While attending an American boarding school in the heart of Africa, as an Australian, I was part of a tiny minority. The school was populated by Americans and Canadians with some other nationalities thrown in for a more interesting mixture.

For my third and fourth grades, there were six kids in my class, all different nationalities: American, Nigerian, Dutch, Bangladeshi, Australian and Korean. Yet, I remember decorating pictures of turkeys around in November and singing Over the meadow and through the woods.

However multi-national my class was, this didn’t represent the majority of the school. In fact, during the eleven years I was there, I only remember four Australian families who had children attending, including my own.

So, basically, growing up, I knew nine other kids who were Australian, including my two sisters. That’s not a lot to go on when trying to build a cultural identity.

Fast-forward fifteen years, and at the beginning of December, and David met Mark while installing carpet in a house. Mark was the son of David’s client, and he and David hit it off right away.

Later, Mark stopped by our house, and David and he were chatting over a cup of tea (or coffee or Milo — whatever macho Aussie blokes drink these days). I was playing the role of hostess when Mark asked about my accent.

Aargh! If there’s one question I loathe, it’s this one: “Where’s your accent from?”

Despite all the smart comments I could use in reply, I usually bite my tongue and try to move on past the subject very quickly because 1) how am I supposed to explain the whole American-school-in-West-Africa thing in a sentence or two? and 2) most Australians think Africa means South Africa. 3) I’ve spent the last thirteen years trying to fit in, and when someone asks about my accent, it means that I’ve failed in my vocal camouflage.

I tried to brush over the accent difference, but Mark kept persisting with his questions. He narrowed me down to country (Côte d’Ivoire) and then to school (ICA). And the clincher came when Mark admitted that he was married to another ICAer.

One of the Australian ICA families I had known had three girls, but they left ICA in 1988, two years after we started attending. Anyhow, that family returned back to Brisbane, and years later, the husband of one of them was sitting in my kitchen! (I just can’t emphasise how rare a breed we are!)

I was amazed. Now it’s May. David and Mark have been hanging out for months — going camping and meeting each week to study the Bible together. But tonight was the first time that Bec came over to our house and I re-met her.

At ICA, Bec was five years older than me, which meant that I was just a little kid and didn’t register on her radar. Or, at least, she didn’t remember me.

I shared what I remembered about Bec and her sisters, and we reminisced about the dorms, other students and staff that we both knew. Bec’s other sisters also attended Kent Academy (which I attended for my first two years of schooling) in Nigeria, so we spoke about that too.

It was very interesting to hear about ICA from someone else’s perspective (who was not also family). In some ways boarding school is such a long time ago, but my experiences there were so formative that it looms large in my mind. I do need to talk about it and process my memories from a new perspective.

Together, Bec and I wondered what life would have been like for the couples who “parented” almost twenty children in the dorm. How they could sustain a marriage with almost no privacy and only one “day off” a week when children weren’t demanding attention, discipline or care-taking? Could David and I do that? Probably not.

Would we be able to balance the needs of our natural children with those who were placed in our care because their real parents were hundreds of miles away “doing the work of the Lord”? And is there any “work of the Lord” that is so important that it necessitates the break-up of a family unit?

When Bec and her family returned to Australia, they lived together as a “normal” family for a number of years, and re-built relationships that had been broken by years of boarding school. I missed out on that, and my family is as dysfunctional and fractured as something on a day-time soap opera. But even if we had come back to Australia and resumed “normal” family life, would it have made a difference?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I just know that David and I have been given a new generation to care for, and we do not want to repeat the decisions that my parents made that have contributed to a break-down in familial relationships. All we can do is acknowledge and learn from the mistakes of the past (though no doubt we’ll make new ones for our children to correct!).