Guest Blog My daughter, Ruth Jenkins
Story of my life:
Adapting to my own culture
Growing up as an adopted TCK (third culture kid) born in Africa I’m used to change and adapting to new situations. A third culture kid is a child raised in two or more different cultures during their developmental years outside of their parents culture. I was born in Kampala, Uganda August 1999. I don’t really know the exact date of my birth but it’s an educated guess at the hospital when they found me and took me in. I don’t know anything about my biological family because I was adopted at two months old to an American family.
My parents and family never made me feel like I was anything other than their daughter or sister even though there’s an obvious difference in skin color. I only really ever notice that there’s a difference when I tell people that I am adopted because I think about what they must think of me knowing that I have parents of a different race than my own. I don’t normally tell people first off that I am adopted because I get somewhat self-conscious about how they might respond to it. First off being from Africa is something the average American thinks is crazy however being also adopted raises so many awkward questions. To answer some common questions: I’m not bilingual, I did not live in a hut and Africa is my first home yet I don’t like it better than any other places I’ve lived. I don't prefer any places I've lived before I appreciate all of them and how I've grown in all.
Although my parents are white they’re not regular, Americans who just went to Africa to adopt me and my younger brother. My mother was born in Cameroon and raised in Kenya for a few years. Her parents(my adopted Grandparents) were missionaries in Africa so that is her connection to Africa. She is a TCA(third culture adult) and I can relate to her in more ways than everyone else thinks when they first meet us. Although I am the African one by blood some days I feel like my white American parents are more African than me because of their 17 years in Uganda and Rwanda. I have four siblings, Timothy, in 7th grade, is adopted from Uganda like me, but not biologically related to me. The rest are American but understand Africa just as well as me. My first home was in Kampala Uganda where I lived for about four years.
I loved Uganda because I have my earliest memories there and can’t remember a single bad thing happening. Although we had household help that spoke Oluganda I had trouble keeping up with my friends at bible class who spoke it and pretended to know what they were saying because everyone pretty much expected me to speak the language. I never learned anything other than English throughout my whole time in Africa. After living in Kampala, Uganda, I moved to Oklahoma for about a year. In Kindergarten, I grew a little more aware about everyone around me.
School was a place where I could finally speak the same language as everyone but still felt a little bit different. Even at a small age I realized no matter where I went I would always have something different from everyone. I met my best friend Alexis in Oklahomaback to Africa but lived in Rwanda.
Although I was born in Uganda I lived in Rwanda for most of the time I was in Africa. I don’t remember much of first, second and third grade, but I do remember that I loved having a normal routine and having friends who I saw every day and started getting closer to every year. I went to an amazing school called KICS(Kigali International Community School). KICS was an international school that my parents founded. It started out as a small school that was in a house but moved over to a building. All the students at KICS are so diverse that I didn’t feel different at all because everyone was different like me. I basically had a friend from every part of the world. Alexis had moved to KICS in 2nd grade with me. Having Alexis in Rwanda with me made me feel more like myself because she understood how diverse I was.
My mom started to get sick by the end of third grade and she left to go to Kenya for better treatment. My mom went from Kenya to America for a few months. Not having my mom around for so long didn’t affect me as much as I thought it would. Normally when you’re young and so dependent on everyone else it affects the way you act because you miss them so much. For some reason, I was just fine. It was almost as if she was just out of sight and out of mind. We eventually got to see her because we moved to Oklahoma again as she got better. We lived in the exact same city, went to the same church, but this time, things were different from kindergarten. Everyone at church had grown closer because they had been together for so long.
I had a fairly easy time making new friends at school but reconnecting with people at church was a little harder because I couldn’t just pick off where I left on in kindergarten and talk about the same things from when I was a little kid. After my mom got better I really hoped we would stay in Oklahoma just so that I could stay with all my new friends I took such a long time to make. By the end of fourth grade we moved back to Kigali and I started fifth grade at KICS. When I got back I felt as if I was completely new although I had been there for first, second and third grade. So many new students had come the year I was gone it made me feel like all the other years I had been there didn’t even matter because they made new memories without me making it hard to pick up where I left off. Eventually, I felt a little better that I wasn’t there for fourth grade but some days it really got to me.
I had to explain myself instead of having everyone just know who I was. I didn’t know if I should identify as African or American. I had passports from both continents, but I felt like I had to choose one. Sure I'm African American but not the stereotypical one everybody thinks of. All my African friends made me think I was too different because I didn’t speak the language, but all my American friends couldn’t relate to my hair or skin problems. My African friends constantly told me that I wasn’t truly African I just had the African body and “white” mentality because of my family. I hated that. I didn’t know I could be both because I didn’t feel like both. I couldn't call myself Oreo because if I called myself a black girl with a white mentality everyone would think I was trying claim I had white privileges like my family.
I didn't know how to respond so I would just awkwardly laugh trying not to agree but also not correct them. I just wanted someone to think of me as a person and not give me a label. After 5th grade, I was still in Kigali for 6th. I was so happy that I would have a chance to build friendships for middle school and grow with them till the end of high school. My sister was in her senior year for high school and decided she was going to choose Wheaton College as the school she was going to study at for her four years of college. My parents were excited for her and spent a lot of time talking about what they would do without her. I didn’t care about how much they would miss her I thought she was tough enough getting through college alone without us. They then told me after a few months of school we would move to Wheaton and Church plant in the Chicago area.
I resented my sister the moment I heard we were moving after 6th grade. I didn’t want to leave all my friends, I again took so long to make. I didn’t want to start over another time. I hated the thought of change. No one liked new students. I don’t even like new students and I’ve been one 4 times so far. By the time we moved in 7th grade my opinion changed a little. My family went to a great summer camp in Oklahoma called TCK camp. They explained what a Third Culture Kid is, everyone shared their stories and I realized it’s not so bad to be one. I still wasn’t proud of being from all these different places, but I loved hearing that other people struggled with the same things I did. I wasn’t culturally 100% African or American either. I didn’t love the idea that I wasn’t only one thing. Normal people are only one thing is what I used to think. I just wanted to be one thing with one culture. I still hated all the adaptations I had to make, but I decided I join a few clubs at school because I might as try and get comfortable if I was going I was going to live here for the rest of my life.
I thought that as long as my parents had a job and my sister was close by we wouldn’t leave again. My 7th-grade year at Franklin was a lot better than I thought it was going to be. Moving so much taught me how to make friends and how to pick who to sit with at lunch because I had done it a lot before. Although I joined a few clubs and made lots of new friends I still felt like I wasn’t making the connections everyone else had. Everyone had their cliques and they were very nice to me, but I didn’t feel truly included until the end of the year when I joined track with my best friend. I got closer with a small group of people instead of trying to be friends with everyone I saw. At the end of 7th grade, my parents decided that the suburbs weren’t for them.
This time, I was beyond mad. I hated everything about moving around so much. I didn’t even want to compromise or keep making new friends that wouldn’t last. The TCK camp I went to was pointless to go to. We decided to go the summer of 8th grade. I didn’t want to go because I didn’t want to be a TCK. It seemed a lot more boring to me because I went but ignored everything positive they had to say. I saw only negative things. By the time we moved to the Northside Chicago in 8th grade I decided to be online schooled. I didn’t want to make friends or be a part of any clubs.
By 8th grade year, everyone knows who their friends are and when you’re a young teen your friends make up your life and it’s hard to let new people in because only a select few people like meeting new people. I really wanted to continue in dance classes because I had been in them for 4 years, but we couldn’t get into the dance classes at the places I wanted to dance at. Dance was the only thing I had during all my transitions and not having it made me feel like I lost absolutely everything.
I was at the lowest point in life by 8th grade. I joined youth groups, but no matter how hard I tried I didn’t feel included or like I belonged. The more they tried to include me the more I felt like they knew I was a homeschooled girl who didn’t have any friends. People trying to welcome you to a new place lasts for a short amount of time because they greet you, tell you about themselves and leave to their prefered group of friends. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t make friends it was that I just didn’t have the desire to. My perspective was that if I tried to make friends and I ended liking them I would just end up moving which made it feel so pointless to even try. It took a few months of trying to get used to things in the city but eventually I found a routine.
Chicago is fun, but Wheaton definitely felt a whole world way. I still don't get why people say they're from Chicago when they're really from Wheaton. Sure you can go to the city every weekend of your whole entire life but you still don't really live there. Chicago and Wheaton are extremely different and you'll never know that until you've actually lived there. My neighbors were the sweetest people on Earth and made me feel a little better about living there. My sister had been visiting a lot more often which made me feel a lot better because I no longer resented her for making our family move. She gave me a ton of advice on how to adapt to feeling alone and how to embrace being a TCK. Every time she came over she would help me by explaining that if I hadn’t moved the many times that I have I would not be the same person or exposed to as many things.
Being “normal” and growing up in the same area for your whole life doesn’t help you grow. You have to expose yourself to new places and cultures instead of staying in your little box. Sure can people go on 2-week vacations to exotic places and be “changed” but are since I lived in a few different places I truly understand the culture instead of just admiring it. Joining new groups, making new friends and being a part of different schools taught me a lot of different social skills and the different types of people there are.
Even though I leave, them in the end, I would rather meet 100 new people instead of having the typical shrinking high school group everyone seems to have. By the end of 8th grade into 9th grade, I decided to go back to a school. I realized I would be leaving behind my babysitting job and the comfort of my home but for the first time, I was excited for something new. Being a freshman meant I would be just as new as everyone else which made me feel a lot more confident. I met so many new people at Uno Rogers Park High and learned so much about the Latino culture because the majority of the people there are 70% Hispanics. I met my best friends there and even though we didn’t know each other for our whole lives it didn’t matter.
By the time, my parents told me we were moving back to the suburbs I hadn’t been as angry at them as I was in the past. I’ve moved 3 times in the last 3 years but now that I realize the positives and the good effect it had on my life. We all end up going through change at some point in our lives and it took me awhile to learn to live with it but, in the end, all the things I’ve viewed as negative are what has shaped me. I don't know if that's the last move I'll do before high school ends but if it isn't I'll be ready and prepared for what's to come.