A glorious, but mildly absurd childhood

I am a Global Nomad, also known as a Third-Culture Kid. I had a glorious, but mildly absurd childhood. Or at least, that’s what I hear. Seemed fine to me; it was the only life I knew, and as all of my friends lived similarly, I figured it was normal.

For some people, answering the question “Where are you from?” is a no-brainer. “Wichita, Kansas,” you might say; or “Albany, New York.” For me, the answer is more of a “Whellllp, it’s complicated.”

I was born in Newport Beach, California. The problem is, if I run into anyone from my ‘home town,’ I look like a deer in headlamps when asked for details. Beyond getting from grandma’s house to the beach across the street, I know absolutely nothing about my home town.

I left California when I was three, and from there, traipsed around the world from post to post with my family: Vientiane, Laos; Taipei, Taiwan; Bangkok, Thailand; Saigon, Vietnam; Accra, Ghana; Monrovia, Liberia. Yes, that’s seven countries on two continents in about 20 years, and about 15 schools. I also later landed in Zaire, France, and the UK, but that’s a whole ‘nother story!

Dates: Don’t get me started on dates—I have devised a formula to come up with an approximation of when I lived where: I remember the music we were into at the time; figure out the year the album was released; add two years (we were always a little behind the rest of the world), and Bob’s yer uncle! Like this:

  • On a bus in Saigon singing “Angie” (Rolling Stones)
  • Released in 1973
  • Add 2 years
  • Yup: I lived in Saigon in 1975

Works like a charm.

To me, this life was normal, in the same way that the kid from Wichita thought her childhood was normal. I mean, didn’t everyone live this way? All of my friends did.

Don’t get me wrong; this realization of the absurdity of my upraising had hit me previously (especially when I first moved “Back to the World,” as we called the States). But I managed to suppress most of it, because the ‘different’ took way too long to explain. So until I was about 40, if someone asked where I was from, I’d say, “California,” and scoot that conversation right along to something else right quick!

In my older and wiser years, I’m embracing the absurd and venturing into “Where I’m From” land. It’s challenging. For one thing, sometimes things just get lost in the translation.1)One rather embarrassing example stems from my singing a Chinese love song I’d learned long ago in Taiwan to a friend from Singapore. He looked puzzled, and said “Kimmy, I have absolutely no idea what you’re saying.” Man, I’d been singing that song for decades! In Romulan, apparently. I mean, my family (like yours, I’m sure) has its own vocabulary, a conglomeration of made-up words (what the hell is a frangipangi!?), and just plain expat-isms that to this day crop up in my everyday speech. I keep my canned goods in a go-down, not a pantry; I wear go-aheads instead of flip-flops in the summer; open sewers will always be benjos; and a click of the tongue just means “no.”

Where most ‘normal’ American childhoods are defined spatially, mine is defined in a much more squishy way temporally.

“Where are you from?” is not an easy question for someone with an absurd childhood.

Laos

It seems to have all started in about 1966. I’ll have to take some poetic license in getting dates mostly right. In fact, the only date I know I have absolutely right is April 20, 1975: the day I left Saigon. That one is kind of a no-brainer. But I digress.

My late ex-step-father (a.k.a. Fang, but we won’t go into that) was with the U. S. Agency for International Development. I have no idea what he did. Really. The fact that just about every country we lived in went through some sort of structural/governmental madness, war, or coup d’état is in no way a reflection of what my dad did. No, really. I’ve been told he was a controller—which means absolutely nothing to me, and probably doesn’t to you, either. But that was his title. He traveled a lot, which was fine with the rest of the family. I mean, even when he was there he wasn’t really there there, so he’ll not be much in evidence in these pages. The important thing to know is that his job—whatever it was—took us to some very cool (depending on your perspective) places. And the first was Laos.

Vientiane, Laos is not Wichita, Kansas. Most people I’ve met in America outside of DC couldn’t find it on a map at gunpoint. I’ve never been to Wichita, but I can hands-down pretty much guarantee it’s nothing like Vientiane–then or now. (I have no idea where this recent fixation on Wichita came from, but I’m just going with the flow for now. Who knows? I may change my American benchmark later to Oskaloosa, Iowa, about which I do know and simply choose to forget. But that’s another story.)

Anyway, one reached Laos in those days in a rickety airplane that to my childhood-in-retrospect seems to have been held together with spit and chewing gum. Also, one didn’t land in Vientiane so much as drop in. At the time, apparently, Vientiane was surrounded on three sides by Bad Guys; the fourth side was the Mekong River. Because the Bad Guys weren’t awfully fond of us, a normal glider-like descent was inadvisable. So you’d circle, round and round until someone pulled the bones out of the fire, read your fortune, and decide that it was safe to drop in. Literally: you were up… and then you were down.2)If you’ve ever flown in or out of John Wayne airport in Newport Beach, you’ll know exactly what this feels like. John Wayne is one of my favorite airports in the States–waaahooooooooo!! Bam! I don’t know, seemed normal to me at the time. And besides, any trips in a plane before the age of about 10, and I was too busy puking into my mom’s purse to really notice. (It took me years to figure out that I wasn’t air sick; I was asphyxiated and poisoned by the fact that everyone (!) on the damned plane was smoking!)

What first-time visitors to Southeast Asia mostly remember about stepping out of the plane is the solid wall of heat and humidity that smashes into you. Laos is hot. Damned hot. If you think your town is hot during the summer, you need to get your ass over to Southeast Asia, get a little perspective, and quit your bitching. Doesn’t matter the season; there’s hot and muggy, and hot and wet.

Now, there seems to be a small subset of my genes that are from the Klondike, because no matter how long I lived in the tropics, I sweat. One of my mom’s favourite sayings is “Men sweat; ladies glow.” Not me. Nope; my head sweats. And not in a dainty little glowing way. We’re talking rivers here. I don’t know what my hair looked like when we landed in Laos, but within days, my mother had chopped it pretty damned short and it has stayed pretty much that way ’til now.

We landed that first trip with all the best accoutrements of the time. My mom was a bit of a clothes horse, and she imposed some of these tendencies on me (which lasted until about ten years ago when I discovered sweats, riding tights, and the joys of walking on pain-free feet—oh yeah!). No dungarees (or whatever they were calling jeans back then) or hand-me-downs. We landed in style: Bullocks dresses (sort of a Neiman Marcus), fisher-net stockings (as I insisted on calling them), patent-leather shoes, hats, and gloves. Style, I tell you! Style! But also sweat. Lots and lots of sweat.

USAID. Let me explain USAID for the uninitiated. My mother always called it the Embassy’s Outhouse. “A-I-D” or “use-aid” was a necessary evil in that part of the world, but never really taken seriously by the Real Diplomats. We were (according to Mom) tolerated by the larger diplomatic community, but really, only a couple of steps above the poor Peace Corps volunteers, who usually arrived in-country looking all kinds of Goldie-Hawn-Exuberant, only to leave a couple of years later looking like something the cat had dragged through a pile of malarial, hepatitis-infected rats. A-I-D—“Let them eat cake!” the ambassador said.

As befit our lowly status, we were shuttled to the first of three or four houses we were to inhabit for the next four years. The first house was a BOQ—short for Bachelor Officers Quarters. No, dad wasn’t a bachelor (at least legally); nor, that I’m aware of, was he an officer. But in we went. The furniture was classic U.S. Embassy Local; all rattan and sort of hand-me-down kind of stuff that, to my mother’s horror, I miss to this day. She made the best of that place, as she did of all of our homes (lots and lots and lots of them!). She re-finished the couch cushions with Thai silk in hot oranges, pinks, and turquoise. So retro-ly cool now, and so tropical. Robinson Crusoe meets Jim Thompson (look it up)

Which was appropriate, since we were surrounded by the very essence of “tropics.” Let me explain to you young whippersnappers, you “I went to Thailand and survived the Ten-Day Resort Experience” pansy-asses out there: this was the real Third World, kiddo! No every-house-with-its-own-generator for us. No water filters on the tap. No…, well, not a whole lot of nothin’. Water was intermittent, so you always kept a spare bottle or two near the shower for those inevitable times when the water went out with your hair full of shampoo. (How did they time that!?) Electricity? Like Italian traffic lights, more of a suggestion than a reality. Oh god, then there was the air conditioning. The embassy, in its infinite wisdom and grace (remember, we’re the out-house) gave us only enough air conditioners to kill us; or maybe it was just my mom’s idea of a comfort level, but when the air outside is 195 degrees with the humidity, walking into our house was always a bit like stepping into a deep freezer. I don’t know who built these things, but man, they could hum (when there was electricity). And every bedroom had an overhead fan. Not one of these delicate whisper thingies people use in the States as decoration. No, these things could lift a B-52, but with more decibels. (It took me years to be able to sleep without one.)

Noam Chomsky visited Vientiane in 1970. He wrote (among other things) that “An American can live in the suburbs, complete with well-tended lawns, or in a pleasant villa rented from a rich Laotian, and can commute to the huge USAID compound with its PX and other facilities.”3)Special Supplement: A Visit to Laos, The New York Review of Books, Volume 15, Number 2 · July 23, 1970, available at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/10894 (visited January 3, 2015).  I’m not sure what, exactly, he meant by “PX and other facilities,” but I do know that life was pretty basic there. Okay, so the lawns were well-tended. And yes, most everyone had a maid. But I challenge Mr. Chomsky to step out of his shower, as my mother did one day, to a viper in the middle of the bathroom floor, and call it the suburbs. Luckily, one of our intrepid cats played with it to death. The cat lived.

Then there was the cobra who took up residence along the entrance to our front door. He seemed to be hibernating, so we just let him be, and one day, he was gone.

Suburbs my ass.

I probably should have prefaced this: if you want a comparative narrative, then yes, we lived in the lap of luxury compared to our neighbours, many of whom shared kitchen space with their poultry. If you want a political or socio-economic commentary, go read a book.

So, back to the snakes. While most of the countries I lived in seem to have been defined by their snake population, Laos pretty much took the cake. The next house we lived in after the BOQ, in fact, had a banyan tree (quite a lot like this one) in the front yard that was renowned as the Snake Tree. Think biiiig (yes, I was small, but this really was a very large tree); think tentacles of roots snaking [sorry] out all over the place, and then imagine these roots moving. I know I did—that tree scared the bejeebers out of me! It was a haven for every snake that had been driven out of every other yard. My mother tried everything to reduce the risks, including buying two geese—Bonnie and Clyde—who were supposed to be snake killers. Unfortunately, they were so loud we had to get rid of them (I didn’t ask). The next line of snake defense was our Intrepid Gardener (yes, we had a gardener, too—see previous disclaimer regarding sociological commentary and get a life!). Intrepid Gardener’s primary responsibility was not, in fact, taking care of the garden. It was killing snakes. Pure and simple. Find snake; kill it. Perhaps not the most enlightened approach in the world, but when you’re surrounded by some of the most venomous bastards in the world (I mean the snakes, not the diplomatic community; well, not really), you’d be pretty unenlightened, too.

To a very large degree, my life in Laos was pretty good, and frankly, I didn’t know any different (having never actually met anyone from Wichita). We had an American school on the compound that went from kindergarten to 12th grade, all housed under (mostly) the same roof. My classmates came from all points of the globe, as did our excellent teachers. We had an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and Munro Leaf, the author of the children’s book, “The Story of Ferdinand,” even came to visit! I may have been the only kid in Vientiane with a copy of his book, and he signed it (alas, lost in one of the kazillion moves that define my life). Backwater? Oh, hell no! But definitely off the beaten path.

Random memory: my mother always created the most magnificent gardens in every house we lived in. In Laos she found the perfect flower: it was a deep red, almost daisy-like flower, with long wispy stems. One day, she was visited by someone from the Embassy. This wasn’t some friendly from-on-high sort of visit; no, this was a bit more official than that. It would seem that Mom had planted (wait for it…) opium poppies. In Laos. And apparently, someone from the Embassy who obviously had not received the memo about poppies in Laos being good for American Foreign Policy, decided that my mom’s crop had to go. Suuuure, the rest of Laos could keep their crops, and even share with the same Embassy, but nope: Mom’s flowers HAD TO GO. She had no idea she was growing opium, and didn’t much care. They were just pretty little red flowers.

Another random memory: One fluent term in my vocabulary that distinguishes me from the average Wichita kid is “Ammo Dump.” (“Med Evac” is another, but we’ll get to that in Saigon). Because I was still a young child (she said, sheepishly), I would occasionally get scared in the night and crawl into my parents’ bed. This worked well for me, but I’m sure was a royal pain for the Aged ‘Rents. But this particular night, it was especially good for me. At some ungodly hour of the night, my mother awoke out of a dead sleep.

She shook Fang and said, “Did you hear that?”

“What?!” he responded (kind of a light sleeper, but a little freaky upon awaking).

“The windows rattled and it’s not storming. Did you hear it?”

“No,” Dad said. “Go back to sleep.”

A few minutes later, the same thing: “Did you hear that?!” Mom asked, a little more insistently.

“No! Leave me alone!”

Finally, a few seconds later, the whole world turned upside down. Windows shook, rattled, and rolled, and the sky outside lit up like a Tet festival.

Calmly, and with what I now recognize as a touch of sarcasm, my mother turned to a now fully-awake, alert, and alarmed Fang and said, “Well, I hope to hell you heard that!”

The ammunition dump, which was only a few kilometers from our house, had blown up. Boom! But really, much more of a Boom! BOOOOOOOM!!!! Boom, boom, and so on. And on. And on. You get the picture: the skies opened up, the end of the world was nigh, and “Horsemen” and “Apocalypse” was on everyone’s lips. My mother did what any self-respecting, good-looking young lady in her mid-20s would do in a similar situation: she got up, got dressed, and put on her make-up.

“I’ve seen those women being evacuated from places like this, and I’ll be damned if I’m going out looking like that!”

When we got outside, the whole neighbourhood was out watching (and listening) to the show. Our neighbor, Mrs. _____, came outside, took one look at the situation, went back inside, and made yet another bottomless pitcher of martinis (cocktails were big in the 60s). Another neighbor came out and checked her roses. I’m not sure if she checked her kids first; really, she was a little nutty about the roses.

Laos—you never knew what was going to come at you, but all in all, for an absurd childhood, I led a fairly normal existence. School, just like anyone from Wichita. Swim team. Floods. Ammo dumps. Snakes. Spooks….

Yeah. It was like that. Best. Fucking. Childhood. Ever.

References   [ + ]

1. One rather embarrassing example stems from my singing a Chinese love song I’d learned long ago in Taiwan to a friend from Singapore. He looked puzzled, and said “Kimmy, I have absolutely no idea what you’re saying.” Man, I’d been singing that song for decades! In Romulan, apparently.
2. If you’ve ever flown in or out of John Wayne airport in Newport Beach, you’ll know exactly what this feels like. John Wayne is one of my favorite airports in the States–waaahooooooooo!!
3. Special Supplement: A Visit to Laos, The New York Review of Books, Volume 15, Number 2 · July 23, 1970, available at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/10894 (visited January 3, 2015).