Ramblings of a third culture kid

Although for the longest time I didn’t think it was true, I finally realized how much being a third culture kid has shaped my life. What is a third culture kid? it is someone who grows up in another place where their parent’s culture is not their own, and neither is the culture they grew up in, so they have a third culture that is none of the above. It is fascinating to look at the studies and statistics that have been done on third culture kids–see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_culture_kid . It has been the hardest thing for me, and yet it has had the most influence on my life and has motivated me to do things that I never might have done.

Village houses

Growing up in Papua New Guinea was a mostly idyllic, fun, adventurous childhood. But it could not last–not at least without forsaking my parents culture–because it was an ancient (some may say primitive) way of life, that was so different! And so then we went to boarding school, an expat culture of its own, a western bubble in the New Guinea highlands. That life was exciting and new–it was “big city life” that was both intimidating and filled with more things to do–high school, sports, shopping, dating, making money for our class outings, and a social life more compatible with my parents culture. It was also filled with good-byes, transient people, coming and going, and brought a lot of pain and upheaval to life. Finally there was leaving, going to live permanently in the United States, a culture that was the most foreign and different and intimidating for me.

I felt like I was being torn in half when the time came to move. I had just graduated high school and all my best friends were in PNG. The people in the village where I grew up had become like family to me, and I loved our house, the simple life, the culture, the familiarity of a childhood home.  I wanted to stay here so badly, but it was part of the expected life–to go back and join your parents culture, the culture of your skin color, your “real” place. Sometimes life just moves you in the way that it you think you have to go, as if there are no other options, like the current of a river, and you flow with it. Looking back now, from the place I am in, I realize I could have made my life there, just in the same way I made it here. But would it have been any better? Who is to say? … In any case, here I am now, between two worlds.

The journey to here was rough. I remember when I first stepped off the plane, my lovely oldest sister had moved to the US and had been here for 2 years now. After the grief and hardships of making it here on her own, she was so excited to see her family again. She greeted us with flowers, cards and bubbling over excitement. I was so excited to see her too; she was the only thing I wanted to see. Everything else was overwhelming–the big glass windows, computer screens everywhere, bustling people, ginormous modern building of the Twin Cities Airport. I dissolved into a pool of tears. Overwhelmed, sad, missing home, my family and friends, terrified by a new land that I knew almost nothing about, not really wanting to move, but feeling like I had to. It was too much.

My first months were of learning and being incredibly homesick. I learned how to drive, how to pump gas, what a credit card was, how to interview to get a job. There was so much!!!! I can relate so well to The Gods Must Be Crazy, when they describe the differences between the Bushman’s lifestyle and the American lifestyle–that we have so many new inventions that we need signs to tell us how to get around and what to do and instructions on all our newfangled inventions and in a concrete jungle! It was confusion, grief, maladaption for a long time. I hated it here. I hated Minnesota and the long winters, the bustling lifestyle of madness, the disconnection of people, the very different culture. My sister helped me see the beauty in the small things, but I was stubborn and chose not to see it with acceptance and love. I missed PNG so much and I just wanted to leave.

I became a silent observer–I didn’t know anything here! My new friends at work would be talking about music, bands, movies, TV shows and I didn’t know what they were referring to. I couldn’t join the conversation and I felt so out of place…they thought I was weird. To most people I looked like I belong here–I could speak American English and I’m the product of 2 Caucasian Minnesotans. I learned later that I was what is called a “hidden immigrant” where there are no cues–such as skin color or accent to let people know that you are a foreigner and to allow them to give you grace to not know what’s going on. I would get laughed at a lot for not knowing things. I would try not to speak up or get called on, because I rarely knew the answer. I didn’t know anything about college–my parents never went, and I had no idea how to even start going to college. My friends at work started to suggest it, telling me that “that’s what everybody does here!” So eventually I decided to try it out. I was terrified of starting–I started at Anoka Ramsey Community College, which the kids there called “13th grade” since most of them finished high school there and went on to the next year together. I had no idea what a credit or a major or a degree meant. I had no idea how to sign up for classes or what anything meant. The advisors were taken aback by me…I’m sure they thought I was a special needs kid. :) But eventually I started figuring it out. I even played volleyball for one semester. But that was another culture shock, and I had no idea how to fit in with the girls on the team. I couldn’t contribute much to conversation about pop culture, TV shows, jewelry, big houses, boyfriends and sex. They thought I was weird, and I suppose I was…

I would spend a lot of my time reading National Geographic, playing guitar, going to the Science Museum, and then I dropped out of college and decided to travel around the world—because why not?! There is so much to see on this great planet! I first went back to PNG, because I was so, so , so homesick!

This was probably the best decision I ever made and it gave me a new perspective on things. While traveling it made me realize that the world is such a bigger place than my bubble in Minnesota and that so much of what I feel stupid about there isn’t necessarily so. After returning to the US, I went again to community college–this time it was Minneapolis Community College, filled with immigrants, older students, interesting people who had done all kinds of things with their lives, I felt that I found my place, and I fit in. I transferred to the University of Minnesota finished my degree, then applied for medical school. I went to Loyola School of Medicine in Chicago. It was during this time that I decided to read the book “Third Culture Kids~ Growing Up Among Worlds”. I felt that I had found my place in the world, I had become successful and was more or less now able to fit in. But when I read the book, I sobbed through chapter after chapter. Realizing how much I had buried, or had felt without ever giving voice to those feelings. The shared experiences, the understanding, the community of people in the same situation was so refreshing! It made me feel alive, it gave validity to my struggles, it made me feel normal (at least in some circles) again. Although I would never have admitted it before, it was so needed. There is so much that I’ve learned from it, and I am glad to be aware.

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from third culture kid to doctor

In a very small village, nestled in the endless tropical rainforest on the island of Papua New Guinea is where I grew up. I remember the hot, humid days, every day the same length, growing up with a people group that were living the same way they had been for thousands of years.

River boat

Only transportation from the village

In many ways we were outsiders, the “white kids”, with clothes, and a different lifestyle, but in many ways we were the same–just kids, people, who all wanted the same things: to be loved, accepted, respected, listened to, trusted and understood. We lived in thatched hut on stilts–the same as every kid in the village–but our house was a little different. It had screens on the window, parts of it were sawn timber–the kitchen floor, the doors (which had locks) and later the whole floor and siding. I liked it better when it had palm branch siding and limbum (the bark of palm trees) flooring. It was very uneven, hard to keep clean, and it would disintegrate faster–and bugs would eat into it, but it was like everybody else’s house in the village, made right from the jungle–with no other machinery and equipment to make it. Most houses there last ~5 years, and then people build another one.

Rain on the tin roof
I used to love the sound of the rain on the roof. Hard rains, rains threatening to wash everything away with it. And the thunder that rolled on and on over the river valley below and the mountains around. The tropical monsoons would come during rainy season and they would usually blow in from the north or the south. My bedroom window was on the north side and I would always see the big dipper out my big screen bedroom window–upside down over the horizon, like it was about to scoop up the big umbrella trees. And on the nights when it rained, there were no stars, and the cool winds would blow over my face. I would shiver and pull up the sheet up to my neck. But then the sprinkle would blow in, felt like cool rain-kisses, I would get excited and feel cozy, and then I could hear the hard rain coming louder and louder and soon I was in a shower in my bed. My parents would come in and get us to move us out into the living room for the night. They would roll up our mattresses and cover the tiny dressers with a tarp. And we would fall asleep to the soothing sound of pounding rain on the roof.

Village Clinic

I remember mom would hold a medical clinic every day, treating people for malaria (the most common killer), tuberculosis, skin diseases like ringworm, ulcers–that had festered so long they would often be eating into the bone, abscesses and other crazy infectious diseases and environmental hazards like people who had been gored by wild bore pigs, and sewing up a cut in my dad’s head when he gashed it open. She organized vaccination campaigns and continually worked to expand her medically knowledge. Not formally trained, she would often use the book “Where There Is No Doctor” and consult the Radio Doctor who was available twice a week. It was fun to help her in the clinic, to bandage wounds, to feed malnourished babies with failure to thrive, to paint gentian violet on people’s bodies covered in ringworm. It was from these experiences that kindness, compassion and community involvement were instilled into my siblings and I.

The family

I had the best  siblings–2 sisters and a brother (poor guy!). We had so much fun growing up together in this beautiful, lush paradise. Since 3 of us were born there, and my oldest sister was 1 year when she moved, it was all we knew. It was completely normal and even though we had glimpses of insight into our different lives, it was home, it was where we belonged and the people in the village became our family and friends. We loved to go down to the village and sit and talk with our friends, gathering mushrooms and greens from the jungle floor, or celebrating the bird or wild pig from the successful hunt of the day. We played countless games together, swimming in the river, throwing in boulders that we would dive down to find. We played under-water tag, follow the leader and had mud fights. We made mud-slides and played king of the log on our favorite log that stuck up from the bottom of the river seemingly since the beginning of time. We played all kinds of crazy made up games. The kinds that kids play when there is no tv, no video games, no Toys R Us stores, and we had virtually no toys. it forced to interact and be creative, which is something that I miss now.


I miss how simple life was, how slow and lazy the days were, how green and life-filled, how connected people were with the natural world around them. I miss the rain forest and the rain, the simple people who lived completely sustainably, whose lives left a minimal impact on the earth. I don’t miss the nights of hearing the women wailing–loudly, their cries filled with sorrow and pain and haunting–for their loved ones who had died or who were on the brink of death. Sickness and death are not strangers to the people here. Death happens in PNG frequently–the infant mortality rate in the village was 7/10, the life expectancy was ~ 45 years in the village. And it was raw, natural, naked, without make up, hairstyles, coffins and flowers–equally painful, but more accepted and allowed. I don’t miss seeing babies die from preventable diseases–I saw my sister’s namesake Sonia, die from meningitis, and the chief’s son Awadi, die from cerebral malaria. The pain, the suffering, the sorrow–that could be prevented–is too much to watch without being moved by a visceral response to do something.

Journey to becoming a doctor

And that–along with witnessing the need for healthcare and education all over the world–is what motivated me to eventually become a doctor. Since I was young, I knew I wanted to help people, but I wasn’t sure how (I had never really been exposed to any doctors). But then after traveling and working in a clinic, I was inspired by a doctor that I worked with and realized how much one person could do with such a skill set, and here I am today–after a grueling, long journey through college and medical school, and now completing my first year of residency–I am so much closer to be able to return and give back to the communities who have nothing, and who have given me so much. There are so many more stories and people who inspired, moved, helped and generously opened their lives up to me along the way. And those must wait for other posts…that I can’t wait to write! :)

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Island life in the city

An oasis ~or mirage?~ of island life in the city
Yesterday I was walking down the sidewalk in Denver and I saw two people sitting on the grass beside the sidewalk under a city tree. They were African American, a man with big glasses and a woman in a long skirt, and the man was cutting cloth with a pair of scissors, crafting something. They had no particular place to go, nothing pressing to do, just sitting out in no-man’s-land under a tree by the road—not in a personal yard or a park (the places where people usually sit under a tree). They looked so out of place here and for an instant I felt like I was in Papua New Guinea. A rush of longing and nostalgia overwhelmed me. They evoked a familiar sense of island life, slow, calm, relaxed, simple, where nobody really owns the property, because it is essentially shared. People find the shade and sit where they want or need and in most places there are no property lines, designated places, and sitting by the road is common. For a moment I had a strong urge to sit down with them and just be. And share with them, hear their stories. It seemed like a promise to take me back “home” where life is easy-paced and lilting like the winds dancing on the water in the harbor at Wewak. Strangely, quickly I pulled myself out of this faraway place and back into reality. I talked myself out of sitting down with them. Instead I smiled and said hi and kept on walking by. I wish I would have sat with them. Maybe they were homeless drifters, or maybe they were angels to give me a moment of familiarity and to open my heart a little, maybe they were immigrants from a village who never quite made it in this hard life.

In place…50 years ago
In a similar vein of thought, on my way back from the airport I saw a man walking through a field dwarfed by high-rise office complexes, carrying a backpack. He looked completely out of place as cars rushed by him on the highway and around the complexes, and yet in other places else in the world, or even just in our history a few decades ago, he might have looked completely in place, traipsing over the wild west, looking for a new life or hunting… or just a human at home on this planet.

Who is in place in this American dream? Who is out of place?Who is crazy and what is success?


Life out of balance
This thought train brought me to Koyaanisqatsi (which in the Hopi language means “crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living” and Powaqqatsi (which means parasitic way of life, or life in transition). This was part way through medical school (which was a culture shock all on its own). During this documentary I was struck by the fact that I wasn’t the only one who felt like life here is a little crazy. I find myself constantly trying to fit in, adapt and learn, and look like I belong, and all the while feeling out of sorts with the rat race that I am trying to run. It was refreshing to realize that I wasn’t the only one who was impacted by this society…that someone had made a video of it, because they saw it from a different point of view.

Finding peace
I felt two things today–the first is that I want to go back to somewhere that I’ve lost, to find peace and solace, to live simply and in more harmony with what is around me. But maybe I can find that here, now, in this life that I am in. Maybe next time I will sit under a tree and take the time to just be and soak in what is. Somehow in this rat race, I want to learn how to step off the track and bring back the essence of island life.

“Don’t just live the life you’ve been given, make the life you want.” ~Anonymous

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