“Where are you from?” is the most difficult question for MKs to answer. However, I’m convinced that the second most difficult question doesn’t fall far behind.
“Who am I supposed to be?”
The MK life is filled with expectations that can cause many of us to feel the weight of responsibility for our parents’ ministries. During my childhood overseas, I felt these pressures from decades-old missionary theology and from my own internal expectations to please others and make God “happy.”
In many ways, these expectations shaped my perception of God and others. They became deeply embedded in my sense of worth, causing me to develop certain ways of coping. What did I do?
I learned how to adapt to whatever expectation I was feeling most strongly in the moment.
When I became an MK, I learned the art of reading a room, picking up social cues, and subtly morphing into whomever I needed to be in order to fit in. I learned how to laugh at jokes when I didn’t understand them, adjust my body language to the group’s norm, and imitate the vocabulary used around me. I learned which pieces of my life were acceptable to share in certain social settings and which pieces of my life were not.
The question that silently began to surface in these spaces often filled me with anxiety: Who am I supposed to be with financial supporters? With locals? With God?
With financial supporters? I learned to share the glowing, spiritual stories that highlighted my parents’ ministry.
(And with my U.S. friends, I learned not to joke about my travels or getting lost in Prague or the time monkeys raided our hotel in Hong Kong. I quickly discovered that these stories were often perceived as prideful.)
With locals? I learned to talk selectively about my American childhood, especially the large cups at restaurants, juicy hamburgers, and spacious houses of my birth country.
(And I learned to leave out the stories that made me ache for my childhood home.)
With God? I learned how to smile, thank him for His blessings, and use Christian lingo like a professional.
(And I learned to avoid talking with Him about my hurt, anger, or pain.)
MKs are adept at becoming the person they believe will keep them most safe.
The dictionary defines “putting on a brave face” as “behaving as if a problem is not important or does not worry you; to try to appear brave or calm.”
If MK life could be summed up in a definition, “putting on a brave face” could be an accurate reflection. Wearing my brave face became the means by which I coped with all of the outer and inner expectations of my world.
Wearing my brave face became the means by which I learned to hide inside myself.
Only with other MKs would I let my brave face crack. Here, the pressures and expectations of cross-cultural living didn’t isolate us but rather identified us with one other. As one MK told me, “We could tell our secrets [or ‘struggles,’ as she defined them]. We didn’t have to stay silent anymore.”
As I’ve reflected on my own MK story and listened to the stories of others, I’ve seen our brave faces manifest in different ways. Here are the two predominant faces that MKs wear in order to adapt to the pressures of cross-cultural life. I’ve worn both. Although they may appear opposite from each other, they are really just two sides of the same coin.
Brave Face #1: “I Care Too Much”
The MK who wears the “I Care Too Much” brave face will die trying to meet all of the expectations. This MK will strive and prove and earn and push, with a white-knuckled drive for perfection fueling their motives. Fear and anxiety often dominate their thinking. They try to appear brave by conquering the expectations.
As one adult MK recently told me, “My response as a rule-follower and people-pleaser was to make everyone happy. I felt like others were more important than me. There was a strong pressure to perform to legalism so that I wouldn’t be the one responsible for my parents’ loss of service.”
Looking back on her MK story, she saw how this brave face compelled her to “replace hurt and abandonment with drive for hard work, independence, and perfection.”
My personal “I Care Too Much” Brave Face caused me to fall deeply into a place of anxiety where I feared failing. Messing up. Making mistakes. Locked inside the perceptions of what others thought of me.
Brave Face #2: “I Don’t Care At All”
The MK who wears the “I Don’t Care at All” Brave Face feels the pressures of cross-cultural life intensely. But rather than die trying to meet them, they just give up and walk away.
Instead of fear or anxiety, their thinking aligns more with bitterness and resentment. “Well, if I don’t try, I can’t fail” is typically the thought sitting behind this brave face. Their attempts at bravery manifest in rebelling against or running from the expectations.
These MKs withdraw. Give up. Numb out. Recede emotionally to protect themselves from hurt. Their hardened exteriors stand in defiance to the nebulous group of “they” from whom all the expectations come. I was eighteen when I was admitted into a residential treatment facility for an eating disorder. I’d given up. Numbed out. Withdrawn from my life.
I still remember a comment from a staff member that day. “Oh, you’re an MK too? It’s surprisingly sad how many MKs come through here.”
A deep-rooted, distorted belief is interwoven through both of these responses: the belief that safety and authenticity cannot co-exist.
MKs who are wearing the “I Care Too Much” brave face need to be seen beyond what they do. They need permission to fail and learn and get back up again. They need an invitation to be messy and raw and still in-process.
MKs who are wearing the “I Don’t Care at All” brave face need space to be angry. They need space to name their hurts and yell and scream and be completely not-okay.
All MKs, whether they care too much or care too little, need to be reminded that they are worth more than who they think they’re supposed to be.
Read Part 1 here.
Taylor Murray is an MK and the author of two books on cross-cultural issues. Her upcoming book Stop Saying I’m Fine: Finding Stillness When Anxiety Screams will be releasing this fall. She is a familiar writer and speaker in the missions world and has served hundreds of young adults in the areas of soul care, pastoral counseling, and spiritual formation. Taylor is passionate about seeing her generation come awake to the love, presence, and action of God in their lives. Connect with her on Instagram here or visit her website at www.taylorjoyinwords.com.