Growing Up with God and Empire, A Postcolonial Analysis of ‘Missionary Kid’ Memoirs, by Stephanie Vandrick

Stephanie Vandrick is Professor of Rhetoric and Language at the University of San Francisco,
Review forthcoming in Anabaptist Witness

Vandrick offers perspective from a distinct minority group. Herself a daughter of a close-knit missionary doctor’s family in India for ten years (when ages 2-7 and 10-15), Vandrick highlights adult writing by 42 individuals who were “MKs” as children. A chart lists the memoirists who wrote during their mid to end-of-life years, their memoirs published between 1976 and 2014. It indicates the twenty-six countries where they had been located, the diverse boarding schools that they attended. Born between 1900-1979, 22 women and 20 men write in varied styles.

Vandrick avoids lumping all missionaries together. Disparate motives and goals of parents offer Christian values and religion to an array of nationals, improvements in social or economic living standards, and partially enable the western colonial spread of empire. While Vandrick incorporates broader aspects of mission work through historians like American Frykenberg, Nigerian Okon, and Dane scholar Vallgarda, she retains focus on missionary children’s experience, on “Mish Kids” according to common parlance. Rarely did American mission boards that supported five thousand workers by 1900 credit or publicize non-adult activity. In general, older memoirists tend to “romanticize their early experience, to emphasize the positive,” Vandrick notes. Children from different locations and family size vary in overall judgment of “MK” benefits or handicaps.

Themes give focus to chapters of the book: The Exotic, Treatment of Local People, Schooling, Learning Local Languages (or not), plus Gender, Race and Social Class. While more attention centers in boarding schools, exotic reports include incidents with animals like snakes, observations of festivals or religious rituals, and travel ventures or hardships. Treatment of local people highlights connection with servants (cooks, ayah/child care, mali/ground worker), social strata or awareness of privilege, and stereotypes. Informal language skill develops through play with local children or women assigned to child care. Formal language study increases in some school settings; such might differ from dialects or languages practiced by parents. To mimic the English spoken by locals or what appears on road or shop signage occurs. While children sense how fathers could be designated the “main missionary” compared to mothers, they frequently respect single, professional women missioners as mentors. Wives were known to model household roles, as “Bible women” among women nationals. Boys moved more freely than young girls within local areas. Memoirists note patriarchal contexts “back home” too, including fear that capable women missioners might develop “too much” independence or power. With all memoirists being white, often among darker-skinned people, they note privileges of colonial power. Higher status for parents did not follow during the year “on furlough,” often after multiple-year terms on location.

Boarding school becomes a major theme for memoirists, few being home schooled or attenders of local schools. Vandrick notes that little research has been done about boarding schools for “MKs.” My personal interest in this book stems from having been a “matron” at Woodstock School, located in one of India’s hill stations, with 6-8th grade girls along with teaching during 1962-65. Rigid to welcoming patterns of school dorm ‘matrons’ varies for memoirists. (Neither the Mennonite Church nor the General Conference Board of Missions showed interested in information tallied from my questionnaire given to Woodstock 10-12th grade students later in the 1960s. But the cross-cultural privilege that shaped life-long values for husband John and me as Overseas Mission Associates, teaching/connecting with Mennonite students—at that time the third largest denomination represented—at Woodstock, grew through visits with student families at “home” locations during winter vacation periods.)

Boarding provides interracial, international, interdenominational and interreligious friendships for “MKs.” They develop self-dependence and come to rely on each other in profound ways. Most schools provide good academic learning and opportunity to absorb a nonwestern country’s people, holidays, and local terrain. They offer hiking and other athletic, music, drama, and creative writing training along with disciplined study led by international teachers and local staff.

For many, the experience of separation (near-abandonment) from parents, often beginning at an early age, is difficult. Memoirists reflect on their need not to complain, however, because “parents need to do God’s work.” Or, they train themselves to deny emotional feelings. Through doubts of self-worth or confusion about parents’ first duty being toward nationals or a Mission Board far away, scars remain. For the few who knew abuse but could not talk about it (especially in some West African locations), the pain lingers. Loneliness could lessen if siblings shared boarding. (Some missionaries also write about deep pain in coping with separation from their children.)

Memoirists reflect too on furlough “back home” which could feel less like “home.” Having known quite different cultural, social or religious features, many did not ‘fit in’ with western school mates. Often better academic students, “MKs” resent western youth’s, limited knowledge of the world. Expected to visit sponsoring churches and repeatedly saying “Good-bye” could cause some to dislike the U.S. or Canada. A sense of “Othering” also could shape effort, confusion, and judgment as it was owned and processed, Vandrick notes, toward westerners or nationals of a second culture.

Vandrick’s memoirist attention to “Mish Kid” experience as children prompts her thoughts toward other transitions—university years, possible marriage, and receiving international folk to western shores. I definitely valued reading this book.