Cumin Lamb and Cigarettes: A College Bound TCK Looks Back as He Looks Forward

by Jerry Jones on November 16, 2016

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Just three weeks before we moved to China we celebrated with some of our very best friends.  Their son was turning 7 (that’s him totally owning the noodles).  We partied like we were shipping out tomorrow (even though we still had several days left and we were taking a plane).

The ironic twist to that story is just four weeks before we moved to China we had never met any of them.  That’s how instant our connection was.  They were Lifers from the get-go and while I could write volumes about the adventures our two families have had since then I’m actually going to let the 7 year old write this one.

He’s headed to college next year.

In response to an essay question on The Common Application he beautifully exposed the heart of a TCK, with the poignancy of his mother (who is an artist with words) and the clarity of his father (whose passion, expertise and life’s work it is to help ministries and missionaries tell their stories).

Here’s a glimpse into a brilliant young mind, shaped significantly (in his formative years) by life abroad.

The Question:  Some students have a background, identity, interest or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it.  If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Zach’s Response:

My childhood was three years long and a few city blocks wide.

The first seven years of my life remain in my memory as a misty blur of brick townhouses and on-brand cereal, highlighted by space themed 4th birthday donuts, and hours of self-driven multiplication tables with my dad.   

k fam 6My clearest memories began when my parents announced that we were moving. Twelve assorted suitcases and plastic bins later, we arrived in Tianjin, China with a week of jet lag and no language skills whatsoever. It was here, among 15 million other souls, that I found my childhood home.

Our 1000 square foot flat perched at the top of a six-story apartment building, where we lived alongside a jumble of first year expats like ourselves and 100th generation natives. Behind our building, a patch of green peeked out of the ubiquitous smog-gray, a miniature Central Park nestled in an oversized New York.  This haven, affectionately called “The Garden” was a motley collection of tree-like shrubs that had gotten lost on the way to Mongolia, and hesitantly blossomed each year for a month or so before succumbing to some combination of acid rain, dust, and icy slush.

Beyond the rusting gates of our complex, which were emblazoned with the fading characters “Fù Kāng huāyuán (Fu Kang Gardens)”, were streets crowded with vendors, pedestrians, grocery laden bicycles, and lawless taxi cabs.  Cigarettes sprouted like tiny smokestacks from the mouths of men playing chess at street corners, and plastic bags rolled by like urban tumbleweeds.  When Chinese New Year rolled around, the newly comforting sights and smells transformed into a thunderstorm of fire crackers, which rang out from every alley and market for two weeks, driving us (along with a host of evil spirits) back into the familiar shelter of our home.  We were strangers in a strange land, an ocean away from the suburban cul de sac that we had left behind.

Needless to say, Noah (my younger brother and best friend) and I spent countless hours inside our shared room, on a floor strewn with two generations of Legos, free from the bounds of reason. Our stuffed animals waged war: with weapons ranging from clusters of magnets dropped from Noah’s top bunk to legitimately dangerous Lego cannons.  While our CEO-destined, Korean classmates left our international school for an evening of tutoring to learn the ways of the real world, we got lost in our own worlds.

k-fam-3Most of what I remember from my three years in Tianjin is composed of oddly specific memories supported by a terabyte of photos. My family holds onto these memories like relics, because of how defining they were for each of us individually and as a family.  The term for people like me and my siblings is TCK (third culture kid).  Our home culture is neither American nor Chinese, but a hypostasis of the two.  I am not Chinese-American (my sister is), but Chinese and American.  Even as the last remnants of my meager Chinese vocabulary fade, leaving behind only the lyrics to “Happy Birthday”, my childhood in Fu Kang Gardens will continue to define who I am.

I am Zach Kennedy (Zhā kǎ lǐ), and my most heart wrenching nostalgia comes from the the taste of cumin seasoned lamb and the smell of cigarette smoke.

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That’s Zach (second from the left) without noodles looking all collegiate.  Noah the Magnet Bomber on the left, Hannah (the Chinese-American) out front and Mia on the right.  Dan and Sara now live, with these four amazing TCK’s, in Richmond, Virginia (USA) where they practice getting more photogenic every day.

If this post strikes a chord send Zach a note in the comments below and wish him well on what comes next.

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About Jerry Jones

Jerry lives in China with his beautiful blended family. He is a trainer, a speaker, an adventurer, a culture vulture and an avid people watcher. He writes about all of that at www.thecultureblend.com
  • Elizabeth Trotter

    Zach: I love your last line. Just love it.

    Jerry: Thank you for being so hospitable with your space here today.

  • Marilyn Gardner

    As as an adult TCK who raised TCKs, I love, love this. Not surprisingly, my own TCKs wrote about their overseas identity for their college essays as well. They were brilliantly poignant,just as this one is. Well done Zach – and thank you Jerry.

  • MsLorretty

    Hi Zach! I set this post aside so I could really read and digest what you had to say and I am so glad I did. I sincerely wish you all the best and I’m sure you realize this but you’re still “on mission”. Every time you have the chance to tell and relive the stories like this… to paint the picture for someone else to see and perhaps understand the Who and Why of Jesus around the world… well, that’s just another “moment on the field”. Bless you dear Son. My husband and I tried to go when our children were young but God, graciously, said “no, not yet.” This year our “baby child” graduates and we’re looking down the pathway to the Call once again. I will think of TCK’s like you as we walk it and thank God for what He does in all of us first and then uses that to show Gospel love to those we are called to serve….

  • Skye Shae Bonati

    Thanks, Zach! It’s cool to hear your story~ Make wise decisions on friends in college– find someone who you can look up to and someone you can share down with. You’ll do well! Jāiyôu!!
    Skye Bonati (Xīn Yíng)

  • L. Clay

    Yes, a thousand times over. I was seven two when my world changed forever and my triggers are different for the nostalgia … But the intense “sehnsucht” is the same. Many more chapters to embrace. Don’t worry – your China chapter will stay safe in your heart for always! Twenty years later and my Papua New Guinea chapter is still safe – a part of me for always on this spinning orb.

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