My Point of Contact: A Cultural Analysis of Beer Budget Jet Setters

“So, you want me to tell you your fortune or what?” My new friend was shuffling through her deck of cards on the patio outside our hostel in Lima. I sat down across from her, and asked how the  cards worked. She explained how she would put her energy into the cards, and then use that connection  to interpret what she saw in whichever card turned up, a sort of write your own story, choose your own ending kind of deal. She looked up and smiled sheepishly as she realized it all probably sounded pretty ridiculous. We never got around to my fortune, and I would have declined if it came to that, but we actually talked quite a lot during the three days that our paths crossed. I learned the story of how her parents had fled their native South American country during the dictatorships and death squads of the 70s to settle on the Canadian Great Plains. She had since traded in big sky country for an end-of-the-road surfing town on the Pacific coast, but now she was back in Latin America, exploring the heritage her parents had been forced to leave behind.

A few months ago, I stumbled across an article online by Michele Phoenix, a former “missionary kid” (MK), who later became a teacher in a boarding school for missionary and expat students in Germany. She now blogs and presents seminars designed to help MKs, or TCKs, relate to their mono-cultural counterparts. To clarify, MKs fall under the umbrella of TCKs, or “third-culture kids”. Examples would be children of diplomats, overseas business workers, or military personnel. These are kids who grow up outside of their home country’s culture and, many times, move around too often to put down permanent roots in any one place. In contrast, a mono-cultural person spends their whole life within one cultural context, if not also entirely in one physical location. The vast majority of a population in any country would be considered mono-cultural.

Phoenix argues that one of the most critical differences between the two groups is in how they form relationships. TCKs can be capable of forming deep, long-lasting relationships very quickly, because they have to. It may be one year in a school, or even one week at a missions conference, before it’s time to move on. Not seeing close friends and family for months or years at a time is normal, so they become wired to either latch onto or discard and dismiss potential relationships in a very compacted amount of time. In mono-cultural settings, time is required to form friendships, and for someone who grows up in one place, attends the same school year after year, and takes a job in the same town, time is not an issue. There is a high value placed on basic pleasantries and small talk, and for a newcomer to progress beyond these, he or she needs to become part of the community, building a lifetime of shared experiences in the process. Time is required and expected.

The article was an interesting read, and my own experiences would back up her theory. That said, I see not so much two distinct categories as I do a spectrum, with children of missionaries at one extreme and someone from a traditional society in a rural village at the other.

All right, sociology lesson over. I spent the first half of last year crisscrossing the country in a work truck with a crew from the Midwest. Apart from work trips, they had spent their whole lives in one state. They had been working together for over 2 years, and some of them had known each other since long before that. With brownish blond hair and a diet heavy on steak and potatoes, they were as American as they come. Then one day, I showed up, a mixed-race, internationally traveled New Englander. On top of that, I came from a household that ate more rice than potatoes. Very suspicious. Clearly, I was an outsider. We actually got along very well. I couldn’t have asked for a better team to work with I still count them among my friends. But in the 4 months we spent together, our discussions almost never went beyond the usual talking points of cars, girls, and whether we could get by one more day without doing laundry. Personal stuff was off limits. Spiritual things? Forget it. For this group, four months was just not enough time to get beyond the basics.

In contrast, there is my fortune telling friend from Canada. There’s also the Turkish tango dancer headed for an Ayahusca experience in the jungle. There’s the middle aged woman trekking through the Andes, looking in the mountains for a meaning to life that she hadn’t found in back in San Francisco. There’s the European party bro, hopped up on bargain basement cocaine, looking to cram as many wild nights as possible into the limited time he has here. These are backpackers, a whole assortment of more adventurous than average people, who float around from hostel to hostel, country to country, and form a loose community and culture of their own in the process. They may not be full on third culture kids, but they fall more towards that end of the spectrum than your average person. What I’ve found is that they are much more willing to share their stories and dive into a thoughtful discussion, spiritual topics included. They haven’t all come to Peru just for a good time and amazing photos. They’re looking for meaning, fulfillment, for answers—and they’re willing to talk about it. Some are, on the surface, antagonistic to the Gospel, but they are open to healthy discussion, and in my short time here, I’ve had far more opportunities to talk about what I believe and why, than I ever did with my mono-cultural, potato packing road crew.

At Grace Church, we’ve been talking a lot recently about our “point of contact” with those who do not know Christ. Before, I would have said vaguely that everything was my point of contact, since I find myself almost entirely in non-Christian circles. That was before I learned to think of backpackers as a unique group with their own set of values. In reality, they are their own third culture, bound together not by time and physical location, but by the shared experience of pursuing a jet-set lifestyle on a (very cheap) beer budget. By packing my bags and setting off on my own South American adventure, I have, by default, joined their ranks. Backpackers are my point of contact.

I know that many of you pray for me on a regular basis, and I am thankful for it. It is a great encouragement; feel free to continue! You can pray that I would be wise in the discussions that arise, never ashamed of the Gospel, and “always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks for the hope that we have.” (1 Peter 3:15)

Peru has been great, by the way. Friendly people, amazing food, and an accessible network of experienced expats ready to lend helping hands. I’ve been playing regular, competitive soccer again for the first time in years. I’ve taken some intense salsa classes and finally learned how to dance it properly. I was even featured in a TV commercial here. Life has been very good, but I’ve decided that after two months, it’s time to push on. I’ve since said goodbye to Peru and I’m writing these last paragraphs from a hillside overlooking the lights of Rio de Janeiro, a city that has captured my heart more than any other in the world. Living in Brazil will bring a whole new set of challenges, and I’ll need prayer for those too. What does it look like for a Christian to pack his bags, get on a plane, and stumble his way through surviving in a faraway country? I’m about to find out, and the community of backpackers around me is about to find out as well. Pray for my talk. Pray for my walk. And may God bless this adventure.

*Ayahuasca – a hallucinogenic drink made from a plant in the Amazon jungle, often administered by a shaman in spiritual ceremonies.

by Ian Bridgman

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