You can take the girl out of the jungle, but you can't take the girl out of the jungle — that's how the saying goes, right?
As many of you have heard me say a million times, I was a missionary kid in Eastern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea. What started out in 1995 with my parents saying, "Let's stay two years and see how this thing goes" turned into, "Well, Becca and Zach have graduated from high school now, so I guess we'll move back to America" in 2010. The town where my family and I lived, Ukarumpa, was mostly an expat community, with people from all over the world living in a mile-square compound. And while sometimes it was difficult being in such a small, remote town, I still loved it.
But even if you're not from Papua New Guinea (PNG), that doesn't mean you can't relate — especially fellow missionary kids (MKs) know as well as I how small that universe is. And if you're from PNG but didn't specifically grow up in Ukarumpa (I'm looking at you, Numonohi), you'll be able to sympathize with several — if not all — of these experiences:
1. First off, YES, you called it primary school because Papua New Guinea is part of the Commonwealth, but when you say "primary school" in front of your American (or other home country) friends, they tease you.
2. You know the PNG national anthem better than your home country's because you sang it every week in primary school before chapel. In fact, you probably know the Australian, Canadian, British and German national anthems better than your own, too.
3. Monday Chapel was a chance for you and your class to whet your dramatic chops when it was your turn to lead.
4. You knew the ongoing struggle of sprinting from your house so you wouldn't miss the second bus to the primary school. (Confession time: I had to ride the third bus a lot.)
5. You simultaneously loved/hated that the bus was a sardine can. You didn't have to wear seat belts, so lap-sitting was a reg activity to conserve space. Plus, you looked forward to the driver's, Mr. Beadle's, math questions on Friday afternoons — even if you hated math.
6. You remember those days when the Australian military practiced landing their massive planes at the airport, and you couldn't hear your teacher over the noise.
7. Cooperation Day was the awkward stepsister of Sports Day, and everyone dreaded it each year.
8. The maypole was the single greatest piece of equipment on the playground, and the higher you flew, the cooler you were (except those times someone flew off the handlebars and got scabs all over his/her body).
9. You remember the sheer excitement you experienced when an Australian shipment came into the store, and there were Golden Gaytimes and Magnums.
10. You also know that Golden Gaytimes and Magnums aren't sex toys but delicious ice cream bars. However, you now know that Magnums are also a condom brand, and you may have had a weird conversation in the States where you said something along the lines of, "Magnums are delicious." Not that that happened to me or anything...
11. This was your daily diet: A Raro packet, muli and/or Beef Crackers for morning snack, dry 2-Minute Noodles for lunch and another muli or passion fruit for afternoon snack. (How cool was it that we got three recesses a day? #blessed)
12. You didn't want a pet cat but rather a snake or cuscus.
13. The high school campus sounded so cool, but you knew you had to wear shoes, which was obviously a deal breaker because no shoes = no problems.
14. You were super jealous of all of your friends whose parents were Bible translators because that meant they got to go to their villages, be homeschooled and run around the jungle barefoot, whereas you had to stay on centre and run around barefoot.
15. Being barefoot truly was the dream, though. You went sans shoes all through preschool and primary school, and you remember the days the shoe and hat rules were enforced. You still mourn the loss of your calluses and freckles.
16. But seriously — those hats. If they were designed to make ever man, woman and child look as hideous as possible, they succeeded. And I know, I know, they were for our own good and to protect us from the UV rays, blah blah.
17. PE shorts or everyday wear? Trick question. Both.
18. You're still not sure how to spell correctly because your teachers were from any number of different countries.
19. Rainy season was the best, and playing in the mud after school was one of your favourite pastimes. You'd sit in the ditch in front of your yard with your friends and make dams until a security guard came over and told you to stop. (Spoiler: You kept doing it anyways.)
20. If you were American, you only took U.S. History once growing up, but you know all about Latin American and Canadian geography.
21. Every time the school held Cultural Arts Day, where you had to dress up in your traditional garb, all of the Americans felt like idiots. What do Americans wear — Old Navy T-Shirts with the U.S. flag on them? (Yeah, that's what most of us did.)
1. Ah, yes, the "big" campus — so full of possibility. Where you got lockers instead of cubbies, different classrooms and the ability to go home for lunch. But with great power came great responsibility, which mostly manifested in the form of middle school band (how is 7:45 in the morning an ideal time for middle schoolers to play brass instruments?), the dreaded MSO (Middle School Orientation) and math classes that were divided into child prodigy and not-so-much. (I was the latter, obvy.)
2. You remember the excitement of getting the international flag lockers (I had Japan and Jamaica, no biggie).
3. You're still not sure why there was a class called "Study Skills," but you have to admit you could organize your homework notebook like a pro afterward.
4. Teen Centre was the highlight of your week — nay, life. It was when your parents finally gave you the family heirloom: their account number, and you wrote it down on a piece of paper so you wouldn't forget it. Then you boldly sauntered up to the counter and ordered candy galore.
5. You didn't have television, so when you went to Lae or Madang for vacation, you soaked up all the local pop culture you could. You may still have the Bee Mobile commercial from the mid 2000s memorized, as well as the Klina Meri one (put to the tune of "She's a Lady").
6. Speaking of Madang, you've never been to a hotel quite as amazing as Jais Aben or Madang Resort. Maybe you're just biased, but where else could you jump out of a low-hanging tree into the ocean, drink lemon-lime bitters and swim down to a crashed WWII plane?
1. You'd forget to wear a seat belt for a solid week after you got back to your home country because literally no one used them in PNG.
2. You hated having to make new friends every time you went back. You really just missed your friends in Ukarumpa and constantly wondered what they were doing without you.
3. You understand the immense frustration of having to explain where and what PNG is every time you met someone: "So where is Papua New Guinea, exactly? Africa, right?"
"It's actually a country above Australia."
"You live in Australia?!"
"No, above Australia."
"Say, 'G'day mate!'"
4. And then, if you did manage to make friends, they usually assumed you were either A) primitive (someone once explained to me what a VCR was) or B) totally normal. ("So wait, like, there aren't any malls where you live?")
5. Furlough fat — amiright?!
6. I can't be the only one who filled VHS after VHS with "That's So Raven" and "Lizzie McGuire" episodes so I could watch them for the next three years.
7. You eventually came to realize that kids back home could be cool, too, and that you should give them a chance.
8. You fondly recall the strut you made as you walked into your first day of school after furlough, rocking your new, non-hand-me-down clothes. You'd seen the other side, and you'd returned (relatively) unscathed.
9. And then you and your friends would sit around and swap war stories (I wish I were joking) about all of the ignorant things that kids back home had said to us. Sorry, American friends, but it's true.
1. You weren't truly cool (most of us weren't) unless you owned a small bilum that hung at your butt and another that you wore on your chest.
2. Remember that one time an orthodontist came to Ukarumpa ca. 2007 and slapped braces on everyone and their mother (literally)?
3. Your parents were your teachers. I know I'm not the only one. (Hi, Mom, Dad and Uncle Steve.)
4. Even if you weren't athletic, you participated in one sport or another — or maybe all of them.
5. Even though you now understand that they're nice people, you really disliked Numonohi because they were so, "American," and, "Augh, I don't know!" and sometimes beat us in soccer, which was a cardinal sin. But you know they felt the same way about Ukarumpa, too, so I guess we're even?
6. Did anything tear friends apart more than Sports Day? As a former Alpha House Captain, I submit no.
7. You Spirit Week-ed, and you Spirit Week-ed hard.
8. You still have no sense of direction because you never had to navigate in PNG. There was one highway going through the whole country, no one used road signs and each house was named after its previous owners — even years after they had moved out.
9. Jumping out of the tree at Rempi may still be one of your proudest achievements.
10. Almost all of the guys rode motorbikes, and sometimes the above picture would happen and become the cover of the yearbook that year. (OK so maybe it was just that one time.)
11. There were two other people in your AP classes.
12. Decorating your lockers and senior lounge in 12th grade were an important rite of passage, and you stressed for months over a theme for each.
13. Especially if you were ever class reps, you know the struggle of putting on fundraisers all through high school to save up for your senior retreat. (And your senior retreat did not disappoint.)
14. Even into high school you were still obsessed with playing in the rain — only this time it was usually in the form of soccer or rugby (or O.K., sometimes still sitting in the ditch).
15. Your class was supes tight, since there were only about 20 of you, and you'd all grown up together.
1. You didn't always go to market, but when you did, you bought 20 gumis, a bilum and enough roasted peanuts for your entire class.
2. Oh, the bananas all ripened simultaneously on every tree in your yard? Guess Mom will be making banana bread for the next two months.
3. Three words: Higlands. Fried. Chicken. There are so many questions I still have about this restaurant: Was it supposed to be "Highlands" and it was just misspelled on the sign and menus? Were they copying KFC? Why did they serve popcorn? Was it an actual chain? etc.
4. You now understand that no one loves any item of clothing more than Australians with their board shorts and neoprene rash guards and Europeans with their zip-off cargo pants.
5. Chacos may be cool again in the first world, but to you, they'll always be the shoes that the entire Survey department wore.
6. O-Shen, Bob Marley, Felix Yausi and Hausboi for life.
7. You got your first cellphone senior year of high school (2010 for me) because that was when they finally became commercialized in Papua New Guinea. (Buyim Digicel!
8. Your haus meri was like your grandma, and you both cried really hard when you left PNG.
9. You have nothing but respect for Papua New Guinean women, who work in their gardens all day and then carry heavy loads (babies, logs, produce, etc.) on their heads as they walk up mountains (literally!).
10. You still feel guilty about having more money and opportunities than a lot of your Papua New Guinean friends and, at the same time, self-conscious that you're kind of poor compared to other Americans (or insert your home country here).
11. You've been craving mumus, Twisties, Beef Crackers, Milo and P.K. Gum since you left PNG X number of years ago.
12. You know that "bridge out" means you literally can't leave centre and looks like this.
13. You probably have a PNG-themed tattoo somewhere on your body. (Me: Bird of Paradise on ankle. Brother: Bird of Paradise on shoulder. Two cousins: Bird of Paradise on feet. You get the picture.)
1. Graduation was simultaneously the saddest and most exciting event in your life because you and your friends were all leaving the country and didn't know if you'd ever see each other again. But at the same time, you couldn't wait to go to college.
2. You may or may not have listened to "Graduation" by Vitamin C and cried with your friends while you held hands. (Sorry, guys, I had to do it.)
3. Of course leaving was hard, but you're so grateful for all of the MK reunions you've been able to attend, where you get to see your friends and catch up on everything you've missed.
4. You haven't been able to go back to PNG since graduation and really want to, but you also don't know what the dynamics would be like now that you and your family have been gone several years. Also, the $3,000 plane ticket kills your vibe a bit, too.
5. You're well aware that most people didn't get to see a view like this every day.