What follows is part three of a series by ElectroMagneticJosh, a man whose parents were Evangelical missionaries. This series will detail his life as a Missionary Kid (MK).
Part 6: Faith Academy and the Culture Bubble
Living in the Philippines as an MK set me apart from the national culture. I looked different to the people and talked different. I also was there for a finite time – my parents were not immigrating so I was not encouraged to assimilate. In the early days, though, most of my friends were Filipinos in my neighborhood. There were a couple of expat families and Missionary families in each town we lived in that I had friends among but the majority were not.
That all changed when my family lived in Manila and I went to Faith Academy. Suddenly I was in a school filled with people like me. In New Zealand none of my classmates had gone overseas unless it was for a family holiday and, in those days, it was the UK, North America or Australia – countries with similar cultural backgrounds of British colonization and all speaking the same language. They could not relate to my childhood experiences. My Filipino friends always saw me as the outsider of the group so, again, it was hard to relate.
Going to FA meant I would be with people who, at least in theory, would be able to relate. After all we were all MKs, all transported from our passport countries and living in a country that was not our own. While it didn’t prove to be some MK utopia it was still refreshing to be around people like me.
When I tell people I went to a school for missionary kids the question I tend to get asked, if I get asked question at all, is a variant of: How well did you really know the Philippines then?
I used to find this type of question a tad insulting. Obviously I knew the Philippines; I lived there for 11 years, I went to a local Filipino church, I hung out at the same malls, ate out at the same places, traveled on public transport and traveled around the country. What more could I have done?
My perspective on this has changed over time. I now understand why I would be asked that question and, more importantly, wonder about it myself. How well did I really appreciate and understand the Filipino culture while I lived there?
It should be apparent to those who have read my posts so far why that is a fair question. Not just one that applies only to me either. I would guess that most MKs attending FA had more of a cursory knowledge of the surrounding culture than a deep understanding. That is because we were part of, what was known as, the “Faith Academy Bubble”.
The term “Faith Academy Bubble” is not a term I invented. I heard it used in the negative by Missionaries who disparaged my parent’s choice in education. I heard it used matter-of-factly by teachers and parents talking about the school to others. Even the students occasionally used it but mostly ironically.
So was it even real and, if so, what was it?
Yes it was real (although I didn’t see it at the time) and, while I think the term is quite self-explanatory, I will do my best to orientate everyone.
When immigrants come to a new country they are at a disadvantage. They don’t understand a lot of the culture they are joining and may have to learn a new language. It is quite common for them to make friends with any people from their homeland they might encounter. And it makes sense. They are likely to share the same values, have similar points of reference, and, due to a shared language, find it easy to communicate. If they are large enough number they often live nearby or even create enclaves within the wider culture they have immigrated to.
Please note that I don’t want to discuss ideas about whether they should try harder to integrate or if enclaves are harmful or anything like that. Instead I want to note that there is a strong parallel to MKs. When we get together we often experience a similar phenomenon. The shared points of reference, similar values, and, yes, ease of communication. We like hanging out together.
FA was a school for MKs. Presumably that meant we should all be comfortable with each other while holding hands and singing Kumbaya. Well not quite. There were still the groups, the cliques, the in-groups, the group, but mostly different friend groups with shared interests or similar personalities. It was still a school after all. But all these things occurred within a shared cultural perspective. We were all MKs and FA was our enclave.
If I am truly honest (and I will try to be) I had no problem with this at the time. It was where my friends were, which meant that, in an age when mobile phones and internet usage wasn’t widespread, it was where a lot my social life was organized. It felt comfortable; we had our own slang, followed our own internal cultural cues and, it could be argued, spoke with our own accent*. With the daily bible class, weekly chapel and regular special speakers and spiritual emphasis weeks the school was also my church and my youth group.
I even had a set of rules to follow—a code of conduct I had to sign before attending (although I believe this is no longer the case). I can’t remember the exact wording but it involved a list of things we promised not to do. Smoking, drinking alcohol and taking illegal drugs were all part of it but so was dancing (my parents found that a bit odd), watching “inappropriate” movies (a vague enough term that could exclude whatever you watched) and several other, seemingly innocuous, activities. I was well into High School before I realized that some of these stranger rules were made to appeal to the most conservative missionary families.
Now it makes sense that the school would want to enforce behavior around on-campus or school-related activity behavior. However these rules applied to off-campus socializing, home life, private time over the weekends—all of it. As a result a lot of my behavior was dictated not by the country I lived in and its cultural values but by the school I went to (and, to be fair, my parents also had a say). Kids definitely rebelled but that just reinforced the fact they were also part of this bubble—they weren’t rebelling against mainstream Filipino society but the rules and culture of the school they went to. In the end, whether it was met with compliance or disobedience, the students of FA had the school’s rules of behavior whether they were at school or not.
This FA culture bubble became a self-reinforcing system. For example: I didn’t need to speak Tagalog (the main Filipino language in Manila) at school, but by not speaking it my comprehension dwindled and, with it, my connection to the wider Philippine culture. Yet my friends were all foreigners like me so it didn’t matter that I only spoke English. Of course this ensured that making friends who weren’t at my school would be near impossible. This just further enforced our sense of being separate from the country we lived in.
This separation from our host nation combined with the separation from our various passport countries often led so a feeling of cultural superiority. We would often look down on the aspects of Filipino culture that annoyed us or we found ignorant. Embarrassingly, I remember mocking or judging any trend, activity or attitude that, in my mind, was inferior to the “proper” way of doing things. At the same time we were more than happy to judge those back in our home countries as ignorant and backwards for, once again, not doing things in the “proper” way.
Of course we learned to keep these views to ourselves—it turns out people don’t like hearing why their culture isn’t all it can be from whiny kids. My parents, like most missionaries, certainly didn’t encourage these attitudes either. Also, who were we to judge what the proper and right ways of doing things were? In most instances they were just the things that bothered or annoyed us.
In reality the only difference between us and any other kid is that we genuinely believed we had a superior perspective. After all we weren’t mono-cultured, untraveled, narrow-minded people. We were in a unique position to see further and discern better. We weren’t shackled to a single culture. We had special insight. Our hubris prevented us from realizing that, like all outsider groups, we had merely joined another mono-culture albeit a smaller one.
Before I conclude I should stress that section 4 represents a huge generalization and is based on my perception of situation at the time. If you happen to be a former (or current) FA student and feel that you are unfairly labelled as being part of this enclave that is totally fine. Some kids were very in touch with the people and culture of the Philippines and you might have been one of them. Some kids had almost no contact with anything Filipino, where even a lot of the food they ate was sourced from their home country. My take on all of this is based on how different my MK experience became once I started attending FA.
While there were positives of being with others like us we were also prone to hold an “us vs them” mentality when it came to the other cultures we interacted with. For some kids this caused problems when they tried to fit in back in their home countries since they never felt as connected with people as they had back in school. I know some of them personally. Others were never satisfied where they lived. While they were in the Philippines they couldn’t wait to leave and once they had left they couldn’t wait to return. It is this sense of not being at ease that encouraged the FA culture and the FA culture, in turn, exacerbated the feelings of unease.
*A non-distinct American accent that could not be attributed to any region or state. Some former students might disagree with me on this point but I doubt they are reading this post, so feel free to assume my assertion is 100% correct.