It wasn’t until I recently hung out with some fellow TCKs that I realized that this topic, although very uncomfortable to discuss, ought to be brought up. As much as TCKs can relate to the cultures in which they grow up – the ones that aren’t their “home” cultures – that does not make them truly a part of that culture, especially if they carry privilege with them.
For my family, we didn’t live as well as other expats did – particularly those associated with embassies and the military – yet we lived well above most of our African neighbors. Although our first home in Ghana was in a small village with neither power nor running water, we lived quite comfortably in a two-story duplex that we rented from one of the wealthier women in the village. We ran a generator a few hours during the day and a few hours in the evening to keep the refrigerator cool – we insulated it with foam to aid in this process – and we used a pump to bring collected rainwater up to the roof where it could be gravity fed through the building for “running water.” We did not live in mud huts with thatched roofs, and we were able to access a greater support network in case of emergencies, etc.
This ability to get out of the country for various services marks a glaring difference between my upbringing and how our African friends and colleagues grew up. In case of medical emergency, missionaries, diplomats, and the like can be medevac-ed (medical evacuation) out of the country to a place where they can receive necessary healthcare. For example, when my sister was six years old, we flew back to the United States for her tonsillectomy, a surgery that probably saved her life but that could not be performed locally. No matter how much kinship I felt with my Ghanaian friends, the reality was that this was not a possibility for most, if not all, of them at the time. (Healthcare in Ghana has improved since the late 1980s, however!)
In February 2008, my parents were living in Moundou, Chad, when rebels attempted a coup d’Ã©tat to overthrow President DÃ©by. The situation escalated to the extent that fighting was occurring in N’DjamÃ©na and no one really knew what was going to happen. My parents were faced with an option: stay in the country and risk being targeted as Americans or flee the country and weather the storm in the safety of Cameroon. Many people who work in other countries have to face this decision of saving themselves or standing in solidarity with their local colleagues at some point during their work. Regardless of their final decisions, the fact remains that they have an option to flee while the local population does not.
Another part of my upbringing worth mentioning is that in both of the compounds where we lived in Ghana, there were multiple buildings on site. There was the house where we lived and the building (or buildings) called the servants’ quarters. As an adult, my insides recoil even at the name and I feel a sense of shame for participating in something that smacks so heavily of imperialism and all that it entails. Yes, my family had house help. At different times, we hired house girls and house boys. We had a driver. We had day guards and night guards.
In this case, I find myself caught in this bizarre tension. Every expat family that I encountered in Africa hired at least one African to work for them in some capacity. Some hired more than we did, others hired fewer. And yes, this looks and sounds very, very bad. However, we were not the only people who hired others for what sounds like menial labor. Wealthy Africans did the same; in fact, anyone with more wealth was expected to hire others to work for them. Otherwise, a wealthy person without workers was being selfish and miserly, instead of contributing to the community. So yes, I still cringe when I tell people that we had a driver and a house girl, but I also understand that we didn’t have much of a choice in the matter if we wanted to be accepted into the community instead of resented. In this case, the privilege we wore by being “wealthy” Americans necessitated that we hire Ghanaians or Chadians in order to make connections within our new communities.
My parents are still very close with Albert (our driver from Ghana) and his wife Vero even though the last time they worked together was in 1995. While we lived in Ghana, Albert was essentially my father’s right-hand man during his extensive work trips. He looked after my sister and me like we were part of his own family, and I thought of him like an uncle instead of as someone who just worked for my dad. We were close enough to our night guard Daoud in Chad that he named one of his sons after my father as well. (There is now a small Chadian boy running around N’DjamÃ©na called Mohammed Bill.)
Another way that privilege plays a part in the lives of TCKs is that of education. By the time I graduated from high school, I was more educated than most of the Chadian pastors that worked with my parents, certainly more educated than their wives. (Women in Chad have fewer opportunities for education and work outside of the home than their male counterparts.) My mother homeschooled my sister and I up until high school at which point we had a plethora of options from which to choose on how we wanted to proceed. We opted for an American boarding school in Kenya which would give us all kinds of opportunities to learn and grow as teenagers. There were few to no options for education in Chad. Not everyone had schools within traveling distance, be it by foot or by car, and even those who could physically access a school were not always able to afford a school. If the choice had to be made to feed your family or to give one of your children an education, the choice is obvious.
The final way that privilege shows itself in our lives is that TCKs go “home.” We are able to return to our passport cultures where we can further our education and have work opportunities out the ying yang. (Yes, even in America’s recession, there are better job opportunities here than elsewhere in the world.) As much as I love Africa and everything that I experienced there, I have to say that I am also thankful for the privilege that allowed me to get a college degree and find enough work to make ends meet and to live comfortably here. I do not intend to stay in the United States for the rest of my life, but it is undeniably nice to live in this country for the time being and to have so many options available.
For those of you who are TCKs, how did you experience privilege (if you did)? If you aren’t a TCK, when did you realize that you had privilege (if you did)?