mall holding me while my dad fetched the papers. She got more than a few strange looks.
Then, because it was rush hour and the streets were crowded, we took the mass transit under the harbor, changing trains on the way. We shared a train car with several hundred other people. Most of them didn’t look like me, but they didn’t seem to think there was anything odd about me being on that train. We caught a cab on the other side of the harbor; after another trip, we got to our temporary home in Sha Kok Mei. I slept the whole way – what’s the big deal?
After a few more days, we took more taxi rides and a ferry to get to my real home in Macau. By then, I was almost a week old and I had my first passport.
I will grow up looking out these windows at the world below. I’ll look down on people hurrying by and see them as just the tops of umbrellas. I’ll watch the horses on the racetrack and see the clouds sweep in from across the river in China. The window seats will become my first world.
When I learn to walk and climb, mom and dad will think about putting bars on the windows, but because the windows are rarely open, they may not bother. Most of the kids I see in other window seats don’t have bars on their windows.
I’ll learn to listen for the ding of the elevator to know my dad’s coming home. I’ll hear the locks turn in the big, heavy door and he’ll come through, drop his backpack and motorcycle helmet and grab me. That will be great.
When we venture down in the elevator, Mr. Wong will check to see if I am buckled in well to my stroller. If he’s not there, there will be other guards and cleaning ladies to check on me. My parents get watched every time they come and go from this building.
Outside the door there is a huge world of interesting smells. I’ll notice those first. Probably I’ll learn that Maxim’s on the corner smells like fresh bread, and that the different restaurants all have wonderful and amazing odors. I’ll notice quickly that the supermarket and shops are freezing cold with air conditioning, even if the outside is sweaty hot.
There’s a park across the street, just down a block, and I’ll go there for my first playground. Mom will make sure I don’t fall into the lotus pond and I’ll play on the jungle gym with lots of other little tots. We’ll jabber at each other in whatever language we prefer, and we won’t care much that we don’t speak the same language. I’ll be the only one with red hair, likely.
My grandparents will be people I see on a computer most of the time. I’ll learn to know the sound of a Skype or Facetime call coming in and run to the computer to say hi to them. Eventually I will figure out that they really don’t live inside the computer, and sometimes I’ll get to see them face-to-face. But because I’m a 21st Century kid, I will know their faces and voices and see them often. My aunts and uncles too, and my cousins. They won’t just be paper letter people. They will be real TV people.
No matter how long I live in Macau, being born in Asia will shape my life forever. I will hear sounds of many languages and be able to imitate those sounds. When I start to talk, I’ll throw in some very non-English sounds, just for the fun of hearing my mouth make them — and because I won’t know for a while which sounds are really English.
I’ll have loads of honorary aunts and uncles and grandparents and they will all talk to me with different accents, so my English will be interesting. I’ll sound like an Aussie-Kiwi-Amer-Asian.
Later in life, if I’m back in the US and hanging out with friends, I may feel awkward about where I was born and where I grew up. If childhood is like collecting things in a brown bag, the things inside my bag won’t look like what’s in my friends’ bags. If we cross a border, I’ll the one in the car who has to say I was born in Hong Kong, not one of the States. I may find it embarrassing for a while, but in time, I will grow into who I am and it will be my distinctive.
I’ll never be quite all American. I’ll always have corners of my mind that wander the world. My best friends will likely be other kids like me who have been somewhere else, anywhere else. We’ll have sort of a code language that we recognize in each other that stamps us as “been elsewhere.” I’ll be proud of my American passport, but I will be tolerant of differences, too.
Meanwhile, I’ll just hang out on the window seat and watch the world. I can’t see very far yet, but there’s lots of colors and bright sky. Right now it doesn’t matter where I am if I am loved, warm and full.
Focus on third culture kids: As children in many parts of the world return to school, The Missions Blog will spend September exploring the unique ways third culture kids experience this world.
More about third culture kids
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- TCK essay contest winner: ‘I Belong’: After spending most of her life in Macedonia, third culture kid doesn’t feel at home anywhere on Earth — but knows she belongs with God.
- TCK essay contest winner: Leaving & coming home: ‘People change, you change. You are not the same person who left.’
- Pray for missionary children: A daily prayer guide for the little guys on the field.