Erin tells the story of her family who have served in Asia for the majority of her life and reveals valuable insight into the way disabilities are commonly viewed and treated as she considers the disabilities of local people and her own sister.
Erin is a TCK who is currently living in her home country where she is finishing her studies.
Fish out of Water
Erin Amaris Hendrikse
Mission Round Table Vol. 15 No. 2 (May-August 2020): 29-30
My family spent fifteen years on the field, a time that was painfully rich. I often describe our relationship with the country as like the ocean—so beautiful, vast, powerful, and deep. It can be rough and grey or clear and green.
My parents brought me to Asia when I was one year and my sister one month old. Many ask which country feels more like home. I can’t say my parents’ country. I don’t know it well enough. So many assume I find my adopted country to be the most homely. But it’s not. It’s just a more familiar place.
Growing up in this setting, I discovered that there are two types of MKs—the ones who integrate well and become locals, and the ones who live in a bubble. Unfortunately, my sister and I, along with many of our friends, were among the latter. I only started to venture beyond the bubble when I reached fifteen, with only a year left in the country. The reason for the seclusion was that we were forced to attend an international school. In the country where we lived, it is extremely rare for an MK to attend a local government school, so making friends with locals doesn’t come easy. When you’re young, school life takes up almost all your time. And when I got to spend time with local friends, they mainly wanted to immerse themselves in English language and culture. Mind you, I felt like a foreign fish on land—one that was hardly seen before, and thus a curious specimen.
This ties in with church life. Many international churches are set up to accommodate expats. They run English services the way they are run in the West and are attended by many missionary families. Though I felt we were supposed to live up to the romanticised, integrated life of Hudson Taylor, we often fell short. So, for the whole family, going to local village churches together was an occasional event. Even though my dad worked in them every week, the village churches were a rare excursion for my sister and me. It was only when I grew older that I really began to appreciate the work my parents did. Early on, I dreaded going to the villages where it was hot, there weren’t any proper toilets, and I didn’t understand the language. The only thing I enjoyed was the food.
The people were friendly. They were respectful. They treated my family as honored guests, as was customary for foreigners. And they were passionate. The whole small congregation prayed with eyes shut tight. When they sang, they jumped and laughed and cried. When they listened to the sermon, they took it all in. That too, I learned to appreciate. And it was these factors that set them apart from the international English church I went to regularly: the servant heart, the respect, the passion. But these factors did not come into play when it came to my sister’s disability.
In the country we lived in, disabilities were, in general, taboo. Hearing this shouldn’t be a big surprise; it’s almost expected. But witnessing it at ground level is something else. I remember when I started high school, I had to move to a new school campus. So, my whole family moved away from the city center and into a predominantly Christian neighborhood in the suburbs. For as much as I can recall, this was the first time I saw a local child with Down’s syndrome. She was the daughter of our neighbor. While the other kids went fishing in the gutters, she spent her days alone in her garden. Her only companions were her mother and an old metal swing set, tarnished to a rusty red from the monsoon rains. She hardly ever went out because her family was ashamed for her to be seen. She had nowhere to go. Schooling was not an option. She was distanced from the neighbors, as if we didn’t exist. This girl was tied to her family and was believed to be the result of bad karma that had come around to bite them on the ankle.
Around the time we moved out of the city, my sister and I took lessons at a small music school set up in a house, run by a local musician. This man had an older brother who was autistic and left to his care. Each week I saw this grown man through a crack of a deep, red curtain under the stairwell, giggling. The man was positioned on a bamboo reed mat, protected from public eyes. In his own world, he was safe from outside trouble and from the trouble he could have been if not kept in. Even though our music teacher was a strong Christian who was a church musician, I would never have known of his special brother if my eyes hadn’t wandered to his hiding place.
My mom always had great sympathy for such children—the ones stuck in time and space. They belonged nowhere and were wanted by no one. Since life is such a limited resource, we are often reminded to think of our priorities. Do I work now or play? Should I go or stay? Should I aid or ignore? These people made me think of priorities we battled with due to the world around us. They reminded me of the constant battle between serving self and others. For in the country where we lived, the culture lays social pressure on the people like a heavy blanket. My mom thinks that’s why the locals hide their disabled family members. It helps them avoid the emotional humiliation of being exposed.
But it is not only the local people who have to face disability. My sister was diagnosed with epilepsy when she was four years old, a condition that throws her into random, unprovoked seizures, and causes the muscles of her body to stiffen and jerk uncontrollably. In the beginning, she had one seizure a year, at night. As she grew older, the seizures happened more frequently and came during the day as well. Most seizures happened at home. But when they came at school, teachers and a trained nurse were needed to rush in and take care of things. Other seizures came in public places. I remember one that came while we were on one of the field’s annual retreats in a different city. As it came unexpectedly on the parents’ prayer night and kids’ movie night, I had to handle it myself, with the slight help of the child-minders who were on hand.
We always noted how her seizures were so, … inconveniently timed. For example, one came during a church service, right before my father went up to preach. It was an open-aired place but we took her to the back room of the church and not many noticed. Some of those who did, helped in ways they could. Others just stared, forming a curious and foreboding circle around us. I waited on the other side of the door, putting up a physical and mental barrier to the situation. In such a situation, the mental, emotional, and spiritual strain is honestly harder than the physical burden.
My sister’s epileptic condition has taken a toll on my family, especially my parents. When you’re on the field, you’re miles away from any extended family. My parents would often talk of feeling depleted after a seizure. We dealt with her condition by ourselves, on our own. This has brought us very close as a family. The help we received from others was mainly the promise of prayer from home and other members of our team. There wasn’t much else that could be done and what could be done, my mother did herself.
My sister’s condition made learning at a regular school difficult. She had learning difficulties that needed specialized attention that was not available in mainstream education. My mom found a small, local education center that used a system that catered to an individual’s ability. This was great for my sister because it allowed her to learn at, well, her own pace, without the pressures that a normal school would bring. The school also had a few other children with learning difficulties. My sister made a lot of progress under this educational system, though the school was very small. Soon thereafter, my mother co-founded the first Christian international school licensed to use the Cambridge Syllabus and exams. In 2016, it kicked off its first year with my sister as one of their first batch of students. In this way, my mother could keep an eye on her while at school. It also provided a safe place for my sister to feel somewhat normal. I joined in 2017 to start my IGCSE. The large majority of students were Christians and Christian principles were practiced and taught weekly. In previous years, when we both attended other secular schools, each time my sister had a seizure, the nurse and I helped out, and my parents only showed up later. But at the new school, the students, the teachers, the staff, and my mom all helped as much as they could. There was a great sense of community and care. And even though we were miles from good medical support, the acceptance was comforting and we greatly appreciated it.
A lot of the time, I have felt that my sister’s seizures were just a part of my life. But then a lot of the time, I caught myself bargaining with God. “I’ll do this if you take it away.” These thoughts came to mind because I was falling in line with the essential beliefs of the local community that held that human actions determine fate. Your sin alone is the cause of your discomfort. How narrow-minded. John 9:3 puts things into perspective for me.
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
The so-called thorns God puts in our lives were not put there because of sin but are there for the glory of God, and we should respond to them accordingly. My sister has inspired and encouraged, both despite and through her condition, keeping us humble and close to God, reminding us why we were on the field to begin with. It challenged us and I hope you as well.
Though we may hide (or feel the need to hide) our supposed flaws, we should instead redirect them so that the works of the Lord may be displayed.