The F Word

by Editor on June 21, 2013

The end of the school year brings loads of changes, some nearly universal and some unique to people with international identities. Julie Martinez, working and writing in Cambodia shares a personal story and the hopes of a family and a son in transition.

Freaked out.  Frustrated.  Fear.  Failure.  These are some of the F words that we have been slinging around the house lately.  We have also been slinging around the F word Frittata, but that is a different story.  We are in the process of transition and it is creating moments of drama and tension.  My son who was born in Honduras and has lived in five different countries is now returning to America to attend university and emotions are running high.

This is a boy who has grown up in airports.  He can navigate any airport anywhere.  From the time that he was 3 months old he has been a flying across the world. I am afraid that when he remembers his childhood he will tell stories of terrible airplane food and rushing through airport gates laden with carry-ons.  Or will he talk about a lifetime of good-byes?  Of constantly downsizing our lives to fit into two suitcases?

This is a boy who has lived an unconventional life.

Tanzania 01-2005 057He knows how to barter in local markets like an Arab trader.  He can hop on a motorcycle fearlessly and navigate unknown roads in third world countries.  He is unique.  He has been chased by elephants; climbed volcanoes; and has stood where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic.  He has seen the world and much of it on the road less traveled and all before he was 18.


So, how does he transition to the USA?  How does he navigate the world of fraternities, finals, football, fast food, and other Americanisms?  My son is a third culture kid which means he is not fully American nor has he taken on the culture of his host country.  He has created a third culture—a culture unique to him.  He travels to America as a hidden immigrant.  One who speaks the language – looks the part – but is missing social cues and cultural meanings.

He knows this and he is fearful—fearful of failure and is freaked out.  His F word is Fear.  Fear is paralyzing, sends people into tailspins.  Fear is seemingly depriving him of oxygen and causing him to make questionable decisions.  My F word, on the other hand, is frustration.  I am frustrated because I can’t help him and truthfully, he won’t let me which also frustrates me.  He will be 18 soon and naturally wants to navigate life on his own.  And the reality is I can’t fully help him—he sees the world through a different lens than I do and he is going to have to figure it out. IMG_1799

Living overseas is wonderful, but there are prices to be paid and they are paid by all.  God calls us and He equips us . . . but there are aspects of this cross-cultural life that aren’t easy nor are there easy answers.  I wish I could wrap up this post with a three-fold solution.  There isn’t one.  The only thing that I can offer is that maybe it is time for a different word.  Not an F word, but a G word and that is grace.  That God will cover my son in His grace and that God in His grace and mercy will lead him and that His grace will carry him in the hard places and through the mistakes and the hard-times that are inevitable.

What kinds of G words carry you through your F seasons? In other words, we would love to hear how grace meets you in weakness and uncertainty.

Julie T. Martinez, Development Director N. Cambodia

People For Care & Learning, follow her blog at People for Care

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  • Joy

    My F word for him would be FAITH! I once heard that the 2 A words – Anxiety and Anger, the foundation for every issue in our lives – is always unbelief. Always – at the core.

    Yes, he loves God, but does he KNOW Him enough to believe Him, REALLY believe Him?

    Believe what? Promises! Like what?

    “I will NEVER leave you nor forsake you”.
    “My grace IS sufficient for you”.
    “Peace that passes understanding.”
    “Exchange a spirit of heaviness for a garment of praise.”
    “He IS my Rock, Fortress, High Tower …”
    “From the ends of the earth will I cry to You when my heart is faint. Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I for You have been my refuge” (Ps 61:2-4)

    And many more. That could be a project for him on the plane … or before? Find what HE is going to cling to with all his heart so he can REST in those promises from our awesome God!!

    It sounds simplistic, but I’ve lived through 40 years of domestic violence/abuse by BELIEVING. This is a real-life practical offer of advice.

    And I sincerely don’t mean to sound unfeeling – we were missionaries with 7 children and now 15 of my 20 grandchildren are MKs and facing a similar situation to your son, as the oldest are now 16.

    One of our hopes is that God will lead them to other 3rd culture kids as friends, as they are the only people in the world who are capable of understanding them. I’ll be praying for him… and you!

    • Julie Martinez

      Joy–You chose a good F word. Faith is in the mix of the challenges and the adjustments, but I think even in operating faith there is also a learning/transition process here. My son has operated in faith in the context of a missions home in the third world. He now will learn what faith looks like in a new context and on his own–which is as it should be. Thanks for your response and your prayers..

  • Debi Martin

    I am a third culture kid who has been down this road. It is paved with difficulty but God’s grace does carry through. I am so thankful for my overseas growing up years, yet still grieve the many goodbyes. One thing that really helped me through the transition was finding other third culture kids to spend time with. They became grounding points who knew what I was experiencing. Allowing myself to feel the emotions and grieve the losses, yet also knowing that adjustment will come in time.

    • Julie Martinez

      Debi–One of my least favorite things in missions is the many good-byes. As my kids have gotten older, we have been more intentional about marking the transitions in our journey with events/ceremonies that allow us to grieve or celebrate and acknowledge the change and confront the good-byes and bring closure. I appreciate you sharing your personal experience of transition and adjustment.

  • Matthew Wright

    AS Debi posted below, I would offer another “F” word – Fraternity! Not the kind you typically think of at American universities, but as a TCK (I am one myself) he already belongs to the fraternity of TCKs from all over. I am pretty confident that wherever he ends up in school he will be able to find other TCKs or internationals with which he will relate more easily. Having said that though, I would also encourage him to make friends with the mono-cultural kids he will meet at school. Just as there are many things he can teach them, there will be much that he will be able to learn from them.

    All three of our kids have made the transition from the foreign field to the US college campus in the last 4 years. We tried to help prepare them for life back in the US by working through the acronym RAFT:

    R= Reconciliation – make sure that you have at least tried to reconcile any broken or damaged relationships before you leave. You may never have the chance to do it again, and you do not want any regrets lingering behind you as you move forward.

    A= Affirmation — in the same way, you want to be able to affirm those who have built into your life through the years. Call them up, write a note, go for a coffee with them and let them know just how much they have meant to you. For a TCK, relationships can be difficult, but in the end, after the umpteenth move to a new place, relationships are sometimes all you have. Goodbyes are hard, but letting that person you are saying goodbye to know just how much they have meant to you is priceless!

    F= Farewell — take the time to say a proper farewell to the people, places, pets, and things you are leaving behind. Snap photos, grab small mementos, whatever it takes to be able to say a healthy good-bye to each. Our kids wanted to go back to visit a few of the places that meant a lot to us – the old swimming hole, the local fast food joint, the place of the favorite family vacation. As parents we need to help facilitate this too – an investment in your kids’ mental and emotional well-being is worth a day or two of lost “productivity” in the job we are doing overseas. Don’t minimize anything. Sometimes as adults we do not realize just how many memories our kids may have attached to that one tree in the park nearby. Or how much that mangy neighborhood cat may mean to them.

    T= Thinking Ahead (or Thinking Destination) — take some time to think through and try to mentally prepare for the new challenges that await in the new destination. Does your son know how to work an ATM machine or the self-checkout lane in a Walmart? Does he have a bank account, or know how to open one? There are dozens of really nitty gritty practical things we can help prepare our kids for before they fly off into the sunset. Ask what parts of what lies ahead cause the most fear, and see if you can alleviate it with some preparation. Mentally preparing for dealing with mono-cultural peers in the next place may also mean that you have to realistically look at yourself – am I prideful because of my overseas life? How can I give these new kids the benefit of the doubt? I remember being so mad at my college roommate as he sat on the phone in tears while he talked to his parents about a 4 hour drive away. My parents were on the other side of the world and I knew it would be at least 1.5 years before I saw them again. I should not have minimized what he was feeling, just because I had already learned (somewhat) how to deal with long separations. That is another place where your “G” word comes in.

    GRACE – needs to be given as well as received.

    Praying for you and your son in this time of transition! May you both find God’s grace in each footstep along the way!

    (RAFT is courtesy of Dave Pollock by the way)

    • Julie Martinez

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. RAFT is a good methodology and one we have worked through. I appreciate your prayers through this time of transition.

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  • sherylobryan

    How’s “Group” for a G word? I think being with a group of other TCKs in the midst of the chaos of transition has a way of normalizing things a bit. There are some really good transition seminars around. Some bigger, some smaller. (I even run one!) Interaction and Barnabas run good ones, too. Spending time with other hidden immigrants in a setting that welcomes questions and fears while answering and allaying them makes for a better transition in the long run.

  • Paloma Castro

    Grace allows you to overcome fear, to move as many times as you have, to make new friends, to overcome the pain from the past and grace allows you to move forward towards the future that God has for you. When a mother continuously prays for her son, God hears. God hears her prayers and He answers them. I have seen this for myself.

  • Your post is over a year old but TCKs everywhere can relate. (I am one myself having lived in 4 different countires by the time I was 17 and adding two more before I was 30 and settled in California!) I have a section on my blog called the “Expat Files” – I hope you might visit ( perhaps you would even like to be a guest poster).
    I hope your son survived his year of repatriation and is now more comfortable and has made good friends. (I went through this unexpected culture shock myself and it takes awhile.)

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