One of the major concerns in missionary care is the experience of missionary children who transition to their parents’ culture of origin. Knowing some of the major challenges they may face and taking proactive measures to address them will lessen the impact of reentry. In this essay, the author explores some of the critical issues in missionary kids’ experience of reentry and offers practical advice for helping them adjust.
I remember the first time I read the book Grandfather’s Journey to my group of first graders while living and teaching in Connecticut in the 1990s. It was a story written by Allen Say, who left Japan to come to America at the age of 16. He wrote about his family’s cross-cultural experiences and ended the book with the following:
After a time, I came to love the land my grandfather had loved, and I stayed on and on until I had a daughter of my own. But I also miss the mountains and rivers of my childhood. I miss my old friends. So I return now and then, when I can not still the longing in my heart. The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other.1
My eyes welled up with tears as suppressed memories of my childhood growing up in Korea came to the surface. It had been almost 20 years since I had left Korea at the age of 17. I had finally adjusted to living in America and had even given the appearance of being the all-American woman. Yet, most people whom I worked with didn’t know my story. They didn’t know that I spent most of my childhood in a foreign country. They didn’t know how un-American I felt at times, with values, goals, and dreams that were unlike their own.
Shortly afterwards, I moved to Bangkok, Thailand, to homeschool the kids on my brother’s mission team. A one-year commitment turned into seven wonderful years working closely with three missionary families. I felt at “home” not because I was in an Asian country but because I was living in community with families who were having experiences similar to those that I had growing up in a foreign country.
In 2007, my brother’s family made final preparations to return to the United States. They had gone to Thailand as a young couple. Now, 16 years later, they were returning with five biological children, ages 8 weeks to 15 years, and one newly adopted Chinese daughter. None of their children had ever lived in the US. My brother was concerned about their transition to life in America so he signed the family up to go through a one-week reentry program at Mission Training International (MTI). Since I had never gotten any debriefing when my family left Korea, I felt I could benefit from the experience, so I also registered to attend the program. What an amazing week it was, hearing others tell stories that were so different than mine, yet we had so much in common. I felt safe sharing my own story and found myself processing not only my time in Thailand but also my childhood in Korea.
I also saw how the week benefited my brother’s children, as they had safe places to tell their own stories to peers and to discover who they were as kids with a mixed cultural identity. I asked my 9-year-old niece what her takeaway was from the week, and she said, “I learned it’s OK to cry.” It made me wonder how many missionary kids had suppressed the grief and loss they felt when returning to their passport country because they didn’t want to offend anyone or hurt their parents’ feelings. It made me realize that I had never truly grieved the losses that I had felt when leaving the home of my childhood. It was then that I discovered my new calling: working with missionary children and their families.
In January I completed seven years working at MTI. My role has evolved to Program Coordinator of the Children’s Debriefing Program. Being a missionary kid, an educator, and a missionary as an adult has helped equip me to serve the returning missionary families who come through our Debriefing and Renewal (DAR) program. The training I have received from the experienced staff at MTI in the “make and break” issues facing returning missionary families has rounded out my personal experiences. In this essay, I explore some of the critical issues in missionary kids’ experience of reentry and offer practical advice for helping them adjust.
Reverse Culture Shock
It has been said that reverse culture shock is more difficult for missionary families than the initial cultural shock of entering a country of service. How can that be? What makes reentry so difficult for missionary families and especially for their children? For MKs who have spent a significant part of their growing up years in another country, they are not “coming home” as their parents might be. Their experiences, values, and thinking patterns have been molded and influenced by the culture they have grown up in. America may be the foreign country to them.2 They may look and sound like an American kid but think and act very differently than their American peers. They are “hidden immigrants” trying to navigate cultural norms that they are not accustomed to, but without the grace, patience, and help that is extended to immigrants who come to America.
Among the critical issues MKs experience when returning to their passport country are grief and loss, identity issues, relationship negotiation differences, and transitions.
Grief and Loss
One of the biggest issues in reentry is the loss of home, friends, pets, community, and life left behind in another country. When well-meaning friends and family greet the grieving MK at the airport with a cheery “Welcome home!” the MK’s heart immediately shuts down. They question whether it is OK to express the fact that they would rather go home than be in their parents’ passport country. So the MK puts on a facade of happiness when their heart is breaking. If grief and loss are not dealt with and expressed, then there are chances that the MK will have difficulty moving forward, assimilating into the American culture, and making new friendships.
Addressing grief and loss actually begins before a missionary family has left their adopted country. Saying goodbyes well is important and means visiting favorite places for the last time, having sleep-overs with best friends, hosting celebrations, and finding caring homes for beloved pets. Taking time to express love and appreciation for those who were part of the life of the missionary family affirms and validates their experiences and relationships and allows them to move through the grieving process in a healthy way.
Peter Jordan wrote a simple little book entitled Re-Entry: Making the Transition from Missions to Life at Home that is full of practical ideas for families to consider when preparing to leave their country of service.3 My brother’s team read the book when they prepared to say their goodbyes. The oldest kids on the team were given specific chapters to read and process. Jordan’s counsel generated creative ideas that the team took to heart, and the last month was full of wonderful experiences that will be forever imprinted in the hearts of the team kids. As my brother’s family made their way through the security checkpoint at the Bangkok International Airport for the last time around 4:30 in the morning, he got a phone call from his team mate. He was told to look up towards the glass wall that separated the checkpoint from the main terminal. There stood their team mates and kids with a large banner pressed against the window that read: “Well Done, Allens. We Love You. Go In Joy!” The love shown tempered the grief felt by both families as they said goodbye to each other after sixteen years of living and working together in community.
Grieving takes time and each person does it differently. Younger children tend to process grief a little at a time. A young MK may cry initially and then move on quickly, seemingly adjusting well, only to have a meltdown months later when a sight of a dog reminds him or her of a pet left behind. It is important to sit down with the child and allow them to express their grief. Even better, cry with them. Don’t be impatient with the grieving process. Eventually, the meltdowns will lessen and become times of sweet reflection on the life and loved ones he or she has left behind.
For MK teens, having to say goodbye one time too many can cause them to put up walls with the intention of not making any new friends. We have had teens come through our debriefing program stating, “Why bother making new friends when we will have to say goodbye again.” They must be convinced that we were meant for relationships and having new, wonderful friends is worth the pain of eventually having to say goodbye. We tell the MKs who come through our debriefing programs, “If you are hurting, it’s because you have loved well and have been loved well.” Sometimes, being able to process grief in the presence of other MKs is what the MK needs. Knowing that they are not alone in what they feel is validating and helps them to process their emotions and move forward through the grief process.
Every MK needs a safe place to express their grief, pain, and anger over the loss of friendships and life left behind. Only when they have expressed and released that grief can they move on to new relationships and a new life.
“Who am I?” is a question that every person asks at some point in their lives. For an MK, it is made even more difficult from living in another country. MKs are part of a larger group of people who have lived cross-culturally called third culture kids (TCKs). Children from military, international business, diplomatic, and missionary families all come under the umbrella of the term TCK.
David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken wrote a book entitled Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds. They developed a definition of the TCK that continues to be influential:
A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.4
Each MK is unique in their “TCKness,” and how much their experiences shape who they are depends on many variables. These include how old they were when they moved overseas, how much they assimilated into the host culture, and who their close friends were—national or expat kids. Other important variables are the extent to which they learned the national language and their schooling experience (e.g., home-school or boarding school, national or international school). Living in third world countries where poverty is right outside their front door can shape an MK’s worldview and at times cause them to be critical of America’s wealth and waste of resources. Experiencing civil war, team conflicts, or cultural or family crisis can also impact an MK’s heart and shape who they are.
Embracing who they are as TCKs will help MKs to understand why and how they respond to life and others the way they do. But, claiming their identity as a TCK for their core identity can actually put up walls rather than build bridges when entering relationships in their passport country. Some TCKs wear their identity as an entitlement rather than a privilege. They identify so strongly with their experiences living cross-culturally that they isolate themselves. Being a TCK is not all there is to each MK’s identity. As with any other part of their identity (e.g., being a student, good soccer player, artist, teenager), roles evolve and change over time. There is only one thing that will never change: their identity in Christ. Embracing Christ as their core identity will free them to love well, extend grace to others different than themselves, and enter into new relationships with humility.
Cultural identity is a layer of personal identity that becomes complicated for MKs who are entering their passport culture to live. They have spent their growing up years learning the rules and cultural norms of their host country. Now they discover the rules have changed and they are not quite sure how to engage in their passport country. Initially, MKs may be unaware of or unsure how to navigate the cultural differences. In an attempt to connect with those like themselves, they may gravitate toward others on the fringes of society, such as immigrants or other TCKs who are not from the US. Sometimes they may be drawn to anti-social groups because they feel such a disconnect with the mainstream groups. Parents and supportive friends need to look for any cultural or social miscues that the MK may exhibit and gently help them to modify their behavior or thinking in order to be culturally appropriate. It may be necessary to help them navigate the social waters by providing opportunities for their MKs to connect with potential new friends at church, at school, or within their new community. Discernment and godly judgment needs to guide parents and their MKs in this process, because there may be times the MK must be willing to stand up and resist some cultural norms that are not in line with Christian principles.
I remember struggling to make friends with my peers when I returned to the States at the age of seventeen. I perceived them to be shallow, not very spiritual, and closed-minded. I was critical and wrote off potential friendships without giving them much of a chance. How wrong I was! If I knew then what I know now, my entry into the American teen scene would have been much smoother.
Discussions and dialogue within the MK caregiving community in the last several years have revealed keys to how MKs versus their American peers approach new relationships. Living cross-culturally has conditioned MKs to go deep quickly in order to make friends, because people are transient in the international community, moving on even as relationships begin to blossom. Their American peers tend to take their time when introduced to a prospective new relationship, slowly revealing more of themselves as they see that this new person is trustworthy. Thus, a disconnect happens. MKs view their American peers as shallow and not worthy of pursuing because they tire of the initial small talk, while their American peers feel that their personal space has been violated with too much information, too soon. MKs need to be coached that just as they should be culturally sensitive when relating to people in their country of service, they should also be culturally aware when seeking out relationships with American peers.5
Another nuance in how MKs approach new friendships is how they tell their story. MKs frequently make connections with other MKs/TCKs by telling their story using geography words. For example they may say, “When I lived in France, I skied in the Swiss Alps all winter,” or “I rode elephants when I lived in India.” If speaking with another MK/TCK, this creates a bridge of potential connection as they swap stories of adventures and interesting things they did in their country of service. But, if they initially share these stories with their American peers, it can immediately put up a wall with a person who has never been out of the US and has no frame of reference to receive or process the story. MKs need to find a point of connection when telling their stories with their American peers. They could say, “When I was in seventh grade I was on the school soccer team.” This allows an opportunity for connection to occur between two people who may have very different backgrounds and experiences. Going slow, finding common ground, and being patient with the process will allow MKs ultimately to make the close, deep relationships that they desire.
We all go through transitions at some point in our lives, whether from one job to another, one state to another, or one grade to another. Missionary families face unique challenges when transitioning from one country to another. It comes with added stress, loss of identity, having to relearn cultural norms, unmet expectations, and being misunderstood, to name just a few.
MTI has developed a transition model based on the work of David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken that has become an effective tool in helping missionary families understand what they are going through in reentry. The five stages of transition are:
- Settled: Rooted Stage; roles defined; established routines; belong within a group
- Unsettled: “Pulling up” Stage; fear of unknowns; sense of loss; deciding what is important
- Chaos: Confused Stage; no role; problems magnified; routines changing daily
- Resettling: Surface Stage; redefining values; risk taking; vulnerable; establishing new routines
- Resettled: Newly Rooted Stage; established roles; “at home;” accepted in a group
Giving a missionary family a common vocabulary for what they are going through and how they might be feeling in each stage helps them to go through the change in a healthier way. One mother emailed me saying that her four-year-old daughter spoke up one day after going through our DAR program and said, “Mom, I’m in chaos stage!” Instead of having a meltdown, she was able to express to her mother how she felt. Her mother was then able to address what was causing her daughter stress.
A missionary family will not transition completely until each member of the family has crossed “the bridge” and feels settled. For each family member, being “resettled” may look different. Dad may need to have a new job or ministry to feel settled, while Mom may need to have boxes unpacked and rooms in order to feel at home. Little brother or sister may need to have their own bed and be surrounded by their special stuffed animals to feel settled and at home again. For pre-teens and teenagers, being resettled boils down to having a new group of friends. They are at a place in their social development where relationships are paramount to their wellbeing. They need to have a place to belong.
There are other “bridges” that MKs cross that make the transition seem overwhelming. Some of the bridges may be:
- Going through puberty
- Adapting to the American school system
- Teen subcultural differences
- Value and cultural differences
- Grieving process
MKs may not have the maturity of an adult to handle all the changes that they are going through and at times they may shut down and go into a depression. Being in “chaos” stage on several bridges can be too much for them to handle. Parents and a supportive community need to be observant and ready to support their MKs through any transition issue they may be going through. Sometimes, counseling is necessary in order to help a struggling MK get through their crisis.
Reentry for MKs and their families can be a complicated process. Knowing some of the major challenges they may face and taking proactive measures to address them will lessen the impact of reentry. Good communication within the missionary family, a supportive and understanding receiving community, and time to process changes and adapt to a new life in their passport country can help MKs and their families handle the reentry process in a healthy way.
Laura Allen is the Program Coordinator for the children’s debriefing program for missionary families in transition at Missions Training International (http://mti.org), where she has worked for the last seven years. Her focus is debriefing children and working with their parents. Laura spent 16 years growing up in Korea in a missionary family. A teacher by trade, she holds a master’s degree in early childhood development. Laura taught for 13 years in private and public schools in the US and participated in a church plant in New Haven, Connecticut. She also spent 7 years homeschooling missionary kids in Bangkok, Thailand.
Jordan, Peter. Re-Entry: Making the Transition from Missions to Life at Home. Seattle: YWAM Publishing, 1992.
Phoenix, Michèle.“MKs and Relationships: The Time/Depth Dilemma.” http://michelephoenix.com/2014/09/mks-and-relationships.
Pollock, David C., and Ruth E. Van Reken. Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds. Rev. ed. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009.
Say, Allen. Grandfather’s Journey. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
1 Allen Say, Grandfather’s Journey (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), 31.
2 Although the reader may be reentering a different context than the US, this article is written from my perspective as one who reentered the American culture.
3 Peter Jordan, Re-Entry: Making the Transition from Missions to Life at Home (Seattle: YWAM Publishing, 1992).
4 David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, rev. ed. (Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009), 13.
5 Michèle Phoenix, an MK blogger, wrote an entry entitled “MKs and Relationships: The Time/Depth Dilemma” that gives MKs helpful insight and tools for approaching new relationships: http://michelephoenix.com/2014/09/mks-and-relationships.