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FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD: Ruth Van Reken’s creative life as Adult Third Culture Kid


Columnist Doreen Brett is back, and she’s accompanied by someone whose “homes” have ranged from Africa to the American Midwest, and who knows better than any of us here what it means to feel culturally displaced. Hm, who else could it be other than the indomitable Ruth Van Reken? —ML Awanohara

Hello Displaced Nationers! It is my pleasure to present to you Ruth Van Reken, an expert in cross-cultural identity and globally mobile families. She is renowned internationally for her compassion, knowledge and insight into what it means to be a child growing up among worlds, otherwise known as a Third Culture Kid.

An American, Ruth was born in Kano, Nigeria, to missionary parents. Although her mom was raised in Chicago, being a TCK is a tradition on the paternal side of her family: her father, too, was a TCK (he was born in Rasht, Iran, then known as Persia, where his parents lived). It’s a tradition Ruth has continued: both her children and first grandchild are TCKs.

Among her many accomplishments, Ruth is co-founder and past chairperson of Families in Global Transition (FIGT), a forum for globally mobile individuals, families, and those working with them, the signature event being an annual conference. She is also the co-author, with David Pollock, of the now-classic Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, soon to be out in its third edition.

Ruth often speaks about issues related to the global lifestyle and has developed the website Cross Cultural Kids as a hub for children of refugees, immigrants, minorities, career expatriates, mixed race, and bicultural families. The way she sees it, not just TCKs but all children who have experienced a globalized upbringing or some form of displacement from their parents’ home/culture are forming a “new normal” in today’s globalizing world.

Now let’s hear about Ruth’s own experiences of living in various locations abroad—and how those locations have fed her creative life.

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Ruth, I understand you’ve just celebrated your 72nd birthday. Happy birthday! And welcome to the Displaced Nation. As I mentioned just now, you were born and grew up in Nigeria. What I didn’t mention is that you lived in Liberia and Kenya as an adult, with your husband and family. How did you come to spend so much of your life in Africa?

Spending 13 years of my childhood in Nigeria was the result of my parents deciding to accept a teaching job in that country. Later, when I got married, my husband and I chose to live and work in Liberia—he as a pediatrician, and me as a nurse. It didn’t go quite to plan. I didn’t end up doing nursing because they were trying to use Liberians for nursing, and we couldn’t get visas to visit my parents in Nigeria even though I had grown up there and loved the country. It was postwar, and all the Nigerians cared about is that I had an American passport. When I finally got to visit my parents, it was a journey of clarification for me. Nigeria wasn’t my world. There had been big changes politically. There were soldiers in the airport. I still really loved the country but could see it wasn’t mine. Later we moved to Kenya.

Would you say it’s normal to live in this way?

For some of us, for whom the seeds are planted early, it’s normal to live like this. Some may think that it’s radical, or how would you dare. But for me it’s the way life is, and it’s good. My hardest move was from Kenya to my current home of Indianapolis, when I thought my travels are over! I’ve come to enjoy where I live right now, but at the time, I thought the international lifestyle was missing. Everybody’s lived here forever and is the same.

How did you keep from feeling isolated through your many moves?

Feeling isolated? I’m an EE (Extreme Extrovert)! There are always people, as long as you don’t demand that they have to be just like you. My hobby is that I like to talk, and I also like to go out, even if it’s to shop for groceries in a little mud hut someplace. So I never felt isolated. Africa is a very social environment. It’s warm all year. In Kenya I joined an International Women’s Club. We had a group of 17 women of 14 different nationalities meeting together every week.

Many of us expats or people who’ve grown up as Third Culture Kids gravitate towards global cities as that’s where we think we’ll find work and our “tribe.” Has that been your experience?

Chicago is quite a global city now, but it was very different when I first moved back home, pre-immigration days. My family lived in a neighborhood where everyone was segregated into traditional communities. That’s why, when I came back as a 13-year-old, everybody was from there and white, and although I looked like I should fit, I didn’t. That was a bad year for me. After one year, I did the chameleon thing and pretended to blend in. I would not tell anyone I was from Africa.

What about when you moved your own family back to the United States?

When my husband and I moved back to Indianapolis, we chose the suburbs as we were specifically looking at schools for the kids. I saw one school and thought, “Everyone looks the same. My kids won’t fit in here.” We found a school where the kids had many looks—a school with multi-nationalities and multi-backgrounds. I felt our kids are going to fit in here better, they have more space to be themselves. You know, somebody here once said: “You think you know everything and you’re so proud because you’ve been everywhere.” I was shocked and horrified. I told her:

“If I just try to be the suburban housewife, then I have a place. But if I ever let you know who I am, then I have no place.”

How did your life in Kenya compare to this?

Kenya was easier for me. When we were sitting with the other expats, we would often be talking about who we are and where they’ve been. That conversation was acceptable for that group. I realized that I don’t understand my neighbor’s job in tech, and he doesn’t understand mine, but we can be great friends on a million other subjects. You can make a bridge of the human story. The more stories we share, the more we connect in those spaces of humanity. In time, I found my space.

I know from reading your books that you think TCKs have special gifts.

I think the biggest gift of being a TCK is that I can connect, and I am sure you do too, to the humanity in people who don’t look like me, and who are from different backgrounds. We can connect with different cultures in some ways. We understand how much the human heart wants to belong.

Can you give us a concrete illustration of a work of yours that was nurtured out of the places you have lived in?

Although my parents were teachers for local schools, they sent me to an international boarding school when I was six years old, as was the norm, so I would learn American history and culture and be prepared for repatriation. I was there for three years, and after that I spent a year in the United States with my gran. Finally, my mother asked if I would like to be home schooled, so from fourth grade onwards, she taught me lessons in her classrooms in the Nigerian schools. I was able to connect to my family, I had Nigerian friends, I learnt the language and played games with them. Years later, when my husband and I had been in Liberia for some time, my daughter wanted to go to boarding school because all her friends were going there. I got depressed, with unresolved grief from my childhood. That was a discovery for me, of the impact of transition on my life. I started writing letters to my parents as if I were six years old again. These then became my memoir, Letters I Never Sent: A Global Nomad’s Journey from Hurt to Healing. Here’s an excerpt:

May 1958. “Today we’re leaving Africa… It’s unbearable to think that I may never again see my home or closest friends or the country that I love so much. It’s sort of like a death—to lose your whole world in one moment.”

Readers responded that they’d felt this way too. This was when I first heard of “TCK”. My first book wasn’t a conscious choice. My second book, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, which I co-wrote with David Pollock, was bigger than me and my story. I traveled to 50 different countries for the TCK work.

And let me tell you about my home here in Indianapolis. When I first arrived, my life in boxes, I put up some African things on the walls. My daughter’s friend took it all down, and said you’re in America now. But my bookcase still has musical instruments from all around the world. Every culture makes music through four ways—percussion, string, wind, and brass. These are the same four ways to make music all over the world. This display, too, is a creative expression of my life.

You still live in Indianapolis. Does that city feed your creativity as well?

With immigration, I realized the world was coming to Indianapolis, but people here weren’t attuned to it (for example, in human resources and schools). I started seminars here, and with the help of some friends with organizational skills, my efforts grew into Families in Global Transitions (FIGT).

What’s next for you, travel-wise and creativity-wise: will you stay put where you are or are other cities/artistic activities on your horizon?

On September 8th, we will be releasing the third edition of Third Culture Kids, with more stories and more diversity of TCKs. My interest is in the innumerable ways people are growing up cross-culturally now. I think a lot of Cross-Cultural Kids (CCKs) feel lost and aren’t feeling internally where they belong. Human beings need a place to fit, we need to find new ways to name identity so people can belong in positive ways. They should be able to say: Given the reality of my life, I can accept where I’ve come from instead of trying to fix what’s different about me.

Do you have any parting advice for your fellow ATCKs?

Come for the next Families in Global Transitions (FIGT). I think we find our tribe there. You don’t have to explain yourselves to the group. And whatever project you’re working on, that book, that website, there’s an empowerment to go back and continue and finish the writing, finish the project.

Ruth, your story resonates with me in so many ways! Thank you for sharing it.

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Readers, any further questions for the amazing Ruth Van Reken on her thoughts about place, displacement, and the connection between the communities you’ve lived in and creativity? Any authors or other international creatives you’d like to see Doreen interview in future posts? Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

STAY TUNED for this coming week’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a biweekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits:
Opening collage: 245 Kano City Nigeria 1995, by David Holt via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Chicago Skyline from Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois, by Ken Lund via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Waterside Stores (Monrovia, Liberia), by Mark Fischer via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); 774 Redbud Lane (Greenwood, Indiana), by Bart Everson via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); photo of Kenya via Pixabay and photo of Ruth supplied.

Photo of girl via Pixabay.

Book covers supplied.

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TCK TALENT: Benjamin Jancewicz, missionary kid, socially responsible graphic designer and pioneering vector artist

Photo credits: (top row) Kawawachikamach Band (flag) of the Naskapi, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); (middle row) Ben Jancewicz self-portrait (supplied); (bottom row) Lights, Camera, Action (Fed Hill), by Bill Mill via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0), Zerflin logo.

Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang‘s guest this month is an adult Missionary Kid (and Third Culture Kid) who expresses his creativity as a visual artist.

Welcome back, readers. Today’s ATCK interviewee is artist, illustrator, and graphic designer Benjamin Jancewicz. Benjamin grew up in Northern Quebec, on the Naskapi Native American Reservation of Kawawachikamach, to an Irish-American mother and Polish-American missionary father who is a linguist and Bible translator to the Naskapi Native Americans.

His Twitter blurb says he was raised “Native, Interracial, MK” (MK being Missionary Kid).

Benjamin’s parents met tobogganing at a Youth Group in their hometown of Norwich, Connecticut, and Ben was born in Connecticut. He now lives in Baltimore with his wife, Tamika, where he runs his own graphic design company, Zerflin (the name belonged to a cartoon alien Benjamin drew as a kid) and creates original vector artwork, which has been exhibited in galleries, cafes and homes around the United States and Canada. His current show, Who Said What, is, in his own words,

a collection that combines my love for engaging people in the creation of my art as well as my desire to reimagine quotes that move people to live better lives. The creation process begins with a call for quotes to be submitted. I then do careful research and select a unique photograph of the quote’s author, typically in their youth, imagining them as my peer. Using the reference image, I draw the piece itself inspired by 1950s and 60s screenprinting, interior design and album covers. Each piece has a unique color palette and font from an up-and-coming typographer.

You can get a taste of the work, and the vector art process, of which Ben is a pioneer, from this short video:

* * *

Welcome, Benjamin. I understand your family traveled quite a bit before settling in the Naskapi Native American Reservation.
Yes, my family moved to Chicago (where my parents went to school), Texas (where they had training), Mexico (where they had field testing), and Sherbrooke, a city in southern Quebec (where they learned French), all before I was four years old. I remember bits and pieces of that time and I’m told I picked up Spanish, but I ended up losing it and learning Naskapi, French, Innu and English instead.

Those are some very peripatetic early years (not to mention impressive multilingualism on your part). Did the traveling continue after you moved to the Reservation?
To raise support for the work, my parents had to travel to the States almost every summer. So there was a lot of visiting churches and road trips through the states, listening to my Father give slideshow presentations about what our family was up to. He continues that to this day in a blog I built for him: http://bill.jancewicz.com. We also moved quite a bit on the Reservation (we call it “the Rez”) as well. We stayed at people’s houses, either with them or when they weren’t there. Eventually when I was older we moved to the nearby town, but living on the Rez was some of the happiest time of my life. Summers filled with bike riding, exploring the woods, swimming in the lake…it was heaven.

“You never find yourself until you face the truth.” —Pearl Baily

What drew you to art and illustration?
I always drew as a kid. As I got older, life on the Rez got harder. Kids got involved in drugs and alcohol. Their parents being absent for the same reasons took a toll. I began losing friends to suicide, overdose. And as TV crept into the Rez, so did an attitude of treating white people differently. I was singled out because I was different. Bullies began attacking me more and more frequently at school—until my parents pulled me out and homeschooled me for a few years. I ultimately went back to the Rez school for most of secondary school, but drawing, computers and piano were often how I dealt with depression and loneliness.

It’s striking, how many ATCKs’ creative pursuits begin as—or become—coping mechanisms during childhood/adolescence. I’m very sorry you were bullied and am glad you found creative outlets to help you handle it. Did your interest in art and illustration evolve naturally into a career in graphic design?
I never really considered art and illustration to be a viable career, and originally went to school for engineering. After two years, I began to learn more about graphic design and after much deliberation, I switched majors. I didn’t find out until later that my father had done graphic design when he was younger as well. Once I switched, I had to do a lot of extra work to catch up, and started my design company, Zerflin, while still in class.

Creation of Zerflin

Photo credits: (top row) Camp amérindien MANTEO MATIKAP, by Guillaume Cattiaux via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); (middle row) screen shots of Ben; (bottom row) Zerflin logo and banner.

That’s impressive!

“Power & control will never outweigh love.” —Jada Koren Pinkett Smith

In college, did you identify most with a particular culture or cultures, or with people who had cross-cultural backgrounds similar to yours?  
While I was in college, in a small town in the States, I was bullied again, this time in the dormitories, and again for being different. But this time it was because I was Canadian, because I grew up on a Rez, and had perspectives that were considered strange by my white dorm mates. I sought refuge in a place on campus called the Rafiki House, a house dedicated to helping TCK and international students adjust to life in the US (rafiki means “friend” in Swahili). I ended up being the first freshman ever to live in the house. I stayed there all four years, getting involved in the protests and fights for its survival when the college tried to shut it down.

I’m sure many current TCKs and international students at the college are grateful for the House’s existence. What made you decide to move to Baltimore?
Baltimore was only an hour-and-a-half drive from college, so I’d often come down with friends to explore, and Tamika and I would come on dates. We fell in love with the city and decided to stay. Tamika originally wanted to teach in the public school system, and I got a job working at a non-profit in DC. Baltimore is much cheaper to live in, so we bought a house here.

“If you have an opportunity to use your voice you should use it.” —Samuel Leroy Jackson

As an ATCK, do you now have “itchy feet,” or do you prefer to have a home base and only travel for pleasure?
I have a very strong wanderlust, but the Recession pretty much killed any opportunities to travel. I try to travel as much as I can with my business, and now have art shows in L.A. that I frequently travel for. We organized with a group of friends and traveled to South Africa for the first time this past winter, which was amazing. It was the first time off the continent for me. Baltimore is really feeling more and more like home, though. Getting involved in the local social justice movements has given me life, and I’m glad to have a base here.

Per your design agency’s website, Zerflin’s staff “champion underdog clients and believe running a company without being evil is paramount.” This is admirable! Did your TCK background influence this mission/vision/value, or did something else, or were there a combination of influences?
Growing up on a Rez, there’s a certain amount of “wokeness” that just comes with living and experiencing how white people in town would treat my friends differently. And as someone who looks white, it was crazy hearing some of the conversations other white people would have about African Americans and Africans, Natives, Latinos, and Asians. As I got more and more involved in social justice on campus and began reading more and more books from black nationalist, feminist, womanist, and social justice authors, I knew I wanted to be involved in that work in some capacity. I also recognized that most companies (especially in design) are more large-client focused. As a social justice action, I wanted to do something different.

Congratulations on your show, which I understand will be at Impact Hub Baltimore for most of May into early June. Are you working on any more big art projects at the moment?
Continuously. I’ve been doing a lot more with art over the past couple years, which is strange for me. I knew some artists in college, and the way they acted really turned me off to art. I already felt looked down upon just being there as a TCK, but artists really seemed to take it to the next level. Tamika greatly encouraged me to pursue art, and as it took off, I’ve been getting more into illustration as a profession. You can see more of my work here.

Ben Jancewicz’s artwork. (Clockwise from top): Trumpeter plays the blues (hand-drawn, digitally rendered); West African Girl, available for purchase at Zerflin (Etsy shop); screenshot of Oprah work at Who Said What exhibition; Fayette Regina Pinkney, commissioned portrait.

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Thank you so much, Ben. Congratulations on your successful business and ongoing artwork! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Benjamin below. Besides checking out his art site, you can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter. You can commission his artwork here and buy select pieces (on paper or canvas), including from the current show, here.

Editor’s note: All quotes are taken from the artwork in Benjamin Jancewicz’s current show, Who Said What.

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is a prime example of what she writes about in this column: an Adult Third Culture Kid working in a creative field. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she is an actor, writer, and producer who created the solo show Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey, which has been touring internationally. And now she is working on another show, which we hope to hear more about soon! To keep up with Lisa’s progress in between her columns, be sure to visit her blog, Suitcasefactory. You can also follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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