Fugitives from Fundamentalism

The Musings of Adult Missionary Kids (MKs) & Former Born-Again Believers

I’m better than you.

Posted by thejest3r on September 2, 2009

The missionaryAnyone else ever look back on their childhood and realize that many parts of life were heavily influenced by a completely unjustified superiority complex? Maybe that sounds a little harsh, but recently I’ve been curious about how growing up as a missionary kid changed the way I looked at the world around me.

Yes, I’m accusing myself of having a superiority complex. I don’t remember how it all started, but over time I eventually developed a bold mentality that made me feel more special than other Christians who lived “up in the States” (poor worldly bastards!). It’s not like I was ever specifically told to think I was more important than other people, but I sure as hell figured out how to do it on my own.

I’m definitely not blaming anyone but myself for my attitude. I simply believed that my position in life was a little more privileged—and therefore I was a little better—than my Christian peers whose parents didn’t make that oh-so-sacrificial commitment to spend their lives in some foreign country where they might never get the chance to live life to the fullest. That’s a ridiculously pretentious attitude, of course, since I had nothing to do with being born and raised in Brazil.

Sadly enough, I was so completely ignorant of American culture that I couldn’t even begin to relate to my peers when I came on furlough. I couldn’t understand them, and a lot of my own inability to make connections was due to the fact that I looked down on them and didn’t make very much of an effort to get to know them. Why? I have no idea. Some sort of birth right, I guess, a contract that granted me the ability to act like an asshole.

Basically, whenever I was in the States, I awarded myself the right to act as if I was a foreigner trapped in some alien land where the strange inhabitants were all narrow-minded, shallow, backsliding Christian wannabes.

I ended up selling that birth right for worldly pleasures later in life (totally worth it, of course). But the fact remains that for a long time I felt like I deserved an extra dose of respect when it came to religious matters—because I was an MK, goddammit.

What caused this perplexing worldview? Was it the endless pampering and catering that always followed me and my family on furloughs? Was it the tirelessly and hopelessly conservative ideals of my narrow little mind, which, when compared to those of my American peers, were downright insane? Was it the fact that I didn’t enjoy the same amenities and luxuries that they did—and I knew it, and needed something to justify my forced asceticism? Maybe a combination of these things? Maybe I was just a self-righteous fool?

Let me paint a few pictures for you to illustrate my aimless ramblings thus far. Here’s what my MK “superiority complex” might have been grinding into my brain had you examined it closely when I was younger:

Povertycompared to most people, my parents’ income is horrifyingly low and we are a really, really poor family. As an MK who has seen “true poverty” walking the streets of Manaus, I have bragging rights whenever the topic of poverty is brought up. It doesn’t matter if you’re on welfare and can’t pay your bills, at least you aren’t pushing around all your worldly possessions in a shopping cart.
(Of course, when you considered details like the exchange rate, costs of living in Brazil, and taxes, we had enough financial support for what we needed, and then some.)
Answered prayersmy parents are missionaries. We know what it means to have real prayers answered. The only “answered prayer” other people ever have are cancer survivors.
(Not that I could really give any solid examples of answered prayers aside from “miraculous” financial bestowments.)
Soul-winning strategiesAmericans don’t need to be evangelized. They already have the gospel, so who are they kidding when they talk about sending out missionaries to different parts of the United States? The real work is overseas, and it’s a waste of time to proselytize other Americans.
(I personally never told a soul about God. I’ve always hated telling people about God, as far back as I can remember.)
Physical prowessall the people “up there” are probably spineless, obese, city-slicker pansies who couldn’t start a fire with a flamethrower in a forest full of balsa wood. I, however, can run barefoot through a jungle of thorns, kill poisonous snakes with a machete, and swim through stagnant alligator swamps without sustaining any serious injuries.
(I actually wasn’t that great at making fire, and managed to spill my own blood on several occasions using a machete.)
Suffering for Jesuslike anyone with two stories and a three-car garage is actually suffering for Jesus. Yeah, right. Show me no television, no microwave, and no clothes dryers and I’ll show you suffering.
(This from the mouth of a boy who enjoyed the Amazon River and rainforest and soccer and fishing and camping and the great outdoors all his life.)
Holy matrimoniesdivorces in the church? Dysfunctional families, dating games, kissing before marriage? Oh my God, that just goes to show how lukewarm you guys are about your faith. If you really loved God, you wouldn’t have any of those problems.
(No comment, but yeah, the problems are definitely there regardless of religious beliefs.)

And on and on it went. As you can see, I had this weird MK mentality that efficiently pumped up my ego and helped me feel better about myself in a Christian culture I didn’t understand. Needless to say, it didn’t have too many positive affects on my social life. After years of legalistically shunning music, movies, and anything else that even remotely distracted me from pious, godly devotion, I think I’m still trying to catch up with life in general.

Anyone else ever deal with this kind of thing?

15 Responses to “I’m better than you.”

  1. JN said

    This is a great post. I can’t relate, but I know other MK’s who can… (Ha!)

    I think boarding schools add an interesting dimension to the equation. I sometimes thought that there might have just been a lot of excess talent floating around those schools, until I went back and realized there’s really not much there. I played soccer in Dakar and the kids who acted like big shots (wouldn’t pass the ball) actually had a very low soccer IQ. They could dribble and shoot (not necessarily on target, but they could shoot none-the-less), but no one played defense and no one had any vision. I flattened a few kids just because they weren’t expecting much of a challenge.

    Many MK’s come back only really knowing their little, puffed up worlds. When confronted with something bigger (or even just different), it seems they resort to “Oh, yeah. Back in Cote d’Ivoire/Brazil/Phillipines/etc….”

    I think the hardest thing for me to realize was that it’s OK for me to be me. I’m going to be different in a lot of ways, but that’s cool. I don’t have to be completely American or fit into a cultural mold. Of course this realization has to be balance out with the fact that it’s OK for other people to be who they are too.

    • Brandt said

      Thanks, JN!

      “Many MK’s come back only really knowing their little, puffed up worlds.”

      Indeed. And it can be pretty hard to get your mind out of that little world.

  2. Jerry said

    I really like this post because it is so authentic. I wouldn’t have thought of these major themes you discuss, but it makes sense now.

    I’m not a MK but can definitely relate to a lot of those feelings of superiority because I was a Bible major and was “sacrificing” for Christ, instead of a business major who “loved material things,” for instance. I came from a pretty poor family also, and divorced at that, so I can understand turning to something that seemed more substantial (like piety or dedication) to get one’s self worth.

    My roommate in college was a MK from Australia and I always got the impression that no matter how dedicated I was, he didn’t think I was as holy or pious as he was. That attitude was always there, but I couldn’t quite put words to it. I actually viewed MKs as pretty interesting people who had seen a lot of the world that I would never see, and who probably were more dedicated than the rest of us regular American churchgoers.

    “As you can see, I had this weird MK mentality that efficiently pumped up my ego and helped me feel better about myself in a Christian culture I didn’t understand.” That’s what we Americans might have missed — the idea that you didn’t understand our culture. That would have never even occurred to me, esp. if you had American parents, but I see that now.

    • Brandt said

      Yeah, you certainly don’t have to be an MK to relate to some of those feelings. As I get older I learn more and more how to just look at people as people, and I try harder not to assume too much about them just because of where they came from. Everyone has issues–mine were mostly cross-cultural struggles; for other people, there are other things.

      Interesting to hear about your roommate. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was thinking along the same lines as I was. Some MKs are really good at playing the piety game. It’s a disease, man.

  3. The Chaplain said

    I was never that pious, but I definitely had that attitude and said those same things to myself, more or less. Must be an MK thing. Aren’t we unique!

    You have good skills of self-analysis, and this sentence, “I don’t remember how it all started, but over time I eventually developed a bold mentality that made me feel more special than other Christians who lived “up in the States” (poor worldly bastards!)” contains the completely unnecessary use of a curse word. Just kidding! Good post.

  4. Paulo said

    Growing up in “the bush” in the northeast corner of Ivory Coast, looking back now I think as an MK I had an attitude of superiority. Not towards Africans (I always felt we were on the same level) but towards foreigners who weren’t familiar with Africa. I didn’t think that I was superior to them spiritually (I was never much of a spiritual person), but I would always think that they were so dumb, as if I was so smart. Whenever missions teams from the US would visit our village during summer vacation, I volunteered to tag along as they travelled from village to village doing their evangelism thing and I served as a sort of unofficial guide and interpreter. I always got a big ego in these situations because I knew the local language and customs. I felt that somehow I was “above” these dumb Americans, like somehow I was better than them.

    I remember taking some American girls through the Cocody market and (Chaplain, you would be familiar with this) they would get scared when the shopkeepers would literally grab them by the arm to get them to come into their souvenir shop to buy something. I would just laugh and nonchalantly tell the shop owner to leave them alone (in French, of course) and this impressed the hell out of them. And then I thought I was so smart because I knew how to bargain with the shopkeepers. I remember the ego trip I would get from stuff like that. Looking back now, I think I had that attitude because in that environment, I flourished. Compared to the Africans, I was rich and privileged. Compared to visiting foreigners, I was so savvy.

    It wasn’t until I came to the US that I realized that that attitude was a complete illusion. It was all a matter of environment and circumstance. Just because I knew more about other parts of the world and spoke other languages didn’t make me better than Americans. As a matter of fact, when the tables were turned, it was I who felt inadequate and ignorant. Everyone else was familiar with stuff like pop culture, and I wasn’t. Like Brandt said, it was hard to fit in socially. My senior year of high school and the first couple of years of college were hard. Nobody gave a shit that I grew up overseas. I had to overcome a lot of shame in the process. And it’s only now in my 30s that I almost feel “caught up” (but never quite). Nowadays I try to find the things I have in common with most people and not think of all the ways that I’m different from them. Being different, having more experience, or being more privileged than somebody doesn’t make you “better” than them. Good post, Brandt.

    • Brandt said

      Yeah… I know what it’s like to function as a guide for Americans who came down to visit. It certainly was an ego trip. And, like you said, the tables were turned as soon as I came to the States. Hard times, but good for character development. And you know what’s funny is that I never spoke Portuguese quite as well as English. I never really reached a level where I was fully fluent, but I definitely wasn’t going to miss showing off to the mission teams!

      It’s sad to think that all the river people around us growing up were so much poorer than us even though we didn’t have a lot. Like you said about the Africans, Paulo, our Brazilian neighbors called us rich. They’d come sell us fruit and manioc. They’d hire themselves to us as maids.

      How quickly things change.

    • Lauren said

      Yes, Paulo, I can relate with what you said. I, too, felt distinctly superior to those missionaries who came out without a clue. And those who were only “on the field” for a year or two? Pfft. Who needs them? Where’s their true commitment?

      I think it’s caused by a combination of the arrogance of youth and the superiority of Pharisaism. If I had truly been following Jesus’ teachings, I would have simply loved people without judging them.

      • Ann said

        “I, too, felt distinctly superior to those missionaries who came out without a clue.”

        Humans have a strong sense of ingroup identification. I have a feeling of connection with the mks I grew up with in Panama, based on shared knowledge and common experiences. Even mks I didn’t really know or wasn’t friends with at the time. I remember feeling like visiting missionaries on summer mission trips were outsiders.

        “If I had truly been following Jesus’ teachings, I would have simply loved people without judging them.”

        I think that depends on the teaching.

        Loving people without judgment is easier said than done. But it is an honorable way of being for any human to aspire toward.

  5. JN said

    I was never an especially pious fellow either. I always felt a little inferior when it came to religious matters. I couldn’t pray long prayers or spend much time in personal devotions. The only person I ever tried to convert was my younger sister. My friends weren’t usually the good kids, and I found myself grounded and spanked more than a kid should at boarding school (or anywhere for that matter). I was never especially bad, but I was bad enough to not be good. I was always afraid of getting caught.

    When I came back, I was always a little embarrassed that my parents were missionaries. I used to think some of my acquaintances were so clever and funny, until I realized they were just quoting movies I’d never seen. At first I tried really hard to get friends, but never really fit in. I made a name for myself being a jerk and somewhat of a bully.

    High school was a completely different phase of my life. I became deathly quiet and spent most of my time being an observer. I’ve always been pretty good at reading people, and probably spent more time watching people live their lives than actually living mine. I spent hours in thought, constructing realities that may or may not have been accurate. I felt like people were always watching me, criticizing my every move.

    It wasn’t until my first year in college that I began dealing with some of these issues. I looked back at my childhood and realized that I was aspiring to be something I could never be. I was enrolled in program in which I could never succeed. I started to reflect on my childhood and realized that the ‘real’ me had been covered up over the years. I was like an old room hidden beneath layers of bad wallpaper. So I started going back to the way I had once been, learning to accept myself again.

    Now I’m in a pretty good place. I am more laid back then I used to be and way more level-headed (not as insecure). I don’t think in as rigid of terms as before. I’m OK with people being different (and being different myself). But like an old house, there’s always work to be done.

    • Brandt said

      Eloquently said, JN.

      “I used to think some of my acquaintances were so clever and funny, until I realized they were just quoting movies I’d never seen.”

      Funny, that happened to me too!

      It’s good to look back and see progress that’s been made in life, isn’t it? As we begin to overcome the insecurities and doubts that used to govern us, it’s like discovering a whole new world. Like you, I’d say I’m in a pretty good place now.

  6. mlawrencekey said

    Wow. These are great stories, and give me a lot of insight into your lives–particularly those of you here that I went to boarding school with. Thanks for being vulnerable and sharing your hearts.

    I remember feeling that sense of superiority, too, towards different newbies that would show up over in Africa and look like a fish out of water. It felt good to be able to show them around and really be admired and seen as an expert on something.

    When I showed up in the States for some of high school and university, I mostly felt like those newbies had felt: like a fish out of water. I didn’t know how to act in social situations, or how to recognize movie quotes, common jokes, etc. It was hard, but eventually I adjusted. I got very good at picking up cues and faking it, to be honest, until I actually figured out what was going on.

    I spent several years trying just to blend and be the same as everyone else, until I finally realized that I didn’t have to be. My experiences as a third culture kid are what make me who I am as a person today. I didn’t see it too much this way back then, but now I see my experiences and my knowledge derived from the 18 years I spent in Africa as a gift.

    To this day, my strengths include the ability to make connections with others, to bridge gaps in world-views. Those strengths greatly assist my work in the Middle East, working in a third language and vastly different culture than either my birth culture or even the one that I grew up in during my time in Africa.

    Like JN noted about himself, I’m also way less insecure than I used to be. That helps a lot. I finally feel comfortable in my own skin, so to speak, and really know who I am. I guess that’s part of maturing and growing up. For those of us who grew up in a whole other world, it may just take a bit longer, but we’ll get there in the end, hopefully. It’s nice to hear about others’ journeys, and how much they parallel my own in many ways.


  7. susannahww said

    **I don’t remember how it all started, but over time I eventually developed a bold mentality that made me feel more special than other Christians who lived “up in the States” (poor worldly bastards!).**

    I remember how it started for me; we were actively told that, over and over.

    Good post!

    • Ann said

      Even on the mission field some of the missionary families were made to feel more special than other families. We lived in one of the most remote missionary outposts in the world–out in the middle of the Darien jungle. I think the exalted status had something to do with the increased likelihood for missionary martyrdom. I remember at one of our field’s annual missionary “Conferences” taking a class with the elementary school kids based on a book about some missionary martyrs–they were lauded as role models for us.

      Three of the missionaries who moved into our village after my family left the field were taken hostage and eventually killed by Colombian guerrillas–two years after we left. Guess that makes my family even more special…

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