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.

How to Encourage a Family that has a Child with Special Needs

by MaDonna Maurer

The African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” is a saying that most overseas workers would agree with. We do not have easy access to trusted family members to help us in times of need. We rely on those in our host country to help. I live on the island of Taiwan. For me, it has taken the island to help me raise my children, especially my daughter with special needs. We have lived on the island now for fourteen years. We have made friends in various cities due to my husband’s role, but also because he grew up here.

It wasn’t until we started planning to attend our son’s graduation that I began to think more about this African proverb. We knew our daughter with special needs would not be able to attend the ceremony. She is deathly scared of the auditorium where it would be held. As we tried to plan it out, a couple of friends let me know that whatever we needed, they would be there. That was when I realized that for me it has taken more than just a village, but actually an island, to raise my kids. I realized that in almost every major city on the island there were at least a few families that knew our daughter well enough to help at any given moment. And last year we even had a friend come from a different city to stay in our home for one week so my husband and I could go away for our twentieth anniversary, something we hadn’t done in over ten years. Seriously, that is more than friendship.

I don’t think we are special or have this amazing gift that people want to help. I think that most people want to help, but just may not know where to start. So, I asked some of my other online friends who happen to have raised or are in the process of raising children with special needs outside their passport countries.

Here are a few of their answers:

  1. Meals: Invite them over or offer to bring supper to their house if that is easier for them as a family. We have had both done — the latter when our daughter was younger, and it was easier to have her eat in her own highchair. But both ways allowed for these new-to-us people to engage with our whole family.
  2. Hangout Time: Take the child with special needs on a “date.” Gloria, mother to a child with Down Syndrome, says of her friend, “Beth has been intentional in investing in not just my life, but also in {her son’s} life.” Just taking him to a 7-eleven for a treat gives Gloria a break and has “meant the world” to her. Karis who lives in Mozambique, a mother to an adult son that is virtually nonverbal, also noted how she and her husband are encouraged by the people in the village and fellow co-workers singing with their son.
  3. Date Night/Lunch: Watch the kids for an evening, afternoon, or if possible, for an overnight. This is different from the above because it involves all the kids and the sole purpose is to let both parents have time together alone. If you can do an overnight, awesome, but if not, consider what one mother living in SE Asia says, “We appreciate our teammates babysitting our kids once a month so my husband and I could go out for a date lunch together.”
  4. Video Chat or message – Another mom living in SE Asia says that this was very helpful during the quarantine time when her adult child with special needs couldn’t go out and interact with others. Please make sure you have the parent’s permission before you begin this idea though. As we all know, parents have different rules and ideas about technology and social media.
  5. Don’t be so quick to judge – It’s easy to look at a family and think if they would just try {fill in the blank} then their struggles would be gone. Most likely, the family has tried your idea along with about 50 other ideas, and none of them worked. Maybe the child is just having a bad day. Typical kids have bad days and so do kids with special needs. Get to know the family and listen to what their needs are.

I believe you can sense a theme in these five ideas. This theme is of engaging and building a trusting relationship with the family. Maybe these ideas seem way out of your comfort zone. Trust me, before having a child with special needs, they would have seemed challenging to me. If this is the case, then let me leave you with one last idea, one last thought. Karis shared how the people sing with their son, but she also shared that it was wonderful to have them simply give him a handshake.

You could do that, couldn’t you? Or at least an elbow bump or a wave?

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

MaDonna lives in Taiwan with her husband, a German MK, and their three children. She deeply believes that a cold grapefruit tea cures the summer time blues. She enjoys a good book and loves to write stories for children about life overseas. Visit her at her blog, raisingTCKs, or on Twitter @mdmaurer.

9 Ways MKs Can Navigate Their Grief

by Michèle Phoenix

Someone asked me, recently, why there is such an emphasis on grief and loss in my speaking on MK topics. The answer is simple: they are highly influential emotions experienced by a majority of MKs. A young man named Muki, who recently transitioned back to his passport country, articulated it best:

I’ve lost my home, my security, my church, my friends, my job, my relationships… It continues to haunt me that I will never see the places that I roamed in the same light again, nor will I breathe the air as someone who is planted there. I lost myself in the convoluted mission of leaving. There is no way to express how lost I feel, and I don’t think anything can change that. No amount of crying or talking will heal my soul. I feel like grief has become my love language.

I’ve already written about the effect of grief on the lives and outlook of MKs (see here) and on their relationships (see here). But this article is not a recipe for avoiding grief. Much as I would love to be able to offer cure, I probably wouldn’t even if I could—because it is in the roiling center of grief that understanding and growth reside.

So this article is not about circumventing the lostness that often walks hand in hand with the treasure of a multi-cultural existence. It’s about managing the shadows we carry within us, so we can remain functional and connected while slowly disentangling the roots and rewards of our grief.

 

A note for non-MKs:
Those who repatriate to their “home” country aren’t just moving from one state or province to another. They aren’t just losing a measurable number of people, places and “sacred objects.” It’s the intangibles that exacerbate their grief and intensify their response to it. Missionaries’ Kids who are enduring transition have lost the languages, sounds, aromas, events, values, security, familiarity and belonging that have been their life—an integral part of who they are and how the view the world. When they leave their heart-home, it feels as if they’re surrendering their identity too.

Moving back is more than a transition for many MKs—it’s a foundational dislocation and reinvention that can take years to define and process.

 

A note for MKs:
We’re too often in a hurry to put the Hard behind us so we can get to those more “acceptable” stages of grief, praising God for the healing and using what we’ve endured to help others.

Here’s the problem: if we slingshot our way over grief or find strategies to get through it fast, we don’t actually process it—we merely shove it deeper, allowing its power to intensify and its control over our outlook, self-assessment and relationships to increase.

When we understand our losses and their impact on our lives—through the process of discerning what they are, how they shape our view of God and self, and how they can lead us both to greater strength and dependence—only then can something beneficial and beautiful come from the bitter pill of the goodbyes inherent to the life of an MK.

 

1. Redefine your relationship with grief.
There’s a tendency among us to see it as a weakness, a shameful lack of faith. We tell ourselves we should be able to bounce back and embody resilience.

The truth is that what we’ve left behind is monumental. And our feeling of lostness, as Muki put it, is a haunting thing. Yes, grief can feel debilitating, but it is also the measure of our love for the distant world—the intimate home—we’ve lost. Not only is it okay for it to hurt, but it is necessary for it to hurt.

 

2. Let your grief breathe.
Give it the time and space it needs to reach a natural ebb. Pain is not our enemy. It points us to the tender spot that needs our attention and grace. It exists for a purpose, and any attempt to suppress it will only cause more harm in the future.

When I meet with adult MKs who are still struggling to figure out their lives, we never fail to uncover some measure of unresolved grief. They thought they were being expedient, in their youth, when they decided to ignore it or live above it. This allowed them to function and move on more easily, but it also left the darkness of their loss anchored to their life’s perspective.

Grief is not reduced by our attempts at stuffing it. It only builds under the surface as we neglect it, then erupts more violently when it finally finds release. If we let it breathe, we give ourselves the chance to heal.

 

3. Don’t stuff it, shelve it.
As important as it is to make sense of our grief, it would be detrimental to our health (and our deadlines, social engagements, job…) to be constantly processing it. In order to function in the real world, we might be tempted to “put a lid on it”—to tamp down the emotions, screw the lid on tight and make believe there’s nothing there to think about. I assure you that nothing good comes from that approach.

What I do advocate is learning to “put it on the shelf.” Picture a transparent jar, its lid just resting lightly on top of it, sitting safely on a shelf within my range of vision. It’s still there. I can see it. I can hear its whisper. I’m still aware that I need to pay attention to it. But it’s out of the way for now, within reach when I need to go back to the healing process.

Shelving grief isn’t denying it, it’s managing how much and when it gets our attention. Resilience comes from returning to it again and again until it has been fathomed and restored.

Note: there may be moments when something triggers an overflow that cannot be “shelved” and needs to be addressed immediately. That can sometimes be part of the grief journey too.

 

4. Speak about it to someone who cares and hears you.
This is another reason why learning to manage the processing is important. We need to be careful in choosing people to process along with us. If we don’t learn to shelve the grief, we’ll look to the first person who enters our life to be that voice of compassion and support.

It’s wiser and safer to wait until we’re sure of the person we’re inviting into our sadness. That person needs to be someone we respect, who has proven himself/herself trustworthy and who has demonstrated wisdom and compassion.

There’s nothing wrong with communicating on this topic with someone from our past, and modern technology certainly makes that easy. But that person can’t be the only sounding board we have. There’s something beneficial about speaking to someone who lives in our here-and-now too.

Consider professional help as well. Counseling can be something of a taboo subject in missionary circles. We’ve got God and we’ve got that vaunted “MK resilience”—we don’t need an outsider’s help, right?

Here’s the thing: grief is powerful, murky and unpredictable. A person engulfed in the tides and turbulence of dark, raging water may not be able to extricate him/herself without the help of another person whose feet are firmly planted on the sturdiness of the dock, able to throw in a life-saving buoy.

That’s who counselors are. They may not fully understand what we bring to the situation, but they’re solid, they’re clear-minded, they’re eager to help, and they’re equipped with tools we may need to overcome.

 

5. Explore who God is.
Study God’s heart as revealed in his Word and through those he sends into your life. Remind yourself of his promises—they’re not limited by time or place. They were true in your old world and they’ll hold true in your new one.

God is still present. He is still speaking to you—though it might be hard to hear him above the roar of your coping mechanisms. His promise to fight for you and comfort you still stands. Look back over the road you’ve traveled and see the way he has been faithful, then remind yourself that he has not changed, though your circumstances have.

If you’re like me, there will be a tendency, in your darkest moments of grief, to blame God for what caused it. “If you hadn’t called my parents…” “If you had provided what we needed to stay overseas…” Blaming God for the hard stuff makes him into your tormentor—and it’s impossible to seek comfort from the same being we also accuse of everything that harmed us.

There will be time to understand his role in our circumstances when the crisis is passed, but when we’re coping with overwhelming loss, his presence is the most powerful aid we can reach for. He is not ashamed of our sadness—he experienced it too.

Though there is comfort in activity, friendships, rest and accomplishment, there is nothing and no one who comforts, understands and heals grief more deeply than Christ.

 

6. Remember who you are.
It’s so easy to feel that we’ve lost our identity, that all that’s left of us is the bruised remnant of who we used to be—before loss, before transition, before the desertland of being unknown.

You are still capable. You are still lovable. You are still valuable. You’re just figuring out how to be all those things in a new context, without the geographical markers, relational buffers and defining anchors of your past.

It’s important to carve out some time and energy to remind yourself of those things that are significant to you, to reacquaint yourself with what thrills and fulfills you, to connect yourself again with the traits and passions that define you.

 

7. Find healthy ways of relieving the emotions.
There is nothing wrong with engaging in activities that distract us. In fact, there’s true resilience in those minutes and hours of “distance” from the grief. Do what you enjoy to inject a bit of light into the darkness of your losses: join an intramural team, cook, write, play video games, Skype with friends, go to the movies.

Just make sure these are temporary measures. It’s easy to escape into the coping mechanisms so deeply and often that we stop really participating in the life going on around us.

One more thing: move. Exercise releases chemicals in the brain that counteract the grip of sadness. I know it won’t be the first impulse, for some of us, to get up and go for a walk or head to the gym, but if you can force yourself to add some movement to your life, you’ll feel the benefits of it.

 

8. Look for reasons to be grateful.
Making of gratitude an intentional practice can be life-altering. And it can be as simple as jotting down three things we’re thankful for at the end of every day.

The hard stuff will always be at the tip of our brains—it’s just the way we’re wired—but the good stuff will take some focus to identify and acknowledge.

Choosing gratitude is not a magic bullet, but it’s a practice that pays off in a shifted perspective, determined optimism and emotional balance.

 

9. Persist.
There will be days when the effort of pushing forward through the grief will feel like too much, when it will seem easier to press that lid down over the emotions or to lock the door, crawl into bed and close your eyes on the “hard” that’s sapping your strength. There will be times when just making conversation will feel like too much effort.

Please believe me—it will get better. As someone who has survived the kind of loss, grief and pain that left me feeling crippled, I can assure you that healing is possible and real.

As you pay attention to what’s hard—as you give your grief the space and care it requires while still investing in the tomorrow you’re building—you’ll find a sort of balance returning. You’ll find the memories more sweet than bitter and the future more welcoming than frightening.

You’ll discover that though you lost a universe, you didn’t lose yourself, and the God who promised to walk with you, to love you through the changes and uphold you through the challenges, is still working to bring beauty from the ashes of your past.

Grief is not a comfortable phase. It feels like the aching reminder of a “homeness” and wholeness we fear we’ll never know again. And it is more than a dark ravine we just need to get over. There is richness and growth in acknowledging and understanding it—the opportunity to learn who we are and who God is as we explore its source and find healing.

Originally published here.

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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. She loves good conversations, French pastries, mischievous students and Marvel movies.

TCK Lessons: “What About the Internet?”

by Tanya Crossman

In part one of this series, I explained the lesson “Everyone leaves.” This is something most TCKs “learn” through their experiences growing up internationally. I chose to leave space at the end of the piece to reflect on how this “lesson” affects TCKs, rather than jump straight to solutions. When we skip straight to “it’ll be okay,” we don’t stop to sit with TCKs in their sadness and grief. We miss the opportunity to act as witnesses, to listen, to say that their feelings about this are valid. It’s hard to listen to pain, so we don’t often take enough time to wait in that place. I wanted to create space, to honour the sadness, even in blog posts.

Now it’s time for part two – but I’m not jumping into the solutions just yet. I’ve decided to address something else first: What about the internet?

A really common response I hear from parents, and even older ATCKs, is that with the internet and social media, TCKs these days can stay in touch with their friends after a move. It’s not the same, but surely it makes things easier. A lot of TCKs I interviewed for Misunderstood had heard this, too. There’s a few problems with this idea, and I want to break them down.

 

The internet doesn’t erase loss
Most of the time these comments aren’t comforting for TCKs. It makes them feel that they aren’t supposed to grieve, or that they shouldn’t show their sadness. The ability to stay in touch after a move doesn’t take away the sadness of losing that person from their daily life. And there’s no guarantee, even with the internet. When a child says goodbye to a friend, they don’t yet know what that friendship will look like on the other side of the move – whether it will continue or not, whether they will ever see their friend in person again or not. Sometimes there will be reunions, but not always. It is so important for TCKs to be able to grieve friendships that change or are lost. Their feelings of sadness are real and valid and need to be expressed – and are worth listening to.

“‘Graduation’ was a word that most people in my grade did not want to say, because ‘graduation’ meant ‘goodbye’. I used to say this a lot to my parents but they just kept telling me that “back in my day we only had snail mail and you guys get email and Facebook and so many other opportunities to stay in touch.” I gave up trying to make my point – it’s not the same. If home is where the heart is then after we all graduate my home will be in Korea and America and other places I’ve never been to, because that’s where my friends will be.”
Katherine, as quoted in Misunderstood

 

It’s not the same
Friendship online is different to friendship in person, for many reasons. Also, not everyone is good at online connection. It relies on a different set of interpersonal skills, and sometimes a friendship that is amazing in person just doesn’t translate that well to long-distance. Lots of TCKs hold onto the hope that staying in touch online means they’re not really saying goodbye. It doesn’t end well. I’ve heard so many stories of ways TCKs struggle with delayed grief – because they thought staying in touch online would erase the problem. One mother told me she learned to expect the sadness to hit her son a year after being left behind. A teenage boy spoke to me of being deeply hurt by a friend not investing as much in maintaining their friendship online. A young adult woman found she was offending friends; she learned to tell herself this wasn’t really goodbye, so she didn’t have to be emotional about it. When a person leaves, the friendship as it has been ends. A new friendship can be negotiated thanks to the wonders of the internet, but it will be a NEW friendship. There is still sadness is losing what was, even when there is a continuation of connection.

“I had to say goodbye to a close friend knowing I would not see her for at least five years. I missed her so much. Immediately after she left, I could not make new friends. I think I was still sore from the goodbye. I still talk to her online but it really isn’t the same. I do believe I will see her again, although I know the relationship will never be the same. A lot can happen in five years, and people change.”
Joy, as quoted in Misunderstood

 

It’s not just one person
We’re not talking about one or two friends moving away – we’re talking about one or two a year. Or more. No matter how much time and energy you invest in online relationships, there will always be people you don’t keep up with. There’s just no way to stay in touch with that many people, especially if you’re also working hard to build new connections in person. While having the ability to stay in touch via the internet is amazing, and so good for TCKs, it also adds complications. The more time I spend investing in friends online, the less time I can spend investing in people nearby. And while it’s so valuable to stay in touch with friends who used to live nearby, it’s also important to continue building new relationships. The friends I stay in touch with from previous locations know certain parts of me, have shared certain parts of my life. But if I don’t invest in new relationships, I won’t have friends who knew THIS part of my life.

“People who haven’t moved as much or as far do not understand that it is usual for TCKs to have more than one best friend. They are my best friend in this circumstance and this location.”
Callie, as quoted in Misunderstood

 

Who is in control?
Remember that we’re talking about children. They don’t have full control over their lives and ability to connect. Younger children especially can’t just stay in touch, because the ability to do so is filtered through their parents, and their friends’ parents. TCKs are heavily dependent on their parents to support the maintenance of friendships with people in other places. And even with parents’ support, it’s not always that simple. Time differences can make it really hard to coordinate schedules. Perhaps a TCK is living in an area without reliable internet access – or her friend is. Plus, I have heard many internet-age TCKs tell stories in which a friend moved away with little or no warning, and was never heard from again – especially if they were in primary school at the time. Staying in touch via the internet is great in theory, but it doesn’t always happen in practice – and TCKs often don’t have much control over that.

“Friendships maintained online helped and still help me a great deal. They served as a way to reminisce and share in the processes and challenges of life with other TCKs. My parents have been very gracious with making opportunities for me to visit friends – this includes driving long(ish) distances, being willing to host friends, and encouraging me to keep in contact. They make a point to ask about the lives of my friends who live far away who I talk to. I would encourage TCKs to be consistent and keep in contact with their friends online and through texting. But don’t let those relationships be the only ones, because they can take away from building relationships in person.”
Becca, as quoted in Misunderstood

 

The internet: worth it, but not without complications
A Third Culture childhood is a good thing overall, for most kids in most situations, but it is not without difficulties and complications. Erasing mention of hard things doesn’t solve the difficulties. The internet is a tool, and a good thing overall, for most kids in most situations. But it doesn’t solve the problem of how frequent goodbyes through childhood affect a person. It adds different opportunities, and also complications. It changes what goodbye looks like. But it doesn’t erase the underlying lesson, that “everyone leaves”.

Read more TCK articles by Tanya.

Originally published here.

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Tanya Crossman spent most of her childhood as a local in Australia and most of her adulthood as an expat in China (with stops in the U.S. and Cambodia). Along the way she unexpectedly turned into an expert on millennial TCKs, wrote a book, and starting travelling the world to speak on her favourite topic: why TCKs are awesome and how to serve them well. After completing an MDiv in Australia, she recently got married (to a TCK) and moved back to Beijing. Now she’s enjoying rediscovering everything she loves about China! She can be found online far too often, usually on FacebookInstagramTwitter, and occasionally at her website.

TCK Lessons: “Everyone Leaves”

by Tanya Crossman

The experience of living overseas as a child is very different to the experience of living overseas as an adult. The impact of childhood experiences last a lifetime. They are formative experiences – they teach us how the world works. We all internalise ‘lessons’ from our childhood experiences.

TCKs grow up between cultures, learning lessons from more than one cultural viewpoint. Often these messages contradict one another, and learning to navigate this conflict is part of what makes a TCK. The lessons they learn about how the world works, therefore, often come less from individual cultures and more from the fact that they juggle more than one cultural viewpoint. The experience of being “in between” greatly affects their understanding of the world.

As I interviewed hundreds of TCKs there were a lot of repeated themes, and even specific phrases, that became familiar. These were the lessons these TCKs had learned through their childhood experiences. In this post I’m introducing one of the most common lessons of a TCK childhood: Everyone leaves.

I heard the exact phrase “everyone leaves” in scores of interviews. Even when a TCK lived in one place a long time (even their whole childhood) most did not live fully immersed lives in their host culture, and were therefore affected by the mobility of other expatriates. That is to say, if TCKs didn’t move on themselves, they watched many of their friends leave. On top of this, most TCKs make trips to visit family in other countries, where they reconnect and then have to say goodbye. Or they attend conferences with their parents’ organisations, where they have friends they make and farewell every year. The end result is that goodbyes form part of the background of a TCK childhood.

It can be hard for adults to really internalise what this feels like for kids – how it shapes them. Perhaps a story will help. When leading sessions on transition with students, I ask how many times a close friend has moved away from them. Not just an acquaintance or classmate, but someone they felt close to. I get a lot of wide eyes and dropped jaws – how can anyone expect me to tally that number?? Some just roll their eyes and refuse to even try. One 10 year old lifted both hands and started opening and closing his fingers, representing an ongoing and endless number. One time, a 5th grade girl got a very determined look on her face – she was intent on counting to an exact number. She kept going while the class moved on to discuss another question. When she lifted her head again, I turned back to her and asked if she had her number. “Yes,” she answered, “it’s 23.” Before even finishing primary school, this girl had said goodbye to 23 people she felt close to.

It’s important to remember that different TCKs respond differently to this challenge. There are several quite rational responses to this experience. Some TCKs try to avoid the sadness of goodbyes, by denying that the goodbyes are real or painful. Others try to create emotional distance to blunt the pain.

“I lived with a mentality that ‘everyone leaves’. I just recently moved off to college and I had a really close friend get mad at me for pushing her away and trying to do anything I could to minimize the hurt I knew was coming. Honestly I still expect us to eventually lose touch anyway because people move on. That’s all I’ve ever known.” – Maddie, as quoted in Misunderstood

“I never feel sad until a half hour before the person I know leaves. It hurts too much, so I numb myself to the pain, block it out, and refuse to think about it until it’s actually happening.” – Faith, as quoted in Misunderstood

Some TCKs decide it’s not worth the pain to invest in relationships, especially if they know a goodbye is imminent – such as when they will be leaving soon, or the other person will. “Soon” being anywhere from six months to two years. Another common reaction is a highly developed ability to connect superficially – to be warm and friendly and welcoming – while holding back their deeper selves. There is great vulnerability in sharing my whole self when I know that the deeper a relationship gets, the more it will hurt when the (inevitable) goodbye comes.

“I didn’t want to devote myself to new friendships because I knew it would just be another goodbye at the end of the six months.” – Eve, as quoted in Misunderstood

“I remember feeling ‘popular’ but looking back, the majority of my friendships were quite shallow and superficial. I did not open myself up to the different possible friendships I could have had. I did not properly invest time or emotions in my ‘friends’. I was prepared to say goodbye to those people from day one.” – Siyin, as quoted in Misunderstood

Other TCKs dive deep into relationships as quickly as possible because they don’t know how long they have. This can create friction outside non-international circles, as they may come across as too eager, or be labelled as too intense.

Whatever method a TCK develops to help deal with the emotional stress of goodbyes, the commonality is that this is an essential survival skill for them. The goodbyes and the losses that go with them can be very overwhelming to a child, especially because it is the only experience they know.

I feel the urge to switch to something hopeful here, so I don’t depress you. But please stick with me a minute longer, as I offer a sobering reflection – to help understand how the “everyone leaves” lessons affects TCKs who don’t yet know there is any other way to experience the world.

Imagine you are 9 years old, and every year of your life you have said goodbye to a close friend, and had to make a new friend. In your world, friends only last a year or two. Is it really worth the effort this time?

Imagine you are 13 years old, and you’ve learned the skill of being warm and friendly and fitting into yet another new circle of friends, but you doubt it’s possible to be truly known by any one person. Am I going to be lonely forever?

Imagine you are 17 years old, your best friend is moving to another country, and this time you’re desperate not to lose them. You think about all the ways to stay in touch and plan around time zones, trying hard to ignore the sinking feeling that it won’t be the same.

How hopeful would you feel, as you look ahead?

Every child’s experience is different, of course, but the weight of having to keep building new friendships, and negotiating long-distance friendships, is something most TCKs experience to some degree.

Losing friends hurts – and that’s okay. The best first step for helping TCKs, especially when they are young, is to validate feelings of loss. Instead of saying “Don’t worry, you’ll make new friends” a far more helpful thing is to say “You’re right, this is really hard. It won’t always feel this way, but right now it’s totally okay to feel sad or angry.”

Instead of telling them things you hope will make them feel better, ask them questions that invite them to share how they feel right now.

Listening to a child’s hurt is HARD – it’s painful to hear. But it is one of the greatest gifts we can offer them. Listening well says, “I see you. I hear you. The way you feel is valid. You’re allowed to be sad, and you’re allowed to tell me about it.”

I plan to write more in future about how to help TCKs with this, but for now I want to stop here, with the truth that losing friends hurts – and that’s okay. We hurt because we’re losing something that matters. It’s a good thing to attach to someone enough that it hurts to lose them.

None of us can “fix” the pain of losing a friend. I can’t change that this friend is moving away, or that our company is moving us away, or any of the circumstances that cause a child the pain of loss. I can’t fix it. But every time I talk to groups of TCKs about this, they share that they don’t actually want someone to fix it. They know it can’t be fixed – and they don’t like adults acting as if it can be. They just want someone (especially their parents) to listen to them, and to say it’s okay to be sad. And that is something we can do.

 

In part 2 of this series, I will consider a common response to “Everyone leaves” – namely, “What about the internet?”

Read more TCK articles by Tanya.

Originally published here.

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Tanya Crossman spent most of her childhood as a local in Australia and most of her adulthood as an expat in China (with stops in the U.S. and Cambodia). Along the way she unexpectedly turned into an expert on millennial TCKs, wrote a book, and starting travelling the world to speak on her favourite topic: why TCKs are awesome and how to serve them well. After completing an MDiv in Australia, she recently got married (to a TCK) and moved back to Beijing. Now she’s enjoying rediscovering everything she loves about China! She can be found online far too often, usually on FacebookInstagramTwitter, and occasionally at her website.

GRIT: A Guide to Praying for Third Culture Kids

by Lauren Wells

The life of a Third Culture Kid is not a simple one. Wonderful, enriching, colorful, and filled with incredible life-altering experiences, absolutely. But certainly not neat and tidy, or without its share of troubles.

We moved to Tanzania when I was 13 years old. The first two years of life in Africa were filled with death and trauma. Because of circumstances out of our control, our time there ended abruptly. We spent the following 3 months at a live-in counseling center where we slogged through all that had happened in Africa. I didn’t want to be there. I blamed my parents, blamed ministry, and blamed God. I was grieving, but I didn’t know it.

That next year, we moved 18 times while I tried to navigate public high school in California. I struggled to fit in, to figure out who I was, and to build healthy relationships – all the while pushing down the grief of our time in Africa. At first, I liked being the girl who came from Africa (especially after watching Mean Girls for the first time!), but then the novelty wore off, and I was just awkward, lonely, and misunderstood. High school is hard enough, but add in culture stress, anxiety, and unresolved grief and it’s the perfect prescription for a horrible experience.

The struggles that manifested that year continued, in different forms, through my high school and college years– through moving back to Africa and then back to the US again. But, few people knew that I struggled. I was determined to be strong and capable and tough. After all, that is what is expected of a missionary kid, isn’t it?

God has taught me a lot in the years since then. He has shown me the power of prayer and how that has had more of an impact on my life than I realize. As I write my narrative, I can see all of the places where things could have gone terribly awry. Yet, because of the faithful prayers of so many people in my life, I am now working with families who are embarking on their own journey to a life overseas – passionate about preparing and encouraging children and youth who are becoming TCKs. I’m constantly learning to let go of my fierce “I can do it myself’ attitude, learning to build deep relationships, learning daily to find my identity in Christ, and learning to let Him heal the hurts of the past.

My story is not unique. The struggles with identity, relationships, self-reliance, and grief are a part of the narratives of most TCKs.

I met Jacus* not long after he moved from Europe back to the US for college. His unresolved grief led to struggles with depression, alcohol abuse, and a DUI. Bailey*, another TCK I know, spent her college years jumping from boyfriend to boyfriend, making poor decisions, and consequently pushing potentially good friends away. Another, Grant*, blamed his parents for his grief and struggles, cut them out of his life, and entered toxic friendships.

Nothing has taught me more about the power of prayer than seeing the effects of intercession in my life and in the lives of so many other TCKs. Through persistent prayer and subsequent apologies, repentance, and reconciliation, Jacus is now in graduate school working to become a counselor for TCKs, Bailey is learning to invest in deep, healthy relationships, and Grant is working to repair his relationship with his parents.

There are 4 specific areas in which TCKs need prayer: grace, relationships, identity, and truth. I’ve structured these prayer points using the acronym GRIT**, because every TCK I know has a special measure of grit—resolution, fortitude, and courage.

 

G – GRACE

God’s grace, love, and comfort to surround them and pervade the way they act toward others.

Pray that they would be lovers of all people and cultures. That they would remember to give grace when they can only see a culture’s faults and shortcomings – especially in their passport country.

Pray that God would comfort them and walk with them through the seasons of grief and transition.

Pray that they would learn to be dependent on the Lord and not on their own strength.

Pray that God would heal the hurt and grief that come with so many goodbyes.

 

R – RELATIONSHIPS

The common theme of feeling misunderstood, out-of-sync with their peers, and uncomfortable in their passport culture causes TCKs to have difficulty building deep, lasting relationships. This opens a great opportunity for the lie to be planted that they are too different for non-TCKs to really know them and love them well.

TCKs also have a rootlessness and restlessness that keeps them moving and prevents them from building a group of long-term, deep friends. Because of this, they often don’t have a “herd” and, like a lion, Satan preys on the weak ones who are separated from the pack (1 Peter 5:8).

Pray that God would teach them how to build deep, lasting relationships with others. That they would be brave enough and humble enough to let people really get to know them.

Pray that God would lead them to people who appreciate and hone their cross-cultural knowledge and experiences.

Pray that they would be humble and willing to learn from others, especially in their passport country.

 

I – IDENTITY

With so many cultures and other factors shaping them, it is a common struggle for TCKs to figure out who they are and their place in the world.

Pray they would learn to be comfortable in their own skin and free to be who God has made them to be, even if that doesn’t perfectly align with any culture.

Pray that God would use their independence and cultural savvy in great ways for His glory.

Pray that God would show them how much He loves them, cares about them, and celebrates them – not for being a Third Culture Kid, but just for being His child.

 

T – TRUTH

TCKs are more prone to mental health issues like depression and anxiety, often stemming from the unresolved grief that commonly accompanies the TCK life. It is easy for them to believe that there is no hope, no solution, no way forward, and no one who understands.

Pray that God would show them that their life overseas was ordained for a purpose. That it wasn’t just God’s plan for their parents, but for them also.

Pray that they would allow God to untangle the truths from the lies about their time overseas and the way they were raised.

Pray for God’s protection on their heart and mind.

 

God hears our prayers, and He acts on behalf of His children. Whether the TCKs in your life are young or grown, whether they are your own children or your teammate’s children, whether they are in your school or in the missionary family you support, please pray for TCKs. We need it more than we know.

 

*Not their real names
**My dear friend Corrie Miller developed the acronym GRIT. She’s been praying for me since we were ten years old.

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Lauren Wells is a Third Culture Kid (TCK) and Missionary Kid (MK) who grew up in Tanzania, East Africa where she developed an affinity for mandazis (African doughnuts) and Chai. Her experience as a TCK fuels her passion for working with globally mobile families, which she does as the Children and Youth Program Director for CultureBound in Portland, Oregon. In her role at CultureBound, she teaches families how to learn new languages and embrace new cultures when they move overseas. She blogs regularly at tcktraining.com

Devastating Secrets of Living Abroad

By Aneurin Howorth

Moving abroad is a wonderful privilege filled with blessings. Those of us who grew up internationally are able to experience the richness of the world in a way which we couldn’t have otherwise. In short, it is great. Yet there is a price to pay. Life is often filled with death, loss, and grief to an unprecedented level. This pain takes its toll on the human body, often in the form of mental illnesses.

It is difficult to pin down what causes mental illnesses. Both genetic and environmental factors are at play. However, there are some situations where mental illnesses become easier to spot. Think high-stress situations such as dealing with pressure to get visas sorted whilst trying to find a school for kids. Or potentially dealing with cycles of loss as you say goodbye to good friends, not knowing when you will see them again. Or wrestling with questions of identity as re-entry into your passport country becomes painful. Any of these sound familiar?

This is particularly challenging for TCK’s. Whilst these challenges can wipe anyone off their feet, dealing with these difficult circumstances during your developmental years can be devastating to your mental health. In the years where humans’ brains are primed to learn about identity, culture, and belonging, we are pulled from one place to the next in painful upheavals. Whilst it does vary from TCK to TCK, the general trend is one of dealing with far greater stress and grief than your average child.

It then comes as no surprise that mental health is a bigger problem among TCKs than the global trend. Whilst data is notoriously difficult to obtain (turns out being all over the world makes it hard to collect data!), there is a connection between cross-cultural living and struggling with a mental health disorder. When this happens during one’s developmental years the issue is magnified.

Unfortunately, mental illnesses are not taken as seriously as they should on the mission field. For example, depression is the leading cause of disability in the world and seems to go hand in hand with missions work. Despite this, most missionaries don’t have an extensive knowledge of the issue. I have many MK friends who struggle with depression, anxiety, bipolar, or other mental health problems (I, myself, am ill with a suspected somatization disorder). Missions is messy and painful work, contributing to mental illnesses in MKs.

The severity of these illnesses varies, but they cannot be ignored. I would not be surprised if many of you reading this know of someone who has tried to, or has, committed suicide. I went to an MK school in Kenya (RVA), which I loved. Yet, every year multiple people struggled with mental illnesses. I am not writing this to reflect badly on my school. Whilst the school is far from perfect, mental illnesses are part and parcel of missions work. Suicide is a terrible consequence of mental illnesses, but not the only one. The destruction they cause is pervasive and casts a menacing shadow over every area of our lives. It is a topic nobody seems to consider until the situation is already devastating.

One of the curiosities of mental illnesses is that they tend to show up later in life for us. The trauma the we carry around as TCKs usually manifests itself through mental illnesses once we are adults. The counselor Lois Bushong says that most TCKs tend to only start going to counseling once they are in their 30’s. [1] I am not yet in my thirties, but already, increasing numbers of my classmates report having mental health issues, almost exclusively struggling from unresolved trauma or grief on the mission field. Being a TCK does not stop when we become adults; both the blessings and the curses will follow us forever.

This is not a TCK-specific problem. Many cross-cultural adults report bouts of depression after transitioning culturally. This is often the case when people return to their passports culture.

The reality is that anyone who lives a stressful lifestyle, moves a lot, has had to say lots of goodbyes to friends, places and languages, struggles with questions of identity or belonging during their formative years will be more prone to mental illnesses. Obviously, missionaries (including MKs) fit right into these categories. It is something that we will have to deal with, whether we want to or not. I can guarantee that every missionary knows someone who has a mental health problem. They might not be aware of it because of the painful and secretive nature of these illnesses, but they affect almost all missionary families.

To their credit, mission organizations are ahead of the game in member care. They are the best international groups in this regard. However, with mental illnesses we still have a long way to go.

Here are some thoughts on how we can fight mental illnesses: they can only be fought as a team. Given that we are all one family under God, it is something we should all care about.

1. Have a well-rounded theology of suffering. We should not expect a comfortable life as Christians, but rather the opposite. We live a broken world in desperate need of God’s grace. There should be a constant dialogue around suffering, both its inevitability and how to rejoice in it (think Colossians 1:24 or James 1:2). Without this understanding we will grow inconsolably despondent in tough times. For a brilliant book on this check out The Call to Joy and Pain by Ajith Fernando.

2. We need to be proactive in conversations about mental illnesses. This is not a topic we should only learn about when we encounter its consequences. It needs to be part of all healthy discussions about being a cross-cultural missionary. If you have kids, it is crucial to bring them up discussing them. Not only do they have a decent chance of being ill in the future, but they will also play a key role in supporting other TCK friends who are likely to struggle with mental illnesses.

3. We need to have a proper understanding of mental illnesses as medical issues. Missionaries cannot go onto the field thinking that mental illnesses are spiritual failings or defects. This attitude will crush them, their children, or their friends when they encounter mental illnesses (regrettably this is still common). Whilst suffering from a mental illness is tough spiritually, medically speaking it is as physical as breaking a leg (although it’s more complicated because our brains are inspiringly complex). If you trust a doctor to fix a broken bone, please trust doctors as they tell you that mental health is physical too. (I can provide a plethora of evidence for anyone interested.) Like any problem, proper education on the topic will allow us to be supported and get the help we need quicker.

4. Pray for all those suffering from mental illnesses. It is a terrible burden and cannot be carried alone. Feel free to get in touch with any questions. Please keep this conversation going.

 

[1] Bushong, Lois. Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere: Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile. (Indianapolis: Mango Tree Intercultural Studies, 2013), page 47.

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Aneurin Howorth grew up up in East Africa as an MK. Both his parents are British, but he has an American accent from time spent at Rift Valley Academy. Aneurin is passionate about mental health and the relationship it has to living internationally. He believes we need more discussion around these topics and blogs about both at https://noggybloggy.com/.  He is currently studying for a Master of Science in the psychology of mental health at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. You can contact him here or on his personal blog.

Citizens of Heaven: Third Culture Kids and the Longing for Home

by Tanya Crossman

When I wrote Misunderstood, there were a lot of smaller topics that came up in interviews which didn’t really fit into the narrative of the book. I was recently able to spend some time on one of these side topics for a research thesis titled: “A place to call home: citizenship in heaven for TCKs.” I interviewed nine Christian TCKs aged 19-26 (from a range of backgrounds and nationalities) and surveyed another 92 Christian TCKs.

In this post and its sequel, I’m going to explain a little of the two main findings of my research. In short: knowing their citizenship in heaven brings TCKs comfort, and also provides a powerful tool for discipleship.

 

Home and Belonging

The TCKs I interviewed talked about ‘home’ in the context of emotional connections. Home means loved ones, especially immediate family members (34%) and communities they belong to (11.5%). Only 16.5% of those surveyed connected home with a single place.

“For TCKs the word home is more of a concept, as opposed to a place.” – Nadia

“Physical location can be important, but the familiarity of a place is more often than not defined by the people and the interactions you have. For me, that is home.” – Lee

Since home is something that is connected to people, home can move – whether you like it or not. Home is something that can be lost. A community disperses, and so does the sense of home. A family moves on, and suddenly a place that was home is no longer accessible.

“I lost my home, where I used to be. I have many places I could have called home, but now there’s no core community there, it simply wouldn’t feel like home anymore.” – Kaito

Many TCKs go through life aching for a single place to call home, and knowing that what they long for is impossible. There is no earthly way to bring their experiences of home together in a single place.

“To [my passport country peers] home is a familiar place, but to me my family is home. My home is not here, because they’re not here. When I go visit them it’s not really familiar either. I miss places that I’ve never been to, or not been in long. . .My home is literally in three or four countries now, maybe five sometimes.” – Min

Citizenship in heaven answers a deep felt need in TCKs for something that does not exist for them on earth: a singular, comprehensive source of home.

 

The hope of heaven as home

77% of the TCKs I surveyed identified with feeling foreign on earth. The idea that there is a home for them located outside the complications of earthly allegiances is powerful. 80% said citizenship in heaven is comforting. This comfort was strikingly demonstrated in interviews, where some of these TCKs considered for the first time what the idea of heaven as home means for their transition-weary hearts.

“As a TCK or someone who is searching for their home or where they belong, having concepts like citizenship in heaven help us, or give us hope that one day we will belong somewhere.” – Nadia

“Heaven is my home so it’s okay that I’m so confused about where my home is, because maybe there isn’t one here, there’s one there. It’s a huge relief. If you don’t feel like you’re at home, that’s okay, because God is your home.” Alexis

Although heaven is a place not seen, even this connects with the TCK experience. TCKs grow up in a place that isn’t ‘home’ – knowing that somewhere else, on the other end of a long journey, is a place that is really ‘home’. A place they know through the stories of others, rather than in their own experience. TCKs’ complicated relationship with ‘home’ on earth makes heaven as home a powerful truth.

“Currently I’m a citizen of Singapore, that may change, but the constant of being a citizen of heaven is always reassuring to have. . .It’s an overwhelming thought, especially as someone who doesn’t really have a home to go back to every time. It’s nice to know that in the future, in the long term, in the prospect of eternity, I actually do have somewhere I do belong.” Min

 

An inclusive kingdom

There are no distinctions between Christians; all are fellow citizens, with the same rights and responsibilities (Ephesians 2:19). This beautiful truth is powerfully illustrated in Revelation, where people from every earthly place and allegiance gather together to worship the One God (Revelation 5:9-10, 7:9-10). Heaven embraces and includes peoples currently divided by geography, ethnicity, and language.

Several TCKs I interviewed picked up on the idea that heaven is inclusive: a place where people of all nations and languages are bound together as a single people in a single place, where there is distinction but no division. What comfort this brings to the 62% of TCKS who said they feel at home in international or multicultural communities. The place they long for, the place they know doesn’t exist on earth, is real – and it is their eternal home.

“I have this dream of a country that’s completely multicultural. . .I do think that it should be stressed how much relief it brings me, knowing that I’m going to get that… because it’s something that you’re always aching for, and never think you’re going to get, and then realising… I’ll actually get it when I go to heaven. And when you’re 13 and you’re 14 and you don’t belong anywhere, and you feel that there’s no place that’s home, it would have been nice to know, to have this as a curriculum, and to know that it’s completely fine if you don’t have a home…I don’t belong anywhere. But there is somewhere, and that’s great!” – Alexis

The hope we have in Christ comprehensively answers the longings of human hearts, and a key longing for TCKs (one they often feel is hopeless) is for home, a place to belong. The kingdom of heaven is what their hearts long for – and this is a powerful message.

This comfort alone makes citizenship in heaven an important piece of theology to teach to TCKs. This was where I thought my thesis might end, but I discovered another important way that TCKs interact with the concept of citizenship in heaven. Stay tuned for my concluding post to learn more.

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Tanya Crossman spent most of her childhood as a local in Australia and most of her adulthood as an expat in China (with stops in the U.S. and Cambodia). Along the way she unexpectedly turned into an expert on millennial TCKs, wrote a book, and starting travelling the world to speak on her favourite topic: why TCKs are awesome and how to serve them well. After completing an MDiv in Australia, she recently got married (to a TCK) and moved back to Beijing. Now she’s enjoying rediscovering everything she loves about China! She can be found online far too often, usually on FacebookInstagramTwitter, and occasionally at her website.

The Top 10 Most Valuable Mindsets for MKs and TCKs

by Michèle Phoenix

I’ve written extensively in the past few years about attitudes and choices that can help MKs and TCKs to avoid some of the pitfalls inherent to being multi-cultural. Here are, in my estimation, the top ten most valuable of them.

1. I will believe that I am not weird—I am complex. 

It’s a refrain I’ve heard from young and old in my work with Third Culture Kids and the problem is mostly semantic. Saying “I’m weird” implies a sort of terminal condition. No one will ever understand me. “Complex” hints that with time and awareness, others will begin to figure us out. Has a global upbringing made us a bit more complicated than others? Absolutely. But it’s not an insurmountable thing for those who love us enough to seek to understand us. This video might be a great place to start!

2. I will recognize that I am not special—I am blessed.

Calling ourselves “special” implies superiority, yet those aspects of our lives that have shaped us are usually not something we’ve earned or chosen. We are MKs because our parents made the decision to go overseas as missionaries. That makes us fortunate—blessed—not better than others. “Special” often yields arrogance. “Blessed” is more likely to yield a humbled gratitude. The latter is so much more attractive and inclusive. For more, read here.

3. I will allow myself to fail publicly and privately.

One of the greatest challenges MKs experience is the pressure to live up to the expectations of people for whom “Missionary Kid” implies a deeper faith, better behavior, wiser choices and flawless living. If we let those standards guide us in even a subconscious way, we set ourselves up for a lifetime of disappointing others and ourselves. Accepting the fact that we’ll fail and admitting to it when we do is good and healthy—even if it’s disenchanting to others. For more, read here.

4. I will stay connected in some way to my other cultures.

When juggling so many cultural influences, it sometimes seems easier to simplify our lives by distancing ourselves from some of those places we call home in order to just exist in one location. It is an understandable and natural inclination! The problem is that much of the richness of our multi-culturality comes from being able to draw on the entirety of our life-experiences. It’s precisely because we juggle so many cultures that we have so much to offer—a broader worldview, global understanding, adaptability, etc. It would be tragic to lose the depth and wealth of our complex background has given us for the sake of a more “simple” identity. Staying connected in some small way to past worlds (whether through people or media or traditions or all of those) allows us to retain the treasures they’ve instilled in us. For more, read here.

5. I will apply the same curiosity, exploration and acceptance to my passport culture that I apply to foreign cultures.

As MKs, one of our greatest strengths is being able to insert ourselves into new cultures with inquisitiveness, grace and tolerance. Those skills seem to fly out the window when we reenter our own passport culture! If stranded in a remote tribal village, we’d enter the fray with some of our most prized traits on display: open-mindedness, a sense of adventure and cultural acceptance. But returning “home”? Not a chance. Think of how different our re-entry experience would be if we applied the same attitude to our passport culture as we do to foreign places. For more, read here.

6. I will be versatile in my relationship-building methods. 

As MKs, we build friendships in an uncommon way. We’re often quick and intense as we enter into relationships, aware that time is limited and comfortable sharing rapidly on an intimate level because of that. Mono-culturals tend to approach friendships differently, letting the “deepening” take a slower, more casual route. It may take longer and initially seem shallow, but there’s a good chance we’ll achieve meaningful relationship with our less global peers if we’re patient enough to allow for a slower pace. Dismissing people early because they don’t dive deep fast enough can eliminate the chance of true friendship. Understanding how our relationship model differs from that of mono-culturals is a good place to start. For more, read here.

7. I will use my experiences to enrich and not diminish others.

It’s a nasty little habit we have—nothing entertains MKs more than celebrating the “stupidity” of those less fortunate than us. Our backyards are the stuff of fantasies to most mono-cultural peers. We’ve seen more and experienced more than they can even imagine. Yet rather than being grateful for our blessings, we sometimes use our global savvy to make fun of the less fortunate. We’re in a unique position to bring the worlds we’ve known to those who will never get to witness them for themselves, yet we too often opt for something that looks an awful lot like arrogance instead. Let’s commit to kindly and humbly expanding the horizons of our mono-cultural friends (at an appropriate time in relationship with them) rather than mocking, humiliating or belittling them. For more, read here.

8. I will strive to distinguish between human failure and God’s character.

There’s no denying it. Many of us carry wounds from our years overseas. Some of us have been neglected, abused or afflicted by illness. We’ve seen death and famine. We’ve been harmed by the poor decisions of those who were supposed to care for us. It’s easy to blame God for the scars—as I did for many years. Yet so much of the violence and injustice we’ve suffered is the direct result of human mistakes and cruelty. God grieves over the actions and circumstances that harm us. Blaming Him will only deprive us of the powerful healing only His comfort can afford us. For more, read here.

9. I will choose to exercise gratitude, but won’t ignore the hardships.

The hardships are real. They influence our thinking and our outlook, our serenity and our faith. We must acknowledge and address them in order to heal from them. But as we’re in that process, balancing the pain with an intentional focus on what we have to be grateful for can be a perspective-enhancing practice. For more, read here.

10. I will acknowledge that being an MK alone won’t get me through life—having an intimate, trusting relationship with God will.

Sometimes, we get so caught up in our MK identity that we think it’s the only thing that defines us. It becomes the most meaningful and foundational aspect of our lives, and we can make the mistake of assuming it’s all we need…because we think it’s all we are.

But we’re so much more. We are children of God. And though our multi-cultural skills might be tremendous assets to be prized and celebrated, when life becomes treacherous and dark, they’ll be of little help. Only an active, intimate and dependent relationship with God will carry us through the trials that are inevitable and unskirtable as we live life in a broken world. His love and presence are inexpressibly precious. For more, read here.

You’ll notice that each of the ten mindsets above is stated as an intentional verb:  believe, recognize, allow, stay, apply, be, use, strive, choose, acknowledge. A shift in our way of thinking won’t happen organically. It will come as we invest determination and focus in making it happen, subjugating harmful habits to practices that might enhance our own lives and those of others.

To read more of my articles about MKs and parenting MKs, click here.

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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. She loves good conversations, French pastries, mischievous students and Marvel movies.

10 Questions to Routinely Ask Your TCKs

by Lauren Wells

It is important for parents raising children anywhere to be continually engaging and checking in with their kids. When you are raising TCKs, this is even more important. TCKs are privy to struggles that mono-cultural children don’t often have to face, so being aware of that and taking time to routinely ask questions such as these can strengthen your relationship and show your kids how much you love and value them.

Set aside time routinely to talk with your TCK. Ensure that this time is not tainted by distractions and that you are not attempting to multitask, but instead be fully engaged and interested in their answers. If these types of conversations are not something you have had with your TCKs in the past, it may take a few times before they truly trust that you care about their answers and that they are safe to answer honestly. For this reason, it is critical to create a safe space for them to speak openly.

Listen and encourage them to explain their answers or elaborate, but be careful to not be too pushy or to respond in a way that invalidates their answer. Remember that the purpose of asking these questions is not to provide a solution, but to open up the communication between you and your child. You might ask your TCK all of these questions, or just have them on hand to ask one or two when you’re spending time with your child.

 

1. How are you doing?

It seems simple, but asking this question is one of the best ways to show your kids that you care. Make is clear that there isn’t a right answer and that it is ok if they really aren’t doing “just fine.”

 

2. What are some things that you enjoy about living here?

Their “favorites” may be different than you expect!

 

3. Do you ever wish that we lived a different life?

It’s important to help your TCKs process the life that they are living. It is unique and it wasn’t of their choosing. It’s healthy for them to think through this question and for you to hear their answer as it may reveal some deeper struggles that need to be worked through.

 

4. What is something that you’re looking forward to?

This gives your TCK the opportunity to share their excitement about an upcoming event. Perhaps you didn’t know about this event or didn’t realize how important it is to your child. Now that you know, you can share in their excitement!

 

5. What is something that you’re not looking forward to?

This question often provides the opportunity to dig deeper and discover why a certain event, place, task, etc. is unenjoyable or uncomfortable for your child. Avoid a positive comeback such as, “But that will be so fun!” and instead explore the question further by saying something like, “Wow, I didn’t realize that place made you nervous. What is it about it that is uncomfortable to you?”

 

6. Do you feel like we spend enough time together?

TCKs can often feel like they are second to their parent’s work or ministry. This question allows them the opportunity to say so if that is the case. If their answer is “no,” be vigilant about finding ways to spend more time with this child.

 

7. Where do you feel most at home?

The question “Where is home?” is a common, confusing question for TCKs. Working through this idea at a young age prevents it from becoming a surprising realization when they are older and feel that no places feels completely like “home.”

 

8. Is there anyone or anything that you miss right now?

It is important to give TCKs the permission to reminisce and grieve their losses. Bringing these up for them can help them to do this in a healthy way.

 

9. Do you feel like people understand you?

Being a TCK has many challenges and one of them is a constant feeling of being misunderstood. While you may not have a solution to their perceived uniqueness, it can be insightful for you to hear your child’s answer.

 

10. What’s your favorite thing about yourself?

Again, identity issues are common for TCKs so asking them to think through things that they like about themselves is a good way to promote self confidence. This is also a good time to tell them a few of your favorite things about them!

 

Do you have any questions to add to the list? I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

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Lauren Wells is a Third Culture Kid (TCK) and Missionary Kid (MK) who grew up in Tanzania, East Africa where she developed an affinity for mandazis (African doughnuts) and Chai tea. Her experience as a TCK fuels her passion for working with globally mobile families. Lauren is the Children’s Program Director for Worldview Institute for International Christian Communication in Portland, Oregon. In her role at WorldView, she developed and now runs a program for children that equips them with the skills they need to learn new languages and embrace new cultures when they move overseas with their family. She blogs regularly at tcktraining.com.

One Simple Way to Bless TCKs

“My book is called Misunderstood because that is how many young TCKs feel.” – Tanya Crossman

It’s true. Many kids grow up among worlds and end up feeling completely and totally misunderstood. They may feel misunderstood by the societies they’ve grown up in and the societies they’ve returned too. They may feel misunderstood by the nuclear families they’ve grown up in and the extended families they’ve returned to.

So what do we do?

What can parents do? Parents who know they don’t understand all the ins and outs of growing up globally?

Well, what do we do when we interact with anyone we want to get to know better? Read a book? Google them? Ask other people? Read an article? Maybe.

But typically the best solution is just to treat them like the unique human beings they are and start asking questions.

I think that one of the simplest things we could do to help the TCKs in our life to feel more seen, more loved, and less misunderstood, is to get better at asking questions.

And of course we have to care about their answers.

 

“Smart parents give their kids lots of answers, but wise parents ask their kids lots of questions.” – Unknown

 

Questions give value and open the door to deeper intimacy. Questions are Christ-like, with one scholar identifying 307 individual questions that Jesus asked during his earthly ministry.

It’s hard to ask questions, though, because I have to shut up long enough to listen to the answers. Most of us simply prefer giving answers to asking questions.

Oh that we would excel in question-asking! And not because we’re trying to control or manipulate, but because we’re genuinely interested in what people have to say.

Like TCKs.

One teenager who grew up overseas said that she would love to be asked “any meaningful question by someone who was truly interested in knowing the answer.”

No two stories are the same. I’ve had teenagers here in Cambodia thank me for NOT being a TCK. I was a bit confused until they explained: “Sometimes, adult TCKs come in here and think they know everything about us because they grew up abroad too. But they have no idea!” Apparently, I earned points for knowing what it was that I didn’t know, which caused me to keep asking questions.

May we all know what it is that we don’t know. And may that knowledge lead us to ask questions.

May we echo the angel of the Lord in Genesis 16 when he asked Hagar, “Where have you come from?” and “Where are you going?”

May we communicate to the TCKs in our life that we care about where they’ve come from. That we care about their stories; the good stuff and the hard stuff. May we communicate to the TCKs in our life that we ALSO care about where they’re going. That we care about their hopes and their dreams. And their fears.

And at the end of the day, may they feel, as Hagar did, seen.

Understood.

Of course, we can’t fully know or understand anyone, but we can keep asking questions, we can keep being interested.

We can keep reading their book, even if it’s as small as a passport.

 

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Tools & Resources

The Key Jar: A fantastic list of questions in PDF format. I screen captured this thing and then just keep it on my phone. Occasionally, when I’m out with one of my kids, I just pull it out and say, “Hey, do you want to do the questions?” Some of my kids like it more than others, but I can tell you that it’s generated TONS of fascinating conversations that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Gottman Card Deck: Although it’s designed for couples (you can easily see why), there are some great questions on here that are totally appropriate for kiddos. If you’re like me, new or unique questions are hard to self-generate. I can do, “How was your day?” but it’s a bit harder to just come up with more involved questions. So I use an app. Not all the time, but sometimes. This app is free, so try it out and see what happens.

If you’re interested in more of the story about Hagar and how asking questions is Christ-like, here’s a link  to a message I preached at an international church this year: The Questions of God, Hagar, and Genesis 16. [Links to the podcast on iTunes and mp3 download.]

Tanya Crossman’s article on A Life Overseas: Parallel Lives: TCKs, Parents, and the Culture Gap

A popular list of questions MKs would love to be asked, by Taylor Murray. [MKs and TCKs are not the same, but the majority of these questions seem to apply to both.]

 

Photo by Mitch Harris on Unsplash