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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For a fictional representation of the life of missionary kids in Africa, you can do no better than read Barbara Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible”. For me, one of the greatest books of modern times. I thoroughly recommend it. It’s gripping, fascinating and full of empathy.

Hi Cindy,
I have been in touch with Stephanie as well. I took forward to reading her book thank you for your book review.

Sounds like we followed similar trajectories after coming back from Kodai. I can’t remember what mission your parents were in but mine were also service oriented.

In 1954 when my father was on furlough in Denver, He was approached by somebody from the US government who feigned and int’rest in Indian culture and of course was happy to show anybody slides about India and invited the man for dinner. After a while the man made a proposal that my father take pictures of bridges and railway stations and other infrastructure and pass it on to somebody at the US consulate.He refused and the man told him it was his dyty. My Dad was incensed and asked him to leave. I know of another missionary doctor who regularly sent reports to the US Consulate.

Would love to chat about your book sometime. I just finished a semi autobiographical novel and am shopping it sround.

Interesting that the CIA wanted help from your missionary father! Rob, what work did your parents do, and what do you do now? Good for you for finishing a novel to the point where it’s ready to be published. wow. The pandemic has rather taken the wind out of my writing sails. Cynthia

Yes, there are several books about children raised in missionary families and their later years’ perspectives about it. But we have to give credit to people who tried to do their best, given the world view and international relations of their times. How could they have had the ethical perspective of our times? Earlier there was no discussion of human rights, and not much of comparative religions and comparative cultures. My parents felt the Call of God to “dark India” to “save souls”, and pledged to stay for 5 years before WWII, then returned, and my mother remained till death in her village in Tamil Nadu, to fulfill her call until the end. And yes, over 1000 of her churches were established in Tamil Nadu. But like Stephanie Vandrick and most “miss kids” I am ambivalent, respecting their devotion, but absolutely against such conversion efforts, and in fact my rebellion was to go into anthropology as a reaction to their creationism, and to take a PhD in South Asian Studies to learn ABOUT India and not to convert it. But now many of us have had another facet of our self-identity in working for “development” in these countries. Is working in World Bank, USAID, NGOs etc any less a expression of our view of “us” and “them” ? Cynthia Dettman didn’t have to wrestle with the problem of religions conversion as her family was in university work. But still, we will all live with this dilemma of “do-good” till the end of our lives. At the same time, most of us remain thankful that we had this kind of multi-cultural and multi-ethnic childhood which has given us a broader perspective of life and values than most kids get. So thanks for raising and discussing these thoughts.

it’s all so complicated, isn’t it? Your mother sounds very dedicated! What exactly did she do in that village? Cynthia

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