International childhoods: some share rootless pasts

FAITH EIDSE WAS the daughter of Canadian Mennonite missionaries living in the Congo when she realized that she must share her parents with the needy people around her.

She would wait in line with other villagers to speak to her father, and she bathed patients by her mother's side in order to be close to her.


"I could not hope to hold my father's attention," she writes. And of her mother: "If only I could do something to earn her touch."

Her essay is part of a collection she edited with Nina Sichel titled Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing up Global. (Nicholas Brealey Publishing / Intercultural Press, 2004, $23.95)


It includes 20 stories from a group so diverse that it includes Pat Conroy and Isabel Allende. It is about what it was like to grow up beyond the borders of your home country as the child of missionaries, diplomats, businessmen or the military, and, as The Times of London aptly remarked, it is a "cacophony of comment in which complaint and celebration are bewilderingly entwined."

Eidse collected these memories over 10 years after discovering that "people who have had this experience can't find a place to talk about it.

"The average American will give you about 10 minutes to talk about your international experience, and then they are ready to move on," she says.

For that reason, the book will be cathartic for anyone who also had an expatriate childhood.

But for those of us who never lived beyond the subdivision, and who have determinedly provided roots for our own children, it is a remarkable view to a remarkable way of life -- both enriching and devastating.

"This is seeing the world from people who have entered it with their pores open," Eidse says from her home of 12 years in Tallahassee, Fla.

"My essay does focus on some of the wrenching challenges and estrangements of that life," she admits. "But everyone with this experience feels that they have triumphed in some way, whether their childhood was challenging or just simply enriching."

In contrast to Eidse's disquieting memories, the opening essay by Pico Iyer, from which the book takes its title, celebrates children who learned "to root themselves in ideas rather than places, in memories as much as in material things. ...


"By the time I was nine, I was already used to going to school by trans-Atlantic plane, to sleeping in airports, to shuttling back and forth, three times a year. ...

"I am a fairly typical product of a movable sensibility, living and working in a world that is itself increasingly small and increasingly mongrel. I am a multinational soul on a multicultural globe where more and more countries are as polyglot and restless as airports.

"I fold my self and carry it round with me as if it were an overnight case," Iyer writes.

Coincidentally, North Carolina State University professor Elaine Neil Orr has also just published a memoir of growing up in Nigeria with her medical missionary parents titled Gods of Noonday: A White Girl's African Life (University of Virginia Press, 2004, $27.95).

"It seems like a watershed moment," says Orr. "I think it took us until we got to a certain age before we could articulate it. Certainly no other generation before did this."

Like some of the authors in Unrooted Childhoods, Orr knew only Africa and her life there until she was sent away to school. It was devastating to her.


"I heard from a woman who grew up in Northern Nigeria in the 1940s and she was sent out of the country when she was five and her sister was eight.

"She had suffered terribly and she had buried her memory of it. She remembered it when she read my book. She had dealt with her life by forgetting."

But it was a happy time in Orr's life. Like Eidse, she could not compete for her parents' attention with Nigerians who were sick or dying. But she also lived in the outdoors and her father was her companion in nature.

When she returned to a newly integrated school in the states in 1968, she was lost.

"I thought the world was Nigeria. That the world was made up of black people and there were so few white people that we weren't even a minority.

"All my sympathy and my kinship was with the black kids and I could not even get across the lunchroom from where the white kids were.


"I have been in that limbo for most of my life," she says. "There has never been any place for me to sit. "

Orr wrote her memories of Nigeria while undergoing and recovering from transplant surgery that now prevents her from living in Nigeria again. But she has been able to visit, and she is greatly comforted by those visits.

"It is absolutely true that a huge motivation in my living through the transplants was getting back to Nigeria.

"I would love to live half of my life there, to teach and work and contribute.

"But when I am in Nigeria even a week, I begin to settle in. I recall the rhythms of living there, and I am at ease."

Faith Eidse and Nina Sichel will conduct a reading and discussion on Unrooted Childhoods at the Barnes & Noble bookstore at the Inner Harbor Sunday, June 26 beginning at 4 p.m.

For the record

The date for the reading and discussion of Unrooted Childhoods at Barnes & Noble at the Inner Harbor was incorrect in Sunday's Home & Family section. The event will take place at 4 p.m. Saturday, June 26.The Sun regrets the error.