Food for the TCK Body & Soul
What were the customs and traditions of this African American TCK? At first I couldn’t find anything to write about because I didn’t think I had anything special to say. After scribbling circles of thought, I texted my mom for some inspiration. She called me right away.
“I never really did formal things like eating dinner at the dining table, you know? I let you, even your friends, eat in the living room.” She talked in a roundabout manner at first (I got that habit from her), but then summoned her motherly wisdom and walked me down our shared path in life thus far. “We travelled a lot, so….” I listened, reminisced and remembered.
“To me, religion confused me a lot,” my mom explained. “So I just started believing in the basic foundation. Do unto others as you wish them do unto you. Try to be the best person you can be throughout your life. Don’t try to harm anybody. Try to live by the ten commandments. That’s my religion.”
We moved to Arizona, USA, just before I started first grade. It was my first time living in my passport country. My mom, who had been questioning some of the traditions and realities of her faith, decided to enroll me in a private Christian school. Her intention was to introduce me to God, give me a foundation, and help build a relationship with Him.
At school, I soaked up all the teachings that were offered to my young brain. I received awards for memorizing and reciting bible verses. I was an angel in the Christmas play. Pictures of the event showed glitter from the pipe cleaner halo sprinkled all over my face. The textbook on personal hygiene constantly reminded us to take care of our bodies, which God personally created. My parents bought me illustrated bible stories and I spent a lot of time studying the pictures of important people like Moses, Noah and Jonah.
“I also wanted you to be able to decide whatever denomination or religion you felt most comfortable in,” she explained. “As long as you believe in something that’s gonna make you a better person, go for it. That’s what I say.”
I ended up going to two more Christian schools. In particular, I remember my mom and I trying to discuss what was different about the Lutheran school that I was going to attend for eighth grade. I knew that she had grown up exposed to Baptist and A.M.E churches, which were commonplace in the southern states. We were unsure what to expect, but she told me not to worry too much about it. She was aware of, and respected the fact, that there would be various ways in this world for me to meet God.
“Going to church usually depended on how far the walk was. Sometimes the church my grandmother wanted to go to was too far away. Sometimes it was Baptist, then it was Methodist—then as I’d gotten a little older, my mom was going to a Holiness church. They were all Christian churches but they were different variations. Your dad, he grew up in A.M.E. churches*.”
When visiting churches of different denominations, the style of music was usually the most obvious difference. Another obvious difference was the style in which the pastor delivered the sermon and the expected method of response from the audience. I sometimes preferred the quieter churches where I just needed to sit and attentively listen to the pastor speak. My previous schools had a similar, quiet atmosphere, and I often felt a bit awkward visiting family members’ churches and listening to a boisterous pastor shout praises and sermons to his listeners.
The Lutheran school ended up being very regimented. It had more habitual traditions for weekly ceremonies than I was used to. I had never seen so much attention paid to lighting candles and I was impressed with how involved the students were with helping complete various tasks before and after the sermon. The teachers took turns delivering mini lessons to supplement the sermon for that day’s service. I experienced eating communion wafers for the first time and having my forehead marked with ash. I sometimes imagined I was out of place because I knew I would never have ended up attending this church if I had been anything other than a Third Culture Kid.
USA: San Antonio
“Shannon, you know I don’t do much other than cook. Auntie is cooking for her family this year, so it’ll just be us.” I nodded and headed back upstairs to my room. “Oh,” she said a little louder. “Well, you can ask your friends to come over, if they don’t have anywhere to go for the holidays. Tell them they can join us if they want, and if they don’t mind my cooking.” My mom’s cooking was ‘soul food’—food that Black people in the American south regularly ate. This included slow-cooked meats, vegetables simmering in savory juices, homemade breads and desserts.
I said “ok” and headed off to my room to message people. Highly skeptical and jaded by how previous birthdays had turned out (it was also during the holidays, when most people would be with their relatives), I sent out passive invites. I was in university around this time and I assumed everyone would return to their families. That year and, surprisingly, others, a couple of friends took us up on our offer. Not just for Thanksgiving either, but for Easter too. One college friend attended two of our Easter dinners even though he didn’t normally celebrate the holiday. Everyone knows they can come to my house for an relaxed holiday meal.
All those years ago, I had taken my mom’s soul food for granted. Now that I had her on the phone, I asked her about her perspective on its origins.
“The tradition was, if you were poor, you made the food stretch to feed the family.” she answered.
“Is that why you were really good at cooking for a lot of people?” I asked.
“Yes. Right. I still cook too much. We didn’t use recipes and measuring either. It was a mental thing. We used our hands and fingers. We cooked with smell and taste. We made things from scratch.”
My mom had once told me how much Germany reminded her of home. Germany was the first foreign country she moved to. “They ate a lot of pig and potatoes, just like in my hometown. Our staple was potatoes.” They also had liverwurst, which was like the ‘pudding’ my mom had eaten back home in Rowland, North Carolina.
Going to my visit my mom’s family usually involved a great deal of cooking and eating. There were things my mom could cook that her relatives craved but couldn’t recreate. There were tastes my mom couldn’t recreate as well, no matter how often she practiced. There was one food in particular that my mom always begged her aunt to make:
“It’s a specialty when she makes Southern biscuits. It’s not like the store-bought kind that are big, thick, and flat. She won’t put them in a breadmaker and she won’t roll them out and cut the dough up either. She makes them with her hands, rolling them and shaping them as she goes. She knows how long to knead them so they won’t get tough. Making them from scratch is why they tasted so special. To me, homemade biscuits took time to learn and perfect.”
If it was New Year’s, there was a meal for the occasion too. “The southern tradition in our family is to wish you good health and wealth throughout the new year. The black-eyed peas are for health, the collard greens are for money and we always have some type of pork to symbolize ‘living high on the hog.’ I always liked to cook fatback. Cornbread was always served because it went better with collard greens, and we cooked rice to go under the beans.”
Thinking back now, I’m glad that I had friends who were willing to taste my mom’s cooking. I’m happy that she didn’t have to change the menu to suit their tastes. Serving soul food for the holidays meant sharing a bit of history, and having them come back the following year meant that they acknowledged that history.
USA: Traveling Across the East Coast
My parents were getting a divorce. Whether they planned it or not, the task of going to court and signing the paperwork fell during our Christmas holidays. Up until this time, Christmas was full of gusto. It was celebrated with a mixture of religious and secular traditions. I wrote letters to Santa and my parents left a letter “from Santa” on the dining table late at night on Christmas eve.
“No matter what kind of house we have, Santa always has a magical way of getting into the house to leave presents. He can visit us even when we move or travel, and doesn’t care if we have a chimney or a small roof,” they’d say.
After the divorce, there were the usual presents and new suggestions to go to church with friends. There were attempts each year to create a new tradition, which meant each year we added something different. I joined in on my mom’s sudden festive interior design hobby. We carefully planned which home-made dessert would be the star of the meal and watched as many Christmas movies as possible. We spent hours calling friends and family around the world and catching up. Sometimes we took road trips to visit my mom’s family too. Looking back on it, everything was about flexibility. I can enjoy Christmas in a variety of ways, as long as I find someone to spend it with.
Before speaking to my mom, I believed I had no habits to uphold as an adult living on my own, but perhaps I was wrong. I also think my understanding of customs and traditions as a TCK might not follow conventional definition.
“I just wanted you to be an independent thinker, learn everything from the other cultures around us and then pick up what you liked best. Choose your own route.” She agreed and laughed when I brought up how after living in Asia, we now take our shoes off before entering the house. My mom would also have a pair of chopsticks for me whenever we moved to a new house, which I felt was her way of saying, “let’s not forget what we acquired”.
So far, my most enduring tradition is that I keep adding to my collection of customs. I’ll continue to take part in the traditions around me, learn more about the ones that resonate with me, and pass them on when the time comes.
*A.M.E : African Methodist Episcopal Church.