I Never Signed Up For This

by Ann Bowman

For every missionary who takes up their cross and follows Christ to the ends of the earth, there are parents and family members whose lives are affected by the calling. This group never chooses to offer themselves, to share in the sacrifice, and yet they must. Will the pain result in bitterness or healing? This was a decision I was forced to make when my family heard the call.

When my oldest daughter left for a third world country with a six-month-old baby on her hip, I began a journey of sorrow that I didn’t choose. I thought I supported missions — until it was my own child leaving for full-time overseas work. It was then that missions became more than just the information booth in the church lobby, the glossy support letters in my mailbox, or the fascinating guest speaker at church. It became personal, and the hardships and dangers that missionaries experience now touched my life and my emotions daily.

I was always proud of my children’s interest in missions. During their teen years, they eagerly joined in summer service trips to exotic places, always with a bit of danger involved. I envisioned that they would continue their involvement as adults, possibly serving on the missions task force at church or leading short-term mission trips. I never expected any of them to take my grandchildren and plunge into full-time work in a poverty-stricken area of the world. I want to say I handled the challenge with grace and faith — but I didn’t.

Throughout the weeks leading up to departure, I thought I was adjusting and holding it together. My daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren moved into our house after divesting of most of their worldly goods and leaving their apartment. They bought one-way tickets and sold all that was left of their belongings — everything that didn’t fit into the three bags allowed per traveler. It stung that much of what they sold off had been gifts from my husband and myself.

The day of departure came, and the airport trip was brutal. I pasted a smile on my face and locked my tears up tight. I wanted my grandchildren to remember a joyful Nonna; I wanted my daughter and son-in-law to feel the support I was trying to fake. I waved until the little family I loved turned the corner in the security line and I could no longer see them.

My daughter had asked a friend to walk me to my car in the airport parking garage and make sure I was emotionally ready before starting the four-hour drive home. My false bravado lasted only a few miles down the highway, at which point I pulled over and wept. When I was finally alone in God’s presence, I was honest with Him. I was angry and hurt. This was not how I had planned my life.

The Psalmist proclaims, “Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:5 HCSB). I have learned much in the past seven years about sowing in tears. I have leaned into God, bringing Him my grief and the deep shame I felt. Grief arose when my dreams of life with grandchildren and family living near me were shattered. I felt shame when I could not readily rejoice that my children were sacrificing so much for the gospel and doing what God called them to do — the holy mindset I was supposed to have.

In turning to the Lord in honesty, I was met with tenderness and compassion, not condemnation. He understands the mother’s heart He created in me that must balance the desire to protect with the command to release my children to do all that God calls them to do. My season of dying to my dreams was like being crushed in an olive press. It was painful, and some days felt like hand-to-hand combat with my emotions.

Being an artist, I poured myself into prayer-painting. The enemy was not silent during my time of wrestling with God. When I heard cruel whispers giving me dread and sorrow, I chose to create and lift every concern to God. I painted rural scenes from their beautiful adopted country. My heart shifted as I began to pray for the people my daughter’s family encountered and for increasing boldness as they shared the good news. Bitterness loosened its grip as I chose not to listen to fear and self-pity.

Hebrews promises us that, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11 ESV). In these years of separation, I live out the words of Hebrews. I did not reach a permanent peace-filled plateau. Because my daughter lives in a country with political upheaval, I often cycle through times when sudden dread will seize me after reading world news headlines and all contact with my daughter gets cut off. I choke out my prayers by sheer obedience. Peace returns when I once again focus on God’s purposes.

One of the greatest sources of discouragement for global workers is often from their own families back home, yet many of these relatives are committed church members. I don’t want to be part of that statistic. I never want to be the one to dissuade my children from obeying where the Holy Spirit is leading them.

Over the years, my daughter has sometimes called home discouraged. She shares wounds and disappointments. I pray for her and encourage her with scripture. She told me once that of all the team members in their area, her parents were the only parents who didn’t offer tickets home and encourage them to give up. I count that as God’s victory; I have been changed from grief-filled to poured out and finally to finding purpose as I support my missionary family’s work.

I have traveled to their country several times. I now see the wisdom of God and how well-suited my daughter and son-in-law are for their work. I’m amazed by the spiritual fruit from their ministry. They witness miracles rarely seen in the States. When I see my grandchildren share their faith with neighborhood children in their adopted tongue, I am humbled. How could I ever have wished them anywhere else? My grandchildren’s deep faith is worth far more to me than having them live nearby.

So, I visit with my grandchildren mostly by video chat. I do not participate in their lives the way most of the world enjoys their family. That is not my lot in this world and not mine to question. Nonna’s gifts are not cute clothes or countless stuffed animals, but instead, Kindle books, crocs for the rainy season, and jars of peanut butter. I choose to let go of anger and my own empty dreams to receive so much more: a deeper prayer life and a much closer relationship to my daughter’s family, although we live far apart.

Jim Elliot, slain missionary to Ecuador, once said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” As I love and support my family from afar, I think about his words. The loss felt so great in the beginning, but I can truly say that what I’ve gained is of greater worth. And those gains are eternal — in the lives of my children and grandchildren and the people they serve. One day we will all be partying together in heaven, forever, no more separation and no more tears. That hope lives in me and gives me strength for the journey.

~~~~~~~~

Ann Bowman (not her real name) is a mentor to young women serving overseas. Having two grown daughters in missions, she has walked with them through the joys of living abroad and the trials. Ann is an artist, writer, teacher, and Nonna to four grandchildren who live in Southeast Asia. She and her husband reside in Texas and spend as much time with their family on video chat as they can.

Mostly Belonging: Hope for the MK

by Michèle Phoenix

When I was little, I’d snuggle up to my mom in the evenings and listen to her reading Are You My Mother?, attracted to the plight of the children’s book’s melancholy protagonist in a way I couldn’t fully comprehend. In the story, the baby bird falls out of her nest and wanders from cat to tractor to cow and car, repeating her increasingly urgent question: “Are you my mother?

Without realizing it, I identified with her pain. The sensation of lostness was all too familiar to me, even at that age.

When I saw a copy of the book in a store a few weeks ago, my instant reaction was an urge to reach through the glossy cover and comfort the hapless hero. I saw a bit of me in her—a lifetime spent wondering if new places and people groups would be my “mother,” my place of belonging and sameness.

In many respects, MKs are not much different from this feathered fellow. We hover between clusters of those who know their place and fit their social contexts, hoping that someone will want us or include us despite our difference. We try to act like it doesn’t really matter. Or we try to be tough and endure it. But we still live our lives in a more or less conscious pursuit of belonging.

“I will never belong” is a sentiment I’ve heard expressed with varying degrees of rancor and drama in my thirty years of MK ministry. Of all the traits Third Culture Kids and Missionaries’ Kids share, I think this one is among the most powerful.

It is born of multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-experiential and multi-identificational backgrounds that both expand our worlds and limit our full adaptation to any of them.

One of my first conscious thoughts about my TCK identity came at a young age, when I realized while on furlough that I’d never be fully American, and that the French would never consider me fully French, either. There seemed to be no place on earth where I could feel that I fully belonged. Is it any wonder that MK communities like schools and mission conferences become such a haven of sameness to MKs?

Unfortunately, having experienced that level of identification can also set us up for a lifetime of discontent, because—and I don’t want to sound pessimistic—it is a sense of wholeness we may never know again.

Multi-cultural dwellers face three distinct options in their quest for belonging.

The first is to conform.
The second is to intentionally unconform.
The third is to straddle the cultural divide.

Let’s start with conforming. In some ways it’s the easiest option, and MKs are fairly good at it, at least on a surface level. We’re observers by nature. Whether it be trying out a new fast-food restaurant or voting in elections for the first time, I still live by the old motto: watch first, act second. I’ll relinquish my place in line as often as I need to until I’ve figured out how “normal” people do it and can proceed as they do.

That’s really just cultural savvy—or practical conformity. The kind that spares us public embarrassment and the kind of social faux-pas we desperately try to avoid. A complete conformity is a more dangerous version of the classic MK ability to adapt. In this case, we’ll either consciously or subconsciously discard those parts of ourselves that link us to other cultures and modes of life in order to be fully American, fully European, or fully Asian.

The danger in full conformity is in what we have to relinquish to achieve it.

You’ll see this in the MK from Rwanda who moves to Canada and wears nothing but Rwandan garb as an outward sign of her allegiance to her heart-home. You’ll see it in the Turkish MK who refuses to return to his passport culture and stops using English—thereby losing contact with the North American branch of his family and identity. Or the TCK in her passport country who never refers to the foreign places that framed her worldview and shaped her personality.

In order for me to have fully adapted to my French culture or to my Canadian passport culture, for instance, I would have had to alter my appearance, my political views, my gender-role opinions, my culinary tastes, and some of my social behaviors to achieve what that culture expected of me.

Once I was finished erasing the old and embracing the new, there would have been very little left of the richness of a multi-cultural upbringing: the broadened understanding and artistic/social/political palette that is so unique and so prized in TCKs.

Conformity would have cost me every bit of the beautiful complexity that can come from being an MK, but it would also have earned me a sense of belonging and sameness. For that sense, MKs can be willing to sacrifice an awful lot.

The second response to unbelonging is unconforming. It’s a fascinating phenomenon to me and it goes something like this: “There’s no way I’m ever going to fit in. People on both continents tell me I’m weird. Weird in Brazil. Weird in Korea. Well, let me show you weird.” And the MK sets out to be as odd as he or she can possibly be.

It’s a self-defense mechanism that has serious back-firing potential, but I can see its appeal. Whereas being the victim of our difference feels painful and unpredictable, being the architect of the difference gives us a sense of control.

So we exaggerate our weirdness in order to call it a choice, not an affliction.

Sometimes it’s strange clothes, sometimes it’s eccentric behavior, sometimes it’s threatening attitudes, weird tastes or social misconduct. On some, it’s endearing. On others, it’s off-putting. But to MKs whose identities have been shattered and rearranged without their volition, it’s a sense of finally being in control of how the world perceives them.

So when someone’s expression says, “You’re weird,” they can pat themselves on the backs and consider it mission accomplished, because they’ve made “difference” a choice, not an painful condition.

But…they’ve also made that elusive “belonging” even more impossible to achieve.

The final response to unbelonging is straddling. It’s probably the healthiest of the three belonging options, though it is certainly not the easiest.

It requires that we celebrate “mostly-belonging.” It keeps us intentionally connected to the cultures and subcultures that have shaped us while investing and implanting in the one in which we live.

Straddling allows us to retain all those facets that lend depth and breadth to our identities while mostly adapting to the new places life takes us. In order to successfully straddle cultures, we’ll have to understand and value each of them, retaining those other-culture quirks that are acceptable in the place where we currently are and disengaging those that might be jarring or misunderstood by the locals around us—at least initially.

Straddling requires that we add new facets to our panoply, not as a rejection of what we’ve known before, but an expansion of our cultural arsenal. It is also a means of honoring the culture in which we’ve been planted. For instance, moving to Germany and not alienating our neighbors may require that we regularly sweep sidewalks that don’t need sweeping. Living in other places may require more modest dress for women. And yet others may require a “bribe” column in our budgeting. These are adjustments we can make without releasing the influences that made us who we are.

Mostly-belonging isn’t a repudiation of the multi-cultural aspects of our identities—it’s a thoughtful, intentional choice to embed in the culture we now live in, and an equally intentional choice to stay connected with the other cultures we carry within us.

An initial carefulness and adherence to social norms will usually yield a more successful integration than, say, waving a Greek flag and refusing to eat anything but olives and feta! As relationships deepen and our friends know us better, we’ll be able to broaden our expressions of multi-culturalism without alienating others.

Straddling or mostly-belonging requires that we relinquish the baby bird’s dream of full, uncompromising sameness. As MKs, we’re actually healthier when we accept that we won’t ever be completely one or the other of our natures, when we acknowledge and celebrate those ways in which we can fit in, and when we set out to live enthusiastically in that space between belongings. That’s what makes us unique, broad-minded, tolerant, chameleon-like and prized bridge-builders in whatever society we embrace. That’s what allows us to thrive as TCKs.

With that attitude—with that self-awareness, intentionality and openness—true connection becomes possible, and a new, richer and healthier form of belonging can be ours.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Raised in France by a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle is a mentor, writer and speaker with a heart for MKs. She taught for 20 years at Black Forest Academy (Germany) before launching her own ministry advocating for TCKs. She now travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group, and she has recently launched the podcast Pondering Purple. She loves good conversations, French pastries, mischievous students and Marvel movies.

Life as a Christian Business Kid

by Clarissa Choo

I grew up as a business kid living first in Singapore and South Korea and later in a closed country and the Czech Republic. I’m an adult TCK now, but first and foremost I am a child of God.

Although Singapore is my passport country, my parents were not “typical” Singaporean parents. They never expected my sister and me to achieve perfect grades. Instead, they desired that we come to know Christ as our Savior and dedicate our lives to Him.

Their initial plan to avoid the stressful education system in Singapore was to immigrate to Canada. My dad had spent a significant number of years in Canada studying higher education and interacting with the culture there. But God’s plans were different from my parents’ plans.

God re-directed our path to South Korea through my dad’s work. I was five years old at the time. The Canadian embassy eventually approved our visas, but Dad had already accepted his job contract, and we had already moved to South Korea. We stayed in South Korea, where Christ saved me when I was seven years old.

Later in my teen years I searched for Christian TCK communities and found that the majority were intended for missionary kids. At the time it seemed that Christian BKs like me were quite rare. So if you’re a missionary or a missionary kid, you might not know what the life of a Christian BK looks like.

I’ll let you in on a little “secret”: although the paths of a missionary kid and a Christian business kid may seem different, they share similarities. Because as saved children of the King, we have one common goal – reaching the unsaved with the gospel no matter which country we live in.

As a former BK, I am perceived by some people as “pampered” or a “brat,” and I’m sure some MKs view my path as a fancier and less difficult route than theirs. In terms of finances, it may seem that way because many companies paid the bulk of living expenses for expatriates.

But people’s assumptions aren’t always accurate. While my family was outside of Singapore, my dad was diagnosed with a rare, chronic auto-immune disease called CIDP. His monthly treatments for life were so expensive that there were times when we were concerned about how the bills would be cleared. But God met our needs every time. 

And here’s another “secret” of mine: I used to envy missionary kids. Many MKs I knew could stay in their host country longer than I could. They could speak two languages fluently while I lacked sufficient time to be multilingual due to another move on the horizon. Having two “homes” appeared better than having many, as I’d have to say goodbye again. And again and again … and again.

Later as an adult I went through complex PTSD, partly due to stifling my emotions without processing them properly during transitions as a young child. I’m sure many of you can relate to that.

I can talk about so many blessings though — the main ones being experiences. Some of the experiences came from attending private schools filled with international students and from immersing myself in the local culture. Other experiences came from distributing gospel tracts and witnessing individuals place their trust in Jesus. In fact, my most precious memories involve local churches and mission work.

Just like we weren’t “typical” Singaporeans, we weren’t “typical” expatriates either. What I mean by that is that when we were overseas, we weren’t heavily involved in expat communities (although we did participate a couple of times). Instead, our main communities stemmed from local churches.

One Sunday at our church in South Korea, the pastor preached about missions. While he prayed the ending prayer, my dad took my tiny hand and brought me to the stage (my mom and sister were in other ministry rooms). I watched as he knelt and dedicated his heart to support mission work. Although my family didn’t carry the title of missionary, as saved children of God we were still missionaries. Throughout my life, I’ve seen my parents support mission work in various ways, whether through finances, prayers, simple actions of servitude, or sharing the gospel.

When we were in the closed country, I felt as though I was living a “double” life due to the government’s restrictions on Christians sharing the gospel message. During the weekdays I was a uniformed student, and over the weekends I attended an illegal house church with my Sunday clothes on. My parents could have brought us to a legal church as that was seen as the “safe” option, but legal churches were prohibited from openly sharing the gospel. Thus, we attended a house church – a decision we never regretted.

My parents even opened our house on Wednesday nights for the church’s mid-week Bible studies. We stayed in a private compound, which contained many expatriates like us. One action led to another as workers from the compound came to our house on Wednesdays to hear the Word of God. Back then, I didn’t realize how dangerous that was, but we didn’t regret that decision either.

That’s because salvation is priceless, and we shouldn’t keep the gospel to ourselves. Everywhere is a mission field.

In the Czech Republic, my family spent a lot of time serving a small church. I played the piano, watched after the kids, passed snacks around, and cleaned. My family served in their own ways too. We gave gospel tracts to individuals who crossed our paths and brought one of them to the church.

God has used local churches across the globe to shape my TCK life and perspectives over time. Each time God brought us to a new country, I would wonder about the church He was leading us to and about the unsaved who would cross our paths.

Furthermore, my TCK experiences with missions in various countries instilled in me a desire to support and be involved in both overseas and local missions. And no matter the path or country God places me in, I believe He wants to use that desire to further His kingdom.

~~~~~~~~~~

Clarissa Choo is an ATCK and a former business kid. Although she has lived in four countries, Heaven is her only home. She’s the administrator of the newly launched website ministry, TCKs for Christ. The platform seeks to serve, encourage, and challenge Christian TCKs to use their gifts and live victoriously with a firm identity in Jesus Christ. You can connect with Clarissa at ClarissaChoo.com or her Instagram, @ClarissaChoowriter.

Broken Blenders

by Katherine

See the blade twist to a stop
See the smoke rise after the pop
And I’ve broken another blender

Blenders keep breaking; I can’t bear to get another one. Is it that I keep buying low-quality blenders? Or is it the power surges and dusty, tropical environment? I can’t remember how many blenders I’ve been through in my years living in SE Asia. I don’t have one at the moment; I can’t bring myself to buy another one. I know it’s going to break.

Friends keep leaving; I can’t bear to get to know new people. Every new friend is an embryo of a goodbye. The expat community has such a high turnover. As an Australian living in Asia, I’m in a community with people from many countries. We all live here together as foreigners. Some stay for a few months, some for a few years, and some for a few decades. At any given time, I know of someone who is gearing up to move back to their passport country.

I was finally getting to know them
Maybe enough to be a regular confidant
Then they announce they are leaving
And they give their stuff away
 

I was finally getting to know them
Maybe enough to tell them where we keep the passports
Then they announce they are leaving
And they give their stuff away

I was finally getting to know them
Maybe our children will grow up together
Then they announce they are leaving
And they give their stuff away

We are a mosaic of everyone we’ve ever met, so they say. A mosaic is composed of pieces of different colours and shapes arranged together to form beauty. Well, I say the content of our house is a hodgepodge of many of the people we have farewelled. Our things are a jumbled, messy mixture of exited expats’ former items.

When an expat leaves, they need to get, say, 6 years of belongings down to a 20-kg bag. They sell, they gift, and they throw away.

I have a shelf from a friend who left 15 years ago,
a saucepan from a friend who left 8 years ago,
toys from friends who left 5 years ago,
many books from a friend who left 3 years ago,
a bed from a friend who left 2 years ago,
and a jar of sprinkles from a friend who left a year ago,
just to name a few.

Each piece of the mosaic is part time machine and part airplane. The jar of sprinkles connects us to those years we spent with the former owner. Memories of decorating Christmas cookies at her place pop up when I see the tall glass jar full of coloured balls.

It also connects us to that same friend in the present day. A reminder she is not here, but on the other side of the world. Her children probably don’t remember the sugary mess we made at their place. And they won’t be hosting cookie decorating here again.

I need to grow the mosaic. Although I can’t bear the thought of getting to know more people, I also cannot live without expat friends. I have local friends and friends in my passport country, but there are some things only fellow expats will get.

Locals know nothing other than crazy traffic, so they don’t see it as crazy. Passport country friends don’t know what it is like to fear every trip around town in your first year of a new country — but then to also fear the traffic in your passport country every visit.

So I will continue to welcome new friends. It’s better to have friends and say goodbye than to never have friends. And next time I am saying goodbye, maybe I will take the plunge and ask if my departing friends are looking to re-home their blender.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher.

A Childhood Erased

MCS School South

In June, the boarding school in Pakistan where I spent my childhood closed her doors. No longer will children respond to the gong of a bell that goes off for meal times. No longer will high schoolers gather outside the hostel, shyly sitting with The Boy that one has liked for so long, hands brushing against each other through the conversation and laughter of their classmates. No longer will staff and students alike have to shout over the roar of monsoon rains on tin roofs. The pine trees will no longer hear the whispered joys, sorrows, and prayers of students. Steel bunkbeds will no longer capture early morning tears of homesickness. There will be no more chapel, no more tea time, no more study halls, and no more graduations. Never again will the school song, so long ago penned by my father, be sung in that setting.

An era will be over, and with it – part of my life will seem erased.

Last night I watched memories of Murree, put together by my dear friend, Paul. With my husband and younger daughter by my side I was able to experience again the thick fog of Jhika Gali and the hairpin turns of roads. I heard one last gong of the bell and laughed as a monkey, captured perfectly on film, ran toward me and then away.

I have known about this closing for some time. The school was founded in 1956, a wonderful and admittedly rare happening where missionaries of every denomination got together and worked to build a school for the children of missionaries and nationals who were serving in Pakistan and neighboring countries. This year, after 65 years of service, the doors to the school will close. The last class has now graduated. Murree Christian School will no longer be a concrete place with walls and windows, students and administrators. Instead it will be relegated to memories in people around the world and, surprisingly, a wikipedia page of its own.

My friend Robynn and I occassionally text back and forth about our school closing. Ten years apart, we had similar experiences at MCS. Times of sorrow and sadness to be sure – but that is not the only story. Our stories are stories of much laughter and learning, of grace and growth, of the pure joy of youth. About two months ago I texted to Robynn “Our childhood is slowly being erased.”

A closing ceremony that brought hundreds of us together on ZOOM was planned for July. As it grew closer to the time of the ceremony, the more I felt an urgent sadness that needed to be voiced. MCS holds so many stories. I somehow never thought that the day it closed would really come. As my dear friend Robynn says so well:

Deep relationships were formed. Faith was nurtured. It’s difficult to capture in words what this hidden place has meant to many now literally scattered the world over.

Robynn Bliss

To be sure, we live in a different era. The school had dropped in size to a miniscule number. Staff are hard to come by and finances more so. Schools cannot stay open simply to be receptacles for childhood memories. In fact, the beauty of the times I visited back after graduation lay in the fact that it was still a living, vibrant place. New students and staff that (shockingly) did not know me had their own memories and events, their own life stories. A terrorist attack shortly after 9/11 changed the school in unimaginable ways, taking away the freedom that we students from the seventies had. Dwindling class sizes made it the more difficult to justify the cost of keeping up the buildings and grounds. Less people were comfortable sending their children to boarding school. There are many reasons to close and the decision to close was more difficult than I can imagine.

What does an adult do when they feel their childhood is slowly being erased? The tendency would be to grasp at whatever I can to keep the picture of what I had.

Instead, I open my hands and I give the pencil back to God. From the beginning it is he that wrote the story of MCS. It is God who gave the vision, God who sustained the decades of life, God who loves the people who entered and left the large, stone building to forge their way in a world beyond.

As I have thought more about MCS closing, I have released the idea of my childhood erased. That is giving the closing of a man-made, though wonderful, institution too much power. Instead I’ve thought about the stones of remembrance that I take with me from my childhood and this place that shaped me.

The idea of stones of remembrance comes from the Old Testament book of Joshua. The Lord tells Joshua to choose 12 men, one from each tribe. They are to go and pick up a stone from the middle of the Jordan River, at the spot where the priests were carrying the Ark of the Covenant. They were to carry the stones to the place where the people would spend the night. There they would put them down to serve as a sign. These were stones of remembrance. They served as a sign to the people present and to future generations that God was there, that he was faithful, that he did not leave his people.

What are the stones of remembrance in my life that connect to MCS? What rocks can I point to, stones of surety that declare “God was here.” What can I list that point to a life of faith, built on a stone foundation?

My stones of remembrance are imperfect people who taught me how to forgive and fellow students and dear friends who taught me what it was to press on. My stones of remembrance are the laughter that drowns out the memories of homesickness and the growth that leans into discomfort. My stones of remembrance are brothers who share blood and friends who share memories. My stones of remembrance are rocks of trust and knowing that somehow, all would be well.

I am gathering the stones, I am putting them down in writing, so that I too can tell future generations “This is what shaped me, this is why I am here.” Because it’s good to remember.


At every graduation and important event, we sang our school hymn, voices raised to the rafters of the old church building turned school. Some of us sang with immense talent, others just sang. Though all were lost in those moments in their own thoughts, never knowing that most would look back on these times and the song itself with deep longing. I leave you the final verse here – a reminder that no closing of anything is powerful enough to erase childhood.

Lord with thanks and praise we honor Murree Christian School
May her life and fame and service for thee ever rule

Built upon a firm foundation, in God's hands a tool,
Shaping lives of dedication, Murree Christian School

In all our lives we go through times where places and people we love change, where we recognize that life will never be quite the same. What are your stones of remembrance for those times? Where can you point to rocks of trust and a foundation that holds even when the building changes?

Note: This post was originally published at Communicating Across Boundaries.

Please Pray for My Alex, and I’ll Pray for Yours: When Our Children Don’t Believe

by Anonymous

Will you pray for my Alex?

That’s not my child’s real name, but that doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter whether Alex is my daughter or son. What matters is that Alex has decided not to follow Jesus.

It shouldn’t really matter that Alex is an MK, either, but it does to us, Alex’s mom and dad. I know that a parent is a parent and a child is a child, but when we went overseas to take the gospel to the lost, we didn’t plan on losing one of our own.

While Alex was growing up, we were trying to help the people in our new country taste and see that the Lord is good, but somewhere along the way the taste our Alex ended up with was bitter or, at best, bland.

Were we too strict as parents? Were we too lax? Did we spend too much time working with others at the expense of our child? Did our move and ministry overseas have anything to do with Alex’s choice?

There’s a voice inside me that can easily quote the verse “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” I’ve learned how to explain that verse away, but that doesn’t make it go away. When I open up Proverbs, there it is.

Another voice says, Now you know what it feels like to have a child leave the family faith, and there are days when wrestling with Alex’s lack of a foundation shakes my own.

We hear others say that their greatest joy is that all their children are faithful believers, and we want that joy, too. Sometimes we feel so alone.

But I know we’re not.

I know that some of you, too, have an Alex. I’ve read your hesitant emails and listened to your hushed words.

You grieve, as we do, but you haven’t given up.

So we pray for our Alexes to hear God, in whatever way he chooses to speak, we pray for them to return to his eager embrace, and we pray for them to be given the time to do so.

We love them and want them to know the blessings of Christ, in this life and the life to come.

We pray and we hope, even when we’re hoping against hope.

Please pray for my Alex. I’ll pray for yours.

Permission to Prioritize Your Birth Abroad

by Chandler Gilow

Birth is important. It’s one of the most human experiences, shared by women and families in every culture on earth. It is both universal and highly personal. The experience is also completely unique, no matter how many births you have. Birth is life changing every time, and your experience, whether good or bad, will impact your life for years to come. 

As a labor and delivery nurse, I have seen a few key components that set up families to navigate this season well no matter the outcome: planning, education, advocacy, and support. If moms and dads set aside the time to research their options, learn about the birth process, and gameplan for potential outcomes, they can advocate with confidence in almost any situation. Likewise, families who are intentional about lining up the support they need can better handle deviations from their plans. 

This transitional season always brings stress, albeit happy stress, into the family unit as you make decisions about your healthcare team and parenting. However, these potential stressors can be compounded for those living abroad.  

A lot of my expat friends had a baby in their first 3 years abroad, and from what I’ve gathered, this is a pretty common story. In the first 3 years you are still transitioning to your new culture, learning a new language, healthcare system, and community. Not to mention potentially helping older TCKs adjust, working with visa restrictions, possibly relocating for birth, and don’t forget ALL the paperwork.  

This season was meant to be filled with joy and excited anticipation, not overwhelming stress. The great news is that it can be fun and wonderful if you allow yourself to invest the time and energy.  

When we found out we were expecting our second baby, we were about a year into language learning in the Middle East. We were excited and overwhelmed all at the same time. Our first birth in the U.S had not gone as planned. The calm birth I’d hoped for ended in an emergency cesarean with a long healing time. 

We had not prepared well. I thought that because I was a nurse I could get by with halfheartedly focusing on a childbirth education class. In the end we had a beautiful little girl, but also some residual trauma. I decided for my second that I would unapologetically devote my time to preparing mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. All the hours of research, preparation, and relocation to a city to get the birth team I needed, ended in a very healing VBAC abroad. All that time was worth it to me because we came back healthier than before the birth.  

Since then, I have talked to so many families who feel guilt for investing time and resources into preparing for their birth. They feel like they are taking time away from language learning, ministry, or their job. They struggle to justify spending money on classes or a doula because they raise money and do not feel like they can make a case to supporters. I have also seen families with older children approach birth abroad without thinking through the nuances that could impact their experience.  

The truth is, birth abroad is amazing and beautiful, and it can be a great way to connect with your local culture. However, it also comes with a lot of nuance that needs to be considered. Every family is different and needs to be respected. They need to prioritize different decisions in their pregnancy/birth/postpartum experience to thrive.

You may need to hire a doula, pay for a birth class, change healthcare providers, travel to another city/country to get a level of healthcare you feel comfortable with. It could mean not feeling guilty reading birth books at night instead of running though your language flashcards one more time, taking time away from your typical day to interview multiple care providers, or paying a little extra to get a private postpartum room. 

Whatever you choose to prioritize should not be done with guilt or seen as an indulgence. It should be seen as an investment to keep your family resilient and to increase longevity on the field. After all, there are no do-overs in birth. I would much rather see families thrive through this season with adequate education, resources, and community instead of simply thriving or needing healing postpartum.  

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 

Chandler is a wife, mom of two, RN, and Lactation Specialist who started The Global Birth Coach after seeing a hole in expat care during her birth abroad. She is now stateside with her family while her husband finishes his PhD. She is passionate about empowering families to thrive in the perinatal period. You can find her @theglobalbirthcoach on Facebook, Instagram, and PinterestThe Expat Birth Podcast is a podcast devoted to sharing birth stories from abroad. It is released monthly on all major platforms. Contact her through her website or email: info@theglobalbirthcoach.com. 

 

Oops, I Forgot Myself: How to Reclaim Your Identity in a Massive Transition

You know that feeling? It’s a sick one. In your gut. Sometimes you catch it early. Two minutes down the road on the way to the airport.

“Did you pack the swimsuits?”

“Yes.”

“Socks?”

“Yes”

“Underwear?”

“Yep.”

“Boarding passes?”

“YES! I got everything ok?!”

“Sorry . . . (long pause) . . . passports?

“Shoot! Turn around.”

It’s nice when the light bulb goes on in time. Nothing hurt. We can still make it.

It’s not so nice when you’re sitting on the airplane, or unpacking your boxes, and it hits like a lightning bolt. That thing you really need in your new place is the thing you left in the old place.

But there is a whole other layer. A deeper one.

The one thing that almost all of us (at some level) forget to take with us in a massive life transition is . . . ourselves.

Who we were in the last place gets washed out in the new place. Our new life demands our attention. So we give it. The new people don’t know us yet. So we show them the surface. There is a language that we don’t speak (even if we’re “returning home”). So we get by. The systems, the patterns, the customs, the culture, the way of life are all radically different. So we scramble. We make do. We figure it out.

And then we wake up . . . weeks later — sometimes months — occasionally years — and the light bulb goes on . . . I forgot myself.

And it feels too late to turn around.

Transition challenges personality.

It attacks normalcy.

It assaults identity.

So if you’re waking up in the middle of a massive life transition, take heart, you’re not the only one who doesn’t feel like yourself.

But that helps nothing right?

“Great, everyone is screwed up but I DON’T KNOW WHO I AM!”

That’s fair.

Here are a few thoughts on reclaiming your identity when you wake up and realize you left it sitting on the kitchen table in a place you can’t get back to.

1. Learn the difference between inside and outside.
When you move from one place to another, you immediately start responding to outside things — the external forces that are pressing against your daily existence.

You have to. You’re supposed to. You’re not doing it wrong.

But.

In your core, there is a pile of values that didn’t change when everything on the outside did. There are beliefs, passions, habits, dreams, joys, frustrations, and pet peeves that define who you really are.

You should know those.

Like really — know them.

Not just in response to a question but intimately — KNOW THEM.

List them out.

Spend time with them.

Pick them apart.

Deconstruct them.

Put them to the test.

See what gets cut — and what doesn’t.

You should be the top scholar of your own core — but maybe you never had to be until now. Maybe your inside has always been supported by the outside so that you didn’t have to think about it.

Now you do.

When you KNOW who you are in your core you can go ANYWHERE with confidence.

When you DON’T, you’ll be stuck in the anxiety of a missing identity because you’re relying on the outside stuff to define you.

 

2. Know what makes you, YOU.
Little y, big Y.

Just because you have moved doesn’t mean YOU have arrived. Not all of YOU.

What did you give up, for the sake of the move, that feels like it was actually a part of you?

What did you DO back there that you don’t do anymore?

What did you leave behind that feeds your soul?

This one might sting a bit . . . who are you blaming that on?

Here’s the kicker — it’s a REAL challenge to do life (as you know it) in a new place. It doesn’t look the same. It doesn’t feel the same. It doesn’t even smell the same.

I’ve known marathon runners who threw up on their first run in China because of air pollution.

I’ve known musicians who couldn’t find an outlet for their music in their new spot.

Chefs who can’t get baking powder.

Artists who can’t find art stores.

More often than not though, it comes down to the fact that their motivation just got kicked in the gut. They had to spend so much of their energy re-learning how to do regular life stuff that they really struggle to find the space for the things they love.

Again. Fair.

But.

Transition is the process of becoming YOU again. Did you catch that? It’s a process. Movement from one highly functional place to another with a completely dysfunctional dip in the middle.

So.

When the time is right, remember who YOU ARE.

Finish the sentence. I AM ___________________.

A runner?

An artist?

A writer?

An entrepreneur?

A designer?

A people person?

An introvert?

An encourager?

A party animal?

A reader?

A hiker?

A dreamer?

Then dig into the HEART of why YOU are who YOU are. What is it about that thing that makes you come alive? Maybe you can’t do it in the same way but maybe . . . just maybe . . . you can. Or you can find a substitute that recaptures some of it. Or you can create a space that hits the same mark in a different way. Or you might just discover something new about yourself while you’re digging around.

The point is that if a piece of YOU is missing in your new place, you don’t have to settle for it.

But we do.

We run the “I used to be so good at” or “I gave up so much to” or “I just can’t anymore” narratives in our head until we believe that there is no way around it.

Don’t give up that easily. This is YOU we’re talking about.

 

3. Postpone your expectations. Don’t forget them.
I HATE the phrase “lower your expectations.”

I get it. I understand the heart behind it. Going in expecting to be able to function at the same level as you did in the last place is a recipe for a letdown.

“So just expect it to be horrible. Then you won’t be disappointed.”

No. Just no. Stop saying that.

Expect delays. Expect challenges. Expect frustration. Expect hiccups, and speed bumps, and problems (big and small) ALONG THE WAY to a fully functional, thriving life where you are not only enjoying the best bits of who YOU are but you are pouring them out on the people around you.

Write this down – it’s important.

You should NEVER compare the beginning of the new thing to the end of the last thing.

That’s not fair.

That’s like a farmer planting seeds and coming back to harvest the next day.

“Why is there no corn here?! I PLANTED CORN YESTERDAY!!”

I’m not a farmer but even I know the answer to that. “Because you chopped it all down a few months ago.”

It took time in the last place. You had to figure it out. You had to meet the people. You had to build the relationships. You had to learn the systems. You had to set things in motion and find the rhythm.

None of that is in place when you move into a new thing.

None of it.

You chopped it down.

So plant the seed. Set the right environment. Put the right things in. Keep the wrong things out. Start with some tiny roots. Then give yourself the space and the grace to emerge in due time.

You’ll get there — even if you can’t get there yet.

If you are in the middle of a big move or a massive life transition, there is so much hope. There is hope in the collective groanings of “I am not alone.” There is hope in the process of transition. There is hope in the core of who YOU are.

If you have forgotten yourself — go get yourself back.

Originally published at The Culture Blend

Motherhood on the Field: Expectations versus Reality

by Katie Von Rueden

Before my husband and I arrived in West Africa to minister in remote village among a minority people group, it was pretty clear (to us) what we were going to do. We were to be literacy specialists, as our heartfelt prayers had prepared us for, and our degrees had trained us to carry out. Our ministry description was to engage with the people and culture, learn the language, publish stories, teach people to read, then train up teachers and storywriters to make the ministry reproducible. 

And give or take the expected adjustments, surprises, and stresses of our first couple years on the field, by God’s grace we were more or less on our way to fulfilling those ministry tasks. And then we returned to the field after a home assignment, and several things came with the start of another term:  a new baby in tow, stepping into branch leadership, and the necessity of shifting the central focus of our family’s ministry in our project from literacy to helping facilitate the Bible translation in process for our people group. 

I can’t speak for my husband and the process he went through shifting from pre-field expectations and post-field reality that came to be within a few short years of our arrival in West Africa. It was an entirely different kind of adjustment. But I’ll attempt to describe that shift for me when I became a missionary mom. 

It was if suddenly, though I continued to write updates for our supporters back home, I was relegated to the role of a spectator to our ministry. Available time to work on literacy initiatives, like creating and editing materials, was pushed into the small margin of my son’s afternoon naps, if it happened at all. In the context of our rural village life in a taxing, tropical environment, I felt like I had just enough physical and emotional energy to manage our home and care for my infant (and serve as the front-lines journalist of my husband’s ongoing adventure, of course).

In my head, I knew what I was doing was important … for my son, for my family, for our ministry. But in my heart, as I dug into the daily grind made up of the million wonderful, but mundane, moments of parenting, I felt the grief of an identity I felt I had lost, and guilt that I wasn’t fulfilling my ministry role as a literacy specialist.

I didn’t realize how much this seeming sidelining of responsibilities bothered me, though, until a young couple arrived on a vision trip to our field, and the woman, on observing my morning routine with our then one-year-old, asked me: “So, what do you do besides take care of Tristan?” 

Uh… well, I wash and wring out loads of cloth diapers, make baby food, cook all our meals from scratch, and tend to the spontaneous visits, requests, and needs of our village neighbors Every. Single. Day. But I wasn’t quick-witted enough to fill her in on All. The. Things that encompassed that “singular task” of “taking care of my child.” (By the way, we all still have to live in the places we relocate to, and that in itself is a lot of work above and beyond the neat and tidy ministry we sign up for in this business.) Because I knew her underlying question was actually what did I do as a field worker?, I managed some reply about the literacy projects I worked on in my spare time. (Yeah right.) But that’s not the response she needed to hear that day from me.

What I should have told her, had I grasped it then myself, is that the discipleship and education of my children and the care of my family is the crux of what I do on the field. Family is ministry. Making my family my ministry actually plays a critical role in the Bible translation happening in our home office every day.

Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” For men means for other people, but I think it also means for you, yourself, and your ambitions. Work heartily for God’s glory, not to please others, or your own ambitions, or what you think God wants of you, or what others want of you.

When I took the time to examine my heart, I realized that the only one who had a problem with my “shifted identity” as a field worker was me. But through God’s grace, and my husband’s occasional, heartfelt notes of encouragement, I realized that I wasn’t a sidelined field worker not doing her job. The assigned task of literacy in its fullest capacity was yes, temporarily shelved. But my worth is not found in what my ministry description says I do, but who I am as a child of God.

But at the risk of sounding contradictory, I need to say there is a tension between following a calling and living under grace, free from unfair expectations. In following the path that God has called us to in life and ministry, we can fall into two ditches. There is the ditch of tenacity, of singular focus to a calling. This could be the call to translation, or literacy, or technical or administrative support, or healthcare. While this Apostle Paul-like commitment to a calling is good, a singular focus to a ministry may cause us to miss opportunities to be present for our family, our colleagues, our neighbors. Our ministry job descriptions are not finite: our life’s calling is to bring God glory, and clearly, there’s more than one way to do so.

However, we must be careful not to fall into the other ditch of capriciousness, or being too flexible in our service to God and what He has called us to. Being the all-around helpful, dependable man or woman is good, and it is God-honoring, but we must be careful not to stumble into the path of least resistance and lose trajectory in what God is asking us to do with our time and skills.

Here’s how these “ditches” translate for me: In this season as a missionary mom of young children, had I fallen into the ditch of tenacity to serving as a literacy specialist, I would be setting myself up for incredible frustration and missing doing my job as mom well. But I still risk falling into the ditch of capriciousness. I’ll admit, oftentimes it’s hard not to use my children as an excuse for not doing something hard or uncomfortable that I sense God is asking me to do. As I’ve attempted to tread the course between those two ditches, embracing my role as a missionary mom of littles, it has opened doors to different ministries for this season, such as building into the lives of village kids that flood our yard each day unannounced. 

God isn’t into job titles. He’s not waiting for me to show up at my desk to edit a literacy tool. 

He’s waiting for me, for you, to show up

To do something, even when… especially when… it’s hard. When you feel side-lined and unseen.

To not be so blindsided by a change to what you expected to do when you got to the field, that it renders you useless for a real opportunity in the present reality He’s giving you—whether for the short or long-term. 

To be focused, but flexible. 

Your worth is not in what your ministry description says you do, but in the God you serve.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Katie makes her home in a rural, West African village with her husband and two children. They serve with a Bible translation organization in literacy and scripture engagement, making the Word accessible in the heart language of minority people groups. As a teenager, Katie dreamed of teaching English at an international school in China. Her university degree and cross-cultural experiences were propelling her in that direction, when she met her husband and God rewrote her story (or invited her into a new chapter). Making Africa her heart’s home over the years has been a journey of surrender and of discovering joy and God’s calling in unexpected places.

Return to Life

The 2000 film Return to Me is a family favorite. The movie features Bob and Elizabeth, who have been together since high school and who are still very much in love. One tragic night Elizabeth, who was an organ donor, is killed in a car accident. We watch as doctors transfer her heart to Grace, a woman who’s needed a new heart for a long time.

Grace goes nervously into surgery, hopeful for a new life. Bob, blood still on his clothes, goes home to an empty house. It’s an agonizing scene.

Months later, Grace has recovered from surgery. Bob, meanwhile, is having trouble living without Elizabeth and has buried himself in his work. Friends continually try to set him up with other girls, but Bob wants nothing to do with anyone new. He can’t get over the loss of Elizabeth. Then one night during one of these blind dates, Bob meets Grace at the family restaurant where she works. Sparks immediately start flying.

In the following weeks and months, Bob’s heart opens up to new love. But Grace is guarding a secret. Although she doesn’t know that Bob’s wife’s heart beats inside her chest, for some reason she can’t bring herself to tell Bob she’s had a heart transplant. Eventually the two of them figure this fact out, and the revelation is traumatic for both of them. Bob disappears; Grace flies to Italy to paint.

While Grace is gone, Bob realizes he loves her and can’t live without her. He looks for her at the restaurant only to find that she’s gone. He acknowledges, “I miss Elizabeth. I’ll always miss her.” Still, he’s ready to embrace a new life with Grace. He goes in search of her, and their reunion is sweet. The audience can see them building a future together.

One year after having traumatically evacuated Cambodia, I think I understand a little of what Bob meant in his restaurant confession. We left Cambodia in March, just as the pandemic began closing borders. We were relieved to have made it to U.S. soil, and for several weeks we assumed we’d be able to easily re-enter Cambodia in the fall as planned. But by May our visa and passport plans began unraveling, and by June, life as we knew it in Cambodia was over.

I didn’t even get to say goodbye.

2020 became one long grieving session. This might sound strange if you knew me in the early 2000’s when Jonathan felt called to missions and I didn’t. You might remember how I fought the call for so long. But now I felt like Mr. Holland from the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, in which aspiring composer Mr. Holland longed for fame and renown, but instead ended up teaching music to high school students. At the end of his career, when budget cuts forced him to retire early, he observed, “It’s almost funny. I got dragged into this gig kicking and screaming, and now it’s the only thing I want to do.”

Like Mr. Holland, I didn’t initially want to move to Cambodia, but once I got there, I found a life I loved. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye — but covid said differently. For weeks, I woke up crying. Opening my eyes each morning was a painful reminder of where in the world I wasn’t. In Cambodia I had a strong support system. I lived every day with a sense of meaning and purpose. I had a place in the community and rituals and routines that brought structure to our chaotic cross-cultural life. We had raised our children there, and Cambodia was all they knew.

It was a difficult life, sure, but it was also an exceedingly good one. And I wasn’t sure I would ever stop crying over this loss. I lived in the “if onlys.” If only we didn’t have passport problems. If only we didn’t have visa problems. If only covid hadn’t happened. If only, if only, if only. I thought if I could just get back to Cambodia, I could recapture all my former happiness. In reality, even if I could have returned, I couldn’t have recaptured my old life. Covid made that impossible for seven billion of us.

Then one day my near-constant crying stopped. I thought I had accepted my new circumstances. And I do believe I had accepted that I couldn’t get my old life back. But reflecting now, I realize that I struggled deeply throughout the fall and winter. I had said goodbye to my old life — though not in person and not on purpose. But I still didn’t know exactly what my new life would look like, so it was hard to root myself here. Everything seemed bleak. I didn’t think I could ever be happy again.

We were looking for a home at the time. We knew we had to be out of our temporary housing by the end of December. After several housing disappointments (a story for another time), I began to fear becoming homeless (emotions may exaggerate facts, but the intensity of the feelings are real). We didn’t have a church home yet because of covid, so I didn’t have local community to help me through this transition. I knew I couldn’t get my old life back, but I still desperately missed it.

Finally, finally, we found a home that fit our family that was also in our price range. We signed the papers mid-December, which was a bit closer to the deadline than we would have preferred. Still, we were thrilled to have a place of our own. I had no idea it would be such an important milestone in our repatriation process.

We’ve been in our new home for three months now. It fits all six of us so perfectly. I live in the daily disbelief that we could have found such a fantastic place for our family to live. We are making it our own, slowly writing our name in the land. Jonathan is tending the lawn. Pictures are hanging on the walls. We have rituals and routines, and I’m slowly re-building a support system. Living in our home has helped get me “unstuck” from the grief and helped me to move forward. It has given me a glimpse of what the next season of life might look like.

Cambodia is still a natural part of our conversations, and we frequently talk about our old life. The six of us have so many shared memories, both pleasant and unpleasant. Occasionally I even long for life in Southeast Asia. But I no longer think I can’t live without Cambodia, that life simply cannot go on without Cambodia. I’m beginning to understand what life can look like here on the other side of the ocean. I feel like Bob, who knew that he would always miss his old life, but who now knew that he could also live a new life with Grace.

My old life and my new life, side by side

Neither Here Nor There, I Do Not Belong Anywhere

by Chris Moyer

Not fully in France. Not in America,
Not by the Seine, Not by the Susquehanna.
My belonging is mixed-up, Sam, you see.
I do not belong fully here or there.
I do not fully belong anywhere!

If you are a Third Culture Kid like me, you may read the word “belonging” and feel that it is an ephemeral or even impossible concept to grasp. Endless strings of transitions leave many TCKs wondering how they could ever find a stable sense of belonging. In many ways, the TCK life feels like my adapted stanza from Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham (above).

I struggled most intensely with my sense of belonging when I was a teenager and young adult because I experienced an intense push and pull between countries and continents through those years. Each year – from 9th grade through my first year of college – I faced a new phase of starting over. In 9th grade I had my last year in French schools. Then, in 10th grade, I shipped off (of my own volition) to Black Forest Academy in Germany. Next, I had a one-year stop in America (not of my own volition) for 11th grade. Then once again, I hopped the Atlantic to return to BFA for my senior year. Finally, I moved back to the States for college.

As I typed the above paragraph, I could feel my nerves amp up, my palms get sweaty, and butterflies begin to flutter in my stomach. Even though the last of those transitions took place over twenty years ago, the overwhelming sense of dread that accompanies having to start over is a feeling I can never quite shake. Yes, I have processed – and even learned to embrace – what took place during those years. But I can still vividly recall my desperate longing for stability and for a sense of true belonging, something for which my heart ached during that time in my life.

While I was blessed to develop meaningful relationships with many special people during those years – people I never would have met had I stayed in a single, stable environment – I can still keenly feel the tension that constantly pushed and pulled at me. The tension of wanting to fully fit in with those around me, all the while knowing deep inside that I was inherently different from both my French and American peers. My desire to belong remained just outside of my grasp because I was stuck in the perpetual reality of being an outsider in both of my “worlds.”

When living as a teenager in France, many of my classmates thought it was “cool” that I was American. But their understanding was based on the American shows they watched and the American musicians they listened to, rather than inquiring what it was like for me personally to be a US citizen. Instead of questions, I frequently heard comments such as, “You are so lucky to be American!” and, “I don’t understand why you would leave the US to live here!” And, just in case there was any doubt that I was not a local, my peers even nicknamed me, “Made in USA.” In some ways I liked that I had something that other kids wanted, and yet I struggled with being different. In my heart I simply wanted what most young people desire, that is to be like my friends and not stand out.

When in America I looked and sounded like my peers, which on the surface felt good. But on the inside, I felt like a zebra running among horses. Zebras sound like horses when they run, and outside of their black and white stripes, they even look like horses. But zebras and horses are different species. Try as I might, I could not ignore or fully hide my stripes. I did what I could to blend in like a cultural chameleon, but just as zebras cannot be tamed, so I could not suppress my multicultural identity.

At BFA, we were ALL zebras! Our base color (passport cultures) may have been different, as were our stripes (our host cultures), but within this community I finally found my “herd.” This offered me the sense of belonging I had been looking for and longing to find for so long. But before I knew it, graduation came along and we all went our separate ways. Many of us were once again living as zebras among horses.

TCKs do not have the power to change what makes them different from their peers in either their passport or their host countries. And now, as I parent three TCKs of my own, I want to help my children successfully navigate the treacherous path of belonging. While one side of the TCK “coin” represents challenges, the flip side to this is an intense richness that can only be found in this reality. Together, we will celebrate the beauty and accept the losses that come along with the multicultural life they did not personally choose for themselves.

It is my desire to lead my own TCK children to learn, as I did, that you do not need to fully belong to fully engage with those around you. No, you won’t ever “belong” to just one group or culture. And while that can be hard, it is ok. Understanding, acknowledging, grieving, and celebrating are all joined together to create the jumbled richness that is multi-cultural living. While I always felt different from my monocultural peers, coworkers, and family, I grew to accept these differences, while learning to belong — at least mostly. To explain what I mean by “mostly,” I highly recommend watching this short video from Michèle Phoenix: MKs & BELONGING – Three Options to Consider – YouTube

Below are three things (this is not an exhaustive list) that you can do to help your TCK(s) learn to mostly belong wherever they may be.

 

1. Process their sense of belonging with them.

For older TCKs, asking them reflective questions can draw out what is going on beneath the surface of their desire to belong:

  • Where do you feel you most belong?
  • What makes you feel like you belong there or with those people?
  • What it is like for you when you feel like an outsider?
  • What do you do when you feel like an outsider (look for specific behavior that helps or inhibits their desire to belong)?

For younger TCKs, you can still try to ask reflective questions like the ones above, or you can read a book like Swirly, which will draw out feelings and desires through story.

 

2. Help them make decisions that grow a healthy sense of belonging (be sure to process #1 with your kids before moving to #2).

As Michèle Phoenix says in her video, some TCKs will do whatever they can to blend in. They will forsake their heritage for the sake of belonging. While TCKs need to grieve what they have left behind, suppressing where they come from will create additional challenges of unresolved grief along the way.

Because of the mobile nature of their parents’ employment, some TCKs will experience short transition periods such as the one I had in America for my 11th grade year. I did not want to be in America that year, and my attitude and behavior clearly matched my disposition. It can be tempting for TCKs, when they know they will only be somewhere for a short period of time, to stay withdrawn and be unwilling to invest much into their momentary place of residence. This was my approach to my stop-gap year in America for two reasons. The first was that I longed to be back with my friends at BFA. The second was that I knew I was going to be leaving and did not want to get close to people for fear of how hard the goodbyes might be.

Whether TCKs are in a short transitional period, or whether they are in a more permanent phase of life, it is important to help them make conscious decisions that lead them to connect with others. Understandably, it is hard to move toward others when you feel like a cultural outsider, when you are in the middle of grief, or when you’re just plain tired of “putting yourself out there” yet again. But, relationships with peers are a crucial first step to a growing sense of belonging. Below are some ideas (again, not exhaustive) of how to help your kids connect with other kids:

  • Encourage them to invite a classmate to your home to play. If your TCK does not want to risk rejection, be the one to take initiative and invite their classmate’s family over for an afternoon snack or a meal.
  • When possible, have your TCK get involved in something they love to do. In our family we chose to forego extra-curricular activities during our first year in France because we thought the language barrier would be more stressful than the activity would be beneficial. However, after our initial “waiting period” we’ve witnessed our three kids blossoming more and more since beginning their hobbies here.
  • If your TCK(s) goes to local schools, check in with them regularly about how well (or not) they are connecting with their classmates. Some kids naturally jump into new settings with both feet. But others may be shy and insecure about finding their “place,” as we found was the case with one of our children who needed regular encouragement to move toward others. With time and some gentle nudges this kid has really grown in their ability to initiate with others, and as a result, their sense of belonging has been strengthened.

 

3. When possible, gather with other expat families.

There is a good chance that your TCK(s) will feel their greatest sense of belonging when they find themselves with other TCKs. They will likely no longer feel like a zebra running among horses when they come together. There is a comfort, often an unspoken one, through a mutual understanding that comes with being alongside of others from their “herd.” In light of this, make every effort to meet up with other expat families when possible.

When it is not possible to meet in person, whether because of where you live or because of the current global pandemic, your TCK(s) may enjoy having online gatherings with their TCK peers. Our youngest loves to connect with a TCK friend in Eastern Europe and do a “show and tell” with him. Our older kids simply enjoy sitting across the screen and chatting with their TCK friends.

Lastly, let me encourage you to find conferences/retreats to attend with other expat families. There are some great events put on by educational service organizations, mission organizations and others that will be like a breath of fresh air for you and your TCKs. These types of events were some of the biggest highlights of my childhood and I know my kids have loved the handful of retreats they have attended with their TCK peers.

 

In the end my hope is that we can see our kids mostly belong and that the adapted stanza from Sam I Am changes to:

Mostly in France. And in America
By the Seine and the Susquehanna.
I belong mostly, Sam, you see.
I belong mostly here and there.
I belong mostly anywhere.

~~~~~~~~~

Chris Moyer grew up in France and Germany as the child of missionaries. After spending nineteen years in the States and serving as a counselor and then as a pastor, he returned to France in 2018 with his wife, Laura, and their three children to serve in church planting and global member care with World Team. Chris loves running, biking, following his favorite sports teams as a faithful “phan” (all teams from Philadelphia and France soccer), and travelling the world. You can read more of his reflections on his personal TCK experience and on parenting TCKs on his blog TCKonnective.

To the Fathers of Third Culture Kids

by Chris Moyer

Woosh…….Pop! For as long as I can remember I have found immense satisfaction in the sound and feeling of a baseball hitting a mitt just right. Of all places, this love of mine started as a 7- or 8-year-old in suburban Paris while playing countless hours of catch with my dad in the parking lot across the street from our house.

Over time, and as we moved from place to place, the “woosh” and the “pop” got louder as I grew in strength and ability. But while these things changed, my company remained the same. As a pre-teen, and then as a teenager, I would frequently knock on my dad’s home office door, peeking my head in while asking, “Want to play catch?” While I imagine there were times he was not able to acquiesce, all I can remember when thinking back on my childhood was that dad was always available and willing to spend that time with me. Looking back, I know that my requests interrupted his work, but he never once made me feel bad about it. 

I have grown to realize that it is not really the sound of a ball hitting a mitt that is so satisfying. No, it is everything that is associated with the pop of leather hitting leather: the quality time spent playing and being coached by my dad; his propensity to say “yes” to me rather than “no;” his patience with me when I would get frustrated and pout because I would mess up a throw. If I were to sum up why I have such a fondness for hearing a baseball hit the sweet spot of a glove, it is because in many ways it reminds me of my dad’s presence in my life. He was safe. He was available. He valued me and spent time with me.

Last week I read the first issue of Interact Magazine that has been released since 2005. One article spoke of a study that had been conducted among adult children of missionaries (AMKs) on the key factors relating to their well-being and life-satisfaction. Researchers were surprised at the top answer participants gave related to what relationship was most important during their childhood and why:

Most of the CORE researchers, basing their experience on studies regarding the influence of mothers on their children, thought AMKs would say “Mother.” Instead, 55% of the respondents identified “Father” as the most important person in their life. Why? “He spent time with me”; “He knew I liked basketball, so he would play basketball with me in 120 degree heat”; “He included me in his work”; “He lived out what he preached”; “When I came out of my bedroom in the morning, Dad would be kneeling by the couch praying for me and the family”; “When I was falsely accused of doing something wrong at school, Dad drove 200 miles to come and defend me”. Again, the quality of a close, caring, loving, and committed relationship with Father formed the foundation for these AMKs further well-being in life1.

These survey results certainly do not minimize the important role of a mother in her child(ren)’s life. Rather, they highlight the vitality of a father’s relationship with his child(ren). When a family’s support system is upended through cross-cultural living, a father’s care becomes all the more important. An intentionally present, safe and caring father can help immensely as Third Culture Kids experience and process the destabilizing effects of countless transitions and as they seek to figure out who they are. While fathers cannot fix the challenges that their TCK(s) are facing, their relationship with their child(ren) is a key factor to their current and future well-being and life-satisfaction.

 

Say “Yes” as Much as Possible
I have now been a father to three TCKs for a little over two years and I am working on being more and more purposeful in the way I relate to my kids. I vividly remember a conversation my wife, Laura, had with her mom about parenting. I do not remember how the subject came up, but my mother-in-law told Laura this: “Whenever possible, I said ‘yes’ to your requests when you were growing up.” Of course, there are times when it was/is necessary to say “no.” But her statement struck me for a couple of reasons: (1) this was what I had experienced as a child when I would ask my dad to play catch; and (2) this is what I want my kids to remember about me when they grow up.

And so, as much as I enjoy running on my own, I try to say “yes” to my son when he asks if he can ride his bike alongside of me. The same goes for when he asks with a glimmer in his eyes, “Daddy, want to wrestle?” or when my girls ask to play games or cuddle with me. Since I most frequently work from home, my children’s requests often interrupt what I am doing so sometimes my “yes” has to be a “we will do that as soon as daddy is done.” Whether my “yes” is immediate or slightly delayed, I want my kids to know that I love them and highly value being with them.

 

Take Special Interest
In a world with countless connected devices at their fingertips, TCKs need their fathers more than ever to connect with them on a personal level. Similar to saying “yes” as often as possible, taking special interest in what our children enjoy is a key to building a safe relationship with them. So, whether our kids play sports, are aspiring musicians or artists, or have a special love for nature, valuing their interests by being physically and emotionally present when they are doing their activities will go a long way to show them that while circumstances might change, daddy’s care remains.

 

Be Quick to Listen
Let’s be honest, men, we have a propensity to want to fix things. And that’s a good thing! But unlike a kitchen sink that is clogged, the challenges our children face should not be viewed as problems to fix. Yes, sometimes there will be situations in which we will need to stand up for our children or take other protective measures. But most often, our children simply need to be known, understood, and feel safe. Going into “fix it” mode may come off as dismissive of what they are experiencing, which in turn will lead them to come less and less to us with their concerns. Lauren Wells, of TCK Training, has been posting short examples of this on TCK Training’s Facebook page. One such example that dads often struggle with is as follows:

“Being a safe space for someone processing their grief means…not responding with a phrase beginning with the words ‘at least.’”2

I have a theory as to why we are so prone to respond with words like “at least.” Many of us are uncomfortable with our own suffering and have been taught to always look for the positive. I have frequently heard people say of their own suffering that someone else has it worse in life. While it can be healthy to put our experiences in perspective, immediately dismissing our own difficulties may lead us to dismiss our children’s too. Instead of offering a quick reply, simply listen, try your best to understand what they are going through, ask questions, and be present.

So, to my fellow fathers of TCKs, let me encourage us all to say “yes” as much as possible, to take special interest in and connect with our kids, and to be listeners before being fixers.

 

Sources:
Wilkerson, D. 2020, September. MK Research Foundations. Interact Magazine, 61. Retrieved from: https://interactionintl.org/publications/interact-magazine/
Wells, L. 2020, October. https://www.facebook.com/tcktraining/posts/980148309154258

~~~~~~~~~~~

Chris Moyer grew up in France and Germany as the child of missionaries. After spending nineteen years in the States and serving as a counselor and then as a pastor, he returned to France in 2018 with his wife, Laura, and their three children to serve in church planting and global member care with World Team. Chris loves running, biking, following his favorite sports teams as a faithful “phan” (all teams from Philadelphia and France soccer), and travelling the world. You can read more of his reflections on his personal TCK experience and on parenting TCKs on his blog TCKonnective.