Raising South Asian Voices

Cynthia Dettman:  Author

Living with Ambivalence- A Book Review

Stephanie Vandrick’s 2019 book “Growing Up With God And Empire” is a fascinating academic analysis of “missionary kid” memoirs.  The book reflects Vandrick’s own ambivalence, and certainly echoes mine, about the “good works” our parents may have done in India balanced against the clear connections between missions and colonial empire.  I found only one review of the book on Amazon, and that indignant reader was clearly insulted by Vandrick’s critique.  I wish to offer a more balanced view of her analysis and recommend the book.

The first caveat:  this is an academic analysis with a lot of academic jargon.  The book is NOT written for the average layperson.  I hope Vandrick will forgive my layperson’s critique.  I realize that the book is a very technical one related to academic research.  Second caveat:  Vandrick brings a very particular anti-colonial orientation to the work.  Third caveat:  It’s worth reading!

Vandrick analyzed a collection of memoirs written primarily by adults who grew up as missionary kids (MKs) in non-Western countries during the l930s to l970s.   From these very personal, anecdotal stories she looks for a variety of themes related to historical links between colonization and missions, as well as the privileged positions of MK education, attitudes towards local culture, and gender and racial assumptions.

Surely one’s view of missionary memoirs is colored by one’s own political and religious orientation.  I was raised in a liberal Christian family.  When I returned to the US and to college, I immediately embraced a left-wing, critical analysis of the US and of the missionary enterprise, looking through the lens of social justice and anti-imperialist critiques.  But if I had been raised by evangelical Christian parents and remained a Christian, perhaps I would view the missionary life as a legitimate, God-directed enterprise and one that was separate from the aims of colonial masters.  If my parents were doing useful, non-religious social work in collaboration with Indians, couldn’t I view their projects as egalitarian and justified, even in opposition to colonialism?

I invite readers across the political and religious spectrum to seriously consider Vandrick’s ideas.  Isn’t it quite true that Western countries colonized the entire planet during the l500s, l600s, l700s, l800s, and l900s?  Isn’t it true that the Christian religion, the sword and business interests arrived at the same time with the goal of CHANGING and CONTROLLING those societies?  The evangelist was more concerned with saving souls.  The soldier wanted to establish dominance.   Business wanted to take and use those countries’ many resources:  spices, minerals, laborers, and markets.  Was our parents’ work really so separate from these larger imperial goals, even during the l950s and l960?  Did we not enjoy high levels of privilege as MKs, with our servants and our many future opportunities?

I agree with Vandrick’s basic analysis.  I agree that most missionary kids lived in an invisible privileged bubble, had an (often unconscious) belief in superiority.  I also agree with her references to the life-long trauma many MKs experience because of their nomadic lives and separation from mothers and fathers.   I have two problems with her analysis, however.  Vandrick leaps rapidly from the particular to the general and back again.  Sometimes she begins with her own analysis of colonialism and imperialism, then appears to look for those factors or meanings in the memoirs.  The connections seem a bit forced at times.  Also, white people and North Americans have a long tradition of believing their racial and cultural “superiority”, often unrecognized, often denied.  Surely missionaries would be no different.  In that sense, I found her thesis not particularly illuminating.

This book does resonate, though, and addresses important issues.  I found Vandrick’s discussions of personal ambivalence most compelling.   She agrees that particular missionaries did particular good works, especially medical and education-related missionaries.  Yet she feels critical and uncomfortable about the larger issues involved in international mission work.  And she acknowledges the identity confusion that many of us Third Culture Kids face as adults.  The book is worth reading for these discussions alone.

Vandrick raises the same questions I have grappled with over the years, never to be fully resolved.  Today I visit India, the country where my parents were missionaries, in order to stay connected to my childhood experiences.  And I visit India to try to offer secular, helpful services approved by the Indian government whose aim is to help promote social justice in a highly oppressive society.  I hope I’m not carrying on the colonial tradition!  Do I continue to carry those invisible attitudes of superiority? Am I on my own mission to bring “enlightened” ideas to another country?   I will likely continue to live with missionary kid ambivalence for the rest of my years!


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