The Smell

“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.”
Rudyard Kipling

That is so true!

Upon returning to Bolivia after 6 weeks in the States we have been experiencing culture shock. There is no better way to explain it. In fact we were going through a form of culture shock when we were in the States. My kiddos are 9, 7, 5 and 8 months. Five and a half years (straight through) of our lives have been lived in Bolivia. We took one trip back to the States for about a month with all the kids over two years ago. And this spring we were in the States for about a month.

My kids are bi-lingual (Spanish and English). It is so easy for them to flip the switch and speak either language like a native. The Bolivians say that our kids have no accent at all. When you hear them speak English they have no accent at all either. This is the true definition of bi-lingual. My husband and I are English speakers who have learned Spanish. We have an accent when we speak Spanish.

So, I am thinking about the culture. Are my children bi-cultural? I would say that they are. They are exposed to the Bolivian culture on a daily basis. It is unavoidable that they would not adopt this culture due to the choice we have made to live where the people live, rather than on a mission base per se. So Bolivia is one culture that they do know. The second culture that they know is that of a Washington kid, not necessarily of an American. You would assume that the second culture I would mention would be American. But it isn’t. Granted, some of the aspects of the culture of the Washington house overlap with a general American culture. But they live in a way so distinct from those in the United States that their only tie to that great nation is their passport and whatever bit they glean from the fact that their parents are both Americans. It has been intriguing to watch my kids interact with the American culture.

On one of the plane rides back to Bolivia my 7 year old son struck up a conversation with a business man. He said, “Hi! I’m Timothy. We’re the Washington kids and we’re missionaries in Bolivia. What’s your name?” The gentleman grinned and said his name was, “Greg.” Timothy chatted with him during the ride. Then during our layover in Chicago we were hanging out at a terminal munching on a snack. All of a sudden my 5 year old points and says, “Hey, there is Timothy’s friend Greg!”

Some may argue that the American culture is diverse in its very definition. That there is such a wide range and so many intricate details in the culture of the United States it is hard to put your finger on just what it means to be an American. While I can understand (and to a degree agree with) that point of view I would still say that much of what my kids experienced in the States was foreign to them. Because they are so accustomed to managing two languages and two cultures (that of Bolivia and that of our home) they were able to successfully immerse themselves into life in the States. But essentially their experience could be compared to that of someone from United States visiting Australia for an extended vacation. Some things are similar – but the culture is distinct and separate.

We are not your typical anything. We are missionaries. We home school. We are a mixed race family (black and white). We are citizens of the United States. We are residents of Bolivia. What a richly diverse upbringing my kids are getting.

As my children are making observations about the differences between the United States and Bolivia they often ask the question, “Why is it this way?” Thinking I could just get off easy I say, “That is the culture.” Well, you know what the next question is, “What is culture?” How do you explain culture to a child?

… what would you say?

4 thoughts on “The Smell

  1. Wow. What an experience. You are right – your family has quite a unique position. Interestingly enough, my experiences out of country – I always had worse culture shock coming back into the states. We have a caustic culture in some ways.

    But how to explain culture? Wow. I would say it pertains first to how people relate to one another: social structure, expectaions, sense of humor, general world view, family structure. Then there’s occupational and economic influences. Religion will always play a HUGE roll every single one of these, since every religion dictates how people are to relate to one another and what to expect from each other and themselves.

    How to explain it to your kids? I supppose for kids, you could just draw a couple of parallels from examples in one of these areas, show them how they are different from each other, and explain that that is what culture is. Wow. What a topic.

  2. Your children are getting such vibrant life experiences…it’s awesome! How has the transition been for you to be back home now? Hmmmm- explaining cultre to kiddos- that is challenging :) I would say culture is what makes up people’s daily experiences and how those experiences are impacted by where they live/who they live with… Not a perfect definition by any means… but perhaps a starting point!

  3. Your kids truly are blessed! And they are definitely Third Culture Kids (TCKs)…

    “Culture” is hard to define for adults — even moreso for children!

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