3 Ways to Help Your TCK with Language Learning

Sponges

Has anyone ever referred to your Third Culture Kid as a language sponge? Maybe you picture your child’s brain effortlessly slurping up nouns, adjectives, and conjugations, lisping in perfect Mandarin or Swahili.

That’s what we pictured. After all, my husband and I love languages. Our kids were born in the mission field. Why wouldn’t they learn?

However, when we moved to our second country of service, we quickly realized our daughter, Ashi, was not in a very spongey, language-learny mood. It would take all our language learning knowledge and experience, plus a whole lot of prayer and creativity, to support her and her brother’s learning journeys.

Along the way, we discovered three important ingredients to successful language learning in kids. This “secret sauce” includes exposure, structure, and inspiration.

1. Exposure

The fact is, language learning takes time–hours and hours of meaningful exposure on a consistent basis.

According to the US State Department[i], it takes 600-700 hours of classroom instruction to reach fluency in a level 1 (easy) language. And that’s for adults, who, contrary to the sponge theory, may learn and retain languages faster than children[ii].

The need for more time in the target language is one reason some workers send their children to local schools. But what if attending a local school isn’t a good fit for your family or your child? What if you homeschool or send your child to an international school?

That was our situation. We knew we’d have to get creative. In order to support our young language learners, we decided to:

  • Move outside the city, where people have more time for a cup of tea and a chat, and where kids aren’t constantly attending one after-school program after another.
  • Set up activities that attract children. A trampoline, kiddie pool, or pick-up game of soccer are great ways to encourage positive social interaction.
  • Seek friends with kids, especially those who are not currently learning English.
  • Hire household help—specifically a friendly, chatty helper!
  • Learn songs in the local language.
  • Enroll our children in extracurricular activities taught in the target language.

Other missionaries we know have also incorporated these ideas:

  • Instituting a family language hour, where only the target language is spoken—make sure this is fun and low-pressure!
  • Allowing children to watch cartoons in the local language.

What if your child is getting lots of exposure but still asks your neighbor lady the equivalent of, “Please, I give you water me?” What’s a missionary mom (or dad) to do? That brings me to the second crucial ingredient to language learning: structure.

2. Structure

The idea that children are language sponges who learn easily with zero instruction is somewhat of a myth. Obviously, babies learn languages without taking grammar classes. But that process also takes three or four years!

Studies suggest that very young children are better at doing what experts call “acquiring” language, which is absorbing it by hearing and using it in everyday life rather than receiving explicit instruction[iii]. But this requires many, many hours of high-quality, contextualized exposure each day. That’s hard to get outside a kindergarten classroom, where kids spend eight hours a day hearing simple songs and poems, doing calendar work, and engaging in thematic play.

Most language learners, regardless of age, benefit from specific instruction.

If your target language is a common one, you can find wonderful resources for this, online and/or in person. Think talkbox.mom, Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, YouTube, a local language center, etc. But what if your target language is a little more obscure? And what if available in-person language learning options aren’t working for your child?

To meet our children’s need for structured instruction, we hired a local teacher but designed the lessons ourselves. Specifically, we:

  • Let the kids choose scenarios to play with their teacher. Some favorites included bargaining in the marketplace and choosing what to wear in the morning.
  • Gamified everything. We created gameboards on Canva, played Go Fish with verb cards we drew ourselves, played Simon Says, used Uno cards to practice numbers and colors, added sentences to an ongoing story, and anything else we could think of. The key is to pick just one grammar point and a handful of verbs and nouns, and use the game as an excuse to build sentences. Always start with something that is at or only slightly above your child’s language level. Briefly review the grammar and vocab, explain the game, and play!
  • Had our language helper record our children’s stories, or stories our kids knew, as well as verb conjugations, and listened to these in the car.
  • Engaged in structured language practice at home using games, translation drills, and simple writing exercises.

Maybe you’re still learning your target language, too. That’s okay! A little goes a long way, so share what you know, even if you’re only one step ahead of your kids. Just a few months after beginning this regime, our son was starting to talk outside the classroom.

Ashi, however, was still lacking the final ingredient: Inspiration.

3. Inspiration

There is a hidden obstacle to language learning. Teaching professionals call it the Affective Filter. According to FluentU, an Affective Filter is, “the invisible, psychological filter that either aids or deters the process of language acquisition[iv].” In other words, it’s the stress, anxiety, boredom, and lack of confidence that makes language learners go blank anytime they hear a new word.

After some prayer and observation, we realized this was our daughter’s struggle. Ashi is sensitive about being the center of attention. Language learning felt like a performance to her. Her independent personality balked at that.

We needed to locate low-pressure opportunities for Ashi to be her unique self and practice language. Since she loves feeling capable and helping others, we turned to our neighbors.

Ashi helped my friend with her baby, a group of old women with their rabbit farm, and another lady with food prep and dishwashing. She helped our helper cook local dishes. When she complained about going to language classes, we remained firm, but we let her choose a tasty local treat or favorite activity afterward if she kept a positive attitude during class.

After several months, our daughter’s relationship with the language changed. She began to feel proud of her ability to communicate. Although she often tells groups of people she doesn’t speak the language, the fact is, she does.

Don’t Say You Can’t

One day, about a month ago, our family walked into a labyrinthian marketplace full of textured rugs, fake Aladdin lamps, and exotic solid perfumes. After about 15 minutes, I realized I had lost Ashi. I found her in a shop that sold pens covered in mirror “jewels.”

“That’s too expensive,” she was telling the shopkeeper in Arabic. “Knock the price down for me a little.” I looked at the shopkeeper, a wrinkled, bent-over man with a cane. He was grinning.

Ashi got her discount.

This morning I asked if Ashi has any advice for her fellow TCKs. She mentioned playing Go Fish and making friends. But this, she says, is her best advice ever:

“Don’t say that you can’t!”

 

[i] https://www.state.gov/foreign-language-training/

[ii] https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-child-language/article/age-and-learning-environment-are-children-implicit-second-language-learners/457C069A5339D656788E7E8D217B2A3A

[iii] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/16/parenting/children-language-development.html#:~:text=Mu%C3%B1oz%20makes%20the%20point%20that,Like%20Dr.

[iv] https://www.fluentu.com/blog/educator-english/affective-filter/

Mobility is tough on kids: here’s how you can help

Moving to a new location can be exciting! New places to explore, new people to meet, new food to taste. It can also be exhausting and lonely and downright depressing. We’ve all been there. Just because one is true doesn’t mean the other isn’t!

One of the many reasons I love the movie Inside Out is the way it demonstrates that part of growing in emotional maturity is accepting that our experiences do not have to be just black OR white, yellow OR blue, happy OR sad. They can be both at the same time.

Moving as a child (an experience beautifully captured in Inside Out, and another reason I love this movie!) comes with additional layers of emotion. There can be confusion and misunderstanding — not knowing exactly when or where or why the family (or part of the family) is going. There can be lack of control, knowing these decisions are “above their paygrade” and that they will have to deal with whatever is decided on their behalf. 

I experienced several moves as a child, and I am now journeying alongside my young niece and nephew as they continue to process feelings about a big move. They miss their old house (“someone else is living in our house!”) and the landscape where they used to live (“I miss the colour red”) and the way things were done in another school, another town, another church. They miss the community they were part of: their playmates, and also the adults that were part of their stability and emotional support structure.

 

The Impact of Mobility on Children
In the survey of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Globally Mobile Third Culture Kids produced by TCK Training, we saw a strong correlation between high mobility in TCKs and high ACE scores. An ACE score of 4 or higher is associated with negative outcomes in behavioural, emotional, and physical health during adulthood. 12.5% of Americans surveyed have an ACE score of 4+, much lower than the 21% of the TCKs in our sample with an ACE score of 4+. When we looked only at TCKs who experienced high mobility, however, that rate jumped much higher. 32% of those who moved location 10 or more times had a 4+ ACE score. 33% of those who moved house 15 or more times had a 4+ ACE score. 

 

10% of Missionary Kids (MKs) moved location 10+ times; 19% of MKs moved house 15+ times. Mobility is something that affects a large number of MKs. If we know that mobility can have negative impacts on long term health and that mobility impacts many MKs, does that mean we should not send families overseas? That MKs should not move, or move only a limited number of times? Not at all. These figures should give us pause, yes, but the result should be to make us invest in preventive care and in proven protective factors to ensure all MKs thrive both as children and as adults.

Alongside research into Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), we also cite research into Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs). Research demonstrates that when these PCEs are present, children are far less likely to suffer negative outcomes from ACEs in their childhood. In fact, an individual with higher PCEs present during childhood is 72% less likely to develop depression or poor mental health as an adult, and are 3.5 times more likely to have healthy social and emotional support as an adult; when all seven PCEs are present, these factors shift even more toward the positive. 

 

Positive Childhood Experiences
There are lots of ways to provide protective positive experiences in the lives of missionary kids — your own, and those in your community!

The protective factors known as Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) include categories of feeling heard and supported by parents, having supportive peers and a sense of belonging in a multigenerational group, feeling safe in the home, having two non-parent supportive adult relationships, and participating in community traditions. When the majority of the seven PCEs are present regularly throughout a child’s developmental years, the adversity they experience is more likely to develop into resiliency.

Caution and Hope: The Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Globally Mobile Third Culture Kids

If you are a parent, how can you create space to ensure your child feels “heard and supported” by you? (Lauren Wells wrote about this in her recent post.)

If you are not a parent, how can you invest in the lives of children in your community, to help provide them with “a sense of belonging in a multigenerational group” or be a “non-parent supportive adult” in their life? How can children be included in group activities you run? Can you be an extra aunt, uncle, or grandparent to children who live near you — visiting, spending time, playing games, going on outings, giving treats? (I can assure you their parents will be delighted as well!) Can you maintain contact with children who have left, or children in a place you have left? What training can you invest in to make sure you understand the globally mobile children in your community, so you can be the best support and caregiver possible?

How can your community intentionally include children in “participating in community traditions?” What festivals do you celebrate, and how are children made part of the festivities? What annual traditions do you have as a community? What local traditions have become part of your family’s life, perhaps even after you leave the location where you began the tradition? The rituals we create as a family and as a community, and which we engage children in, matter a lot for their long-term thriving, especially those who move frequently, or live in communities where people transition often.

If you support mission work through your local church, what can you do to ensure that children on the mission field receive lots of preventive care? Can you support missionaries providing care to mission kids? These workers often have more difficulty raising support, despite the vital work they do to protect and invest in precious young lives. Can you send letters and care packages to children specifically, learning their names and stories and interests so they receive tailored care and support that blesses them as unique individuals? If you don’t know, ask their parents! They’ll know how to get you started. Depending on how difficult it is to receive mail in their area, parents may even have suggestions for easier/more affordable ways to send birthday presents or other thoughtful care to their kids.

These may seem simple things, perhaps even too simple in the face of statistics that feel big and scary. But research tells us these simple things MATTER. We need to be proactive, purposeful, and persistent in providing these protective positive experiences for children in our families and communities. They are the foundation of relationships and memories that will give them a sense of emotional safety and stability to cushion them from the impacts of international life. 

Long Distance Funerals

My uncle passed away in January. I was able to day-trip (a 3.5 hour drive each way) for the small family funeral and wake. Some of his favourite music was played, one of his favourite poems was recited, we poured over old photos of him through his life, and we scoured the books lining the walls of his library looking for those we’d read before. I was very glad to be there to support my aunt and to remember my uncle well, in all his aspects, and to share him with others who knew him well.

Soon after I realised it was the first family funeral I had attended in 15 years. This speaks largely to good fortune: in the 15 years I lived outside Australia, only three of my relatives passed away. But being far from family when death occurs is a common experience among the globally mobile.

Back in 2013 I was invited to speak to a group of high school students at an international boarding school on the subject of death. For one week, their health teacher had allowed all her classes to choose between several optional units, including first aid, bullying/violence, and basic psychology. This class, with students from China, South Korea, Thailand, and Eastern Europe, chose a unit on death and grief, and I was invited in as a guest speaker.

I am in no way an expert on death, but I have a lot of experience walking with Third Culture Kids through grief experiences. Loss is a constant and ongoing part of international life.

We went over the Five Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. We talked about what these stages might look like, and some words/phrases/attitudes often linked with each stage. We talked about how grief is different when we are far away from the people we are grieving. We talked about the many other losses we grieve, especially those connected with international living – moving away, friends moving away from us, physical or emotional distance between us and our relatives, etc.

I shared several personal stories with them. I talked about the deaths of my two paternal grandparents and the big differences in those grief experiences. When my Grandma died, I was still living in Australia, and I spent several days in her home with my family for the funeral. When my Grandpa died, I was living alone in China, and I didn’t go home for the funeral.

My grandparents were wonderful people who lived very full lives and were well-loved. While I was obviously sad to lose them, to no longer have them as part of my life, and to lose the opportunity to know them better as an adult, neither loss was particularly traumatic. The importance of telling the stories was, rather, the difference in the grief experience and grieving process in each case. This was something that resonated strongly with the students, most of whom were living far away from their families.

The students also shared their own stories. Some talked about the deaths of dearly loved grandparents they hadn’t been able to properly grieve — and perhaps didn’t know how to properly grieve — due to the distance separating them. Others talked about deaths that hit closer to home: friends, nearer relatives, even people who shadowed their lives after memories had faded. Many talked about the difficulty of having no one to share these experiences with, having no outlet for their emotions and memories. It was a poignant conversation and a powerful experience.

More than anything, it instilled in me the difference that presence makes during times of grief, and especially when losing loved ones through death.

*****

During the pandemic over the past two years, lack of presence surrounding death has sadly become a much more common experience. Due to hospital regulations, many people have been unable to be with loved ones in person as they pass. Others have been unable to travel to see their loved ones during illness or for funeral gatherings, due to border closures and travel restrictions. What has always been difficult for the globally mobile suddenly became impossible for many, even those in the same country or city!

I lost my Nana at the start of the pandemic after a long illness (not related to Covid-19). I knew it was coming, and that I probably would not be able to afford the time and money to return to Australia for her funeral. But when the time came, I did not even have the option. New border regulations meant that if I did go, I’d be isolated until after the funeral anyway.

When we think about funerals, how can we be sensitive to the needs of the globally mobile (and anyone who has difficulty attending), especially during pandemic conditions when this is so common? I have five suggestions for planning funerals that help support those who are grieving, whether in person, from a distance, or both.

1) Remember who the funeral is for

While we strive to honour the departed loved one during their funeral, the function of funeral services, memorial services, and wakes is largely to provide comfort and an outlet for the grief of those they left behind.

After my uncle’s funeral, my aunt told me about a conversation they’d had years earlier in which he passionately declared that he never wanted a funeral held for him. She planned one anyway, because it wasn’t for him. It was for her, and for everyone else who cared about him, to gather and say their goodbyes. Creating space for those goodbyes and for the sharing of memories is incredibly important for the grieving process each person is going through.

2) Give as much warning as possible

Give people time to make arrangements, whether to get time off work or to arrange childcare and/or travel. The further away people are, the more important this is. Sometimes a funeral can be delayed several weeks to make this more manageable for people far away. If the actual funeral must be held quickly (there are many reasons for this), consider having a memorial service later, to provide an opportunity for shared grieving.

On the other hand, I have also been in situations in international communities where it was important to hold a memorial service quite quickly. For example, when schools begin their summer breaks, these communities tend to scatter around the world. The bottom line for any funeral or memorial should therefore be knowledge of what is best for the communities grieving the person who died. This might mean holding more than one memorial, spanning different times and places.

3) Include children

Small children are often kept away from funeral and memorials. A two- or three-year-old child, however, can of course be very attached to a person and in need of participating in shared grief. While this may look different for children, it is good and right to include them in the community as we grieve together for the person we have lost. This is no less true for children who live far away from their relatives.

When I was about three, my great-grandmother (whose engagement ring I later wore as my own) passed away. I was not included at her funeral, and I was extremely upset when told I could not go! I said to my parents (quite indignantly, I’m told) that I knew and loved her too. They thought this was a good point, and from then on children were always invited to our family funerals. When my Nana died last year, her three great-grandchildren (ages 2, 3, and 5) all travelled with their parents to be at her funeral. There are now pictures of them dancing and playing in the grassy field outside the wake, which are precious to everyone. Attending the funeral helped the five-year-old in particular understand that her great-grandmother had died, even though she rarely visited, because she was there as part of the community event marking her Nana’s life.

4) Make sure the real person is represented

Every funeral should look different, because every individual is different. My sister and I agreed that the eulogy given by my uncle’s eldest son was powerful to us because we recognised our uncle in every line. The man he described was the man we remembered. The music and poetry he loved (things we all knew about him) had a prominent place in the service.

Those who are physically distant already feel far away from the event of a funeral, and the space it holds for shared grief. If eulogies and other elements of a funeral or memorial are generic and/or do not represent the real person their friends and family know, this can be alienating. This makes those who are physically far away feel alone in their grief.

5) Create space to share memories of the departed loved one

This can be formal or informal. The important thing is that everyone has a chance to stop and remember who this person has been to them, and how this person has impacted their life. I really appreciated that my uncle’s service included a time of silent remembering after the eulogies, where we were given space to remember him individually while listening to music he loved. This time allowed memories triggered by what I’d heard to bloom into full consciousness, giving me stories I wanted to share. Later at the wake, it was a delight to share those stories with those who knew him, and to hear their stories in return. Spending time looking through photo albums my aunt had prepared (complete with dates and captions) was also very powerful. So was going through his beloved library of books, remembering him that way.

These moments are often what is missing for those who are far away when funerals happen. A livestream of an event, when available, is rarely interactive; it doesn’t allow those who are far away to engage in sharing memories and actively reflecting. But there are other virtual options to help provide this space for those who can’t be physically present. Group video calls, shared online documents, word clouds, virtual post in note boards, virtual memorial tools, and so much more can be creatively utilised to allow those who are geographically separated to collaborate in honouring and sharing memories of a loved one who has died.

One other thing to keep in mind: if only one person is missing and unable to be at a funeral, keep them in the loop. Most people in this situation feel the distance keenly, feeling isolated and left out. Most want to hear about what’s happening, want to share in the process, and especially to share in the storytelling and group remembering that accompany funerals, memorials, and wakes. So call them, talk to them, share stories with them. Being the only one away can be very lonely, as I and the international students I mentioned earlier can attest to.

*****

This is an edited version of blog posts that first appeared on tanyacrossman.com here and here.

Seasons

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.

Psalm 84:5

Outside of my window there is frost. The green of summer and the gold of fall are long gone, replaced by winter with its early sunsets and frosty mornings.

For years I lived in places where there were no seasons. Winter was when it got below 15° Celsius and we could bundle up in light sweaters and drink cocoa. Palm trees were our Christmas trees, and we could never convince those who lived in colder climates just how cold the inside of a concrete block building could get. When I moved to a place where there were seasons, I had to adjust to changing wardrobes and activities.

Initially it felt impossible. How could I possibly survive winter? When would the shivering stop? Why was everyone else so excited about the first snow and blizzards?

One of the things you learn when you live in seasons is that if you don’t relax and accept them, you will constantly be fighting with them and everything that surrounds them. It will be you against the seasons, and the seasons will always win.

And so it is with life seasons. If you don’t relax and accept them, you are in a lifelong fight, and you have already been declared the loser. Life seasons always win.

From my comfortable chair looking out on the current changing season, I’m thinking a lot about life seasons, because it’s time to make a change. I will no longer be writing for A Life Overseas.

From maternal child health nurse to boarding school parent to stay-at-home mom to working as a nurse in a large multinational oil company to helping my husband run a study abroad program to teaching nursing students at a public university, my overseas careers and seasons have been many and varied. I birthed five babies on three different continents and created homes in 36 different houses along the way. I lived in four countries, studied three languages, and still only know English well. Through the years I’ve not only had to learn how to create a home in other countries, but hardest of all – I’ve had to learn how to create a home and place in the United States. And it was here at A Life Overseas that my stories and experiences found a home.

I began writing for A Life Overseas soon after I began writing publicly. It was Rachel Pieh Jones who connected me to the site and asked me initially to post as a guest. The invitation was welcome. I had recently returned from working in flood relief in Pakistan, and my heart was restless to make sense of living between. Writing publicly, initially for my own blog followed by A Life Overseas, was an incredible gift. It was through writing that I processed my life experiences from Third Culture Kid to Adult Third Culture Kid and three-time expatriate. Through this medium I connected with so many of you and we “got” each other. The loneliness, the disconnect, the joy, the humor, the homesickness, the reverse homesickness, the jetlag, the lost luggage, the cultural humility, the mistakes, the raising kids, the figuring out life, the missed flights, the language learning, the misplaced pride, the sense that we could never make it back in our passport countries, the “too foreign for here and too foreign for home”* – all of it was here to be wrestled with and figured out. Through writing I processed, connected, cried, argued, and laughed.

Along the way I have grown and learned. I have felt God’s pleasure and direction, His love for the world and for those of us who love the world.

But I have always known that at some point it would be time to pass on this privilege to others. And so it is – now is the time. There are others whose voices need to be heard, others who are living this life who can communicate what it is to walk faithfully and confidently between worlds. I have also known that when it is time to move on, it’s best not to fight it but to go with grace, to go with God. Seasons come and seasons go; only God Himself remains the same.

A couple of years ago while sitting at an airport on a lonely Sunday night, I wrote the following. I offer it here to you as a word-gift, a tribute to all of you. Whether you are weary and lonely or energetic and people-filled, whether you have left your overseas life behind or whether you are still in the thick of it, I salute you and your courage and pray that God may keep you in the palm of his strong, everlasting, ever-loving hands.

Here’s to the lonely ones, sitting at airports waiting on delayed and cancelled flights.

Here’s to the tired ones, weary of travel and goodbyes, idly eating granola bars and sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups.

Here’s to the mom, traveling with kids, weary of meeting the needs of little ones who are out of their habitat.

Here’s to the students, in that weird space between childhood and adulthood, carrying Apple computers purchased with graduation money.

Here’s to the immigrant family, a long way from home, juggling as much hand luggage as possible as they wearily look at an airport monitor flickering out their flight delay in blue digital letters.

Here’s to the grandparents heading home after visiting with a future generation of sweet and soft baby smell. A new generation who doesn’t yet know th
ey exist but will miss them long after they are gone.

Here’s to the third culture kid who has said far too many goodbyes. Here’s to the refugee who carries their pain in their body. Here’s to the expat who is moving on to their next post with the fresh memories of their last home like an open grave receiving a coffin.

Here’s to Arabic and Hindi; Swahili and French; German and English; Chinese and Spanish; Portuguese and Farsi – and every other language of the heart that at times must be hidden in new places and spaces, but in the airport is completely at home.

Here’s to the singles and the couples; the black and the white; the discouraged and the lonely; the arguing one and the laughing one —  with more in common in life’s journey than any of us can possibly know.

Here’s to my fellow travelers, sitting under the glare of fluorescent lights in the chaos of modern day travel. May you have safe journeys and traveling mercies. May God keep you in the palm of his hand and may you know his grace.

Thank you for reading my words – In Grace, Marilyn


*From Questions for Ada Diaspora Blues: “So, here you are too foreign for here too foreign for home. Never enough for both.”

Regrets and Remembrances: A Prayer for Those Who Leave Home

With one plane ride the whole world as TCKs have known it can die. Every important place they’ve been, every tree climbed, pet owned, and virtually every close friend they’ve made are gone with the closing of the airplane door.
—David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, Third Culture Kids

This closing door doesn’t just happen to Third Culture Kids. It’s also the experience of immigrants who leave behind many what-could-have-beens in their old country. Cross-cultural workers feel the door close when they leave their work and return “home.” (What other job requires you to leave the country once you’re no longer on the payroll?) International students close the door with the hopes that new opportunities will open many more. And refugees often see the door slammed and locked by soldiers carrying guns.

But while the door is closed, the mind is still open to thoughts about what was left behind. Some thoughts are joyous and life giving. Some are hurtful and life stealing. And often they come intricately, painfully intertwined, called up by a scent, a word, a sound, a flavor, a feeling or a dream. Bittersweet.

For those who find themselves on the other side of a closed door, I offer this prayer, inspired by Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer“:

God, grant me the confidence to let go of the regrets that I should not hold on to,
The ability to hold on to the memories I should not let go of,
And the wisdom to separate the one from the other. Amen.

(David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2009)

[photo: “over you,” by woodleywonderworks, used under a Creative Commons license]

(This post was originally published at ClearingCustoms.com.)

A Childhood Erased

MCS School South

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robynn Bliss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Goodnight Street Light—a reimagined bedtime story for urban TCKs

streetlight

Outside the big window

There was a buzzing street light

And a dripping AC

And a confident frog

Chirping up in a tree

And there were two little boys playing with toys

And cars driving by

And a jet in the sky

And a little dog barking hellos at a stray

And a shrill horn honking a few blocks away

And a man with a cart loudly selling cheap art

And an old neighbor lady yelling, “Hey, you down there! We’ve got foreigners living next door and they go to bed early for some reason. You’re going to wake them up, so if you could move down the street, that would be a good start!” (or maybe something like that)

Goodnight window

Goodnight street light

Goodnight moths flying around the street light

Goodnight dripping AC

And the confident frog chirping up in a tree

Goodnight boys

Goodnight toys

Goodnight cars driving by

And goodnight jet in the sky

Goodnight shops

And goodnight rooftops

Goodnight dog barking hellos at a stray

And goodnight shrill horn honking a few blocks away

Goodnight man

And goodnight cart

Goodnight buildings

Goodnight cheap art

And goodnight to the old neighbor lady doing her part

Goodnight sidewalk

Goodnight city, one and all

Good night noises, big and small

(with thanks to Margaret Wise Brown and Goodnight Moon)

Questions Third Culture Kids and Their Parents Love

The last post in this series was a set of questions Third Culture Kids have a hard time answering. Today is a set of questions that might be a little easier for them to address. And next month I’ll have a post about parents and TCKs to encourage us to ask better questions ourselves. How can we serve, love, and express interest in others?

Also, I want to be super transparent. I have absorbed so much from people here at A Life Overseas. If some of these questions are something you have said or suggested, thank you and I don’t mean to copy you, I’ve learned from you. One great post is by Taylor Murray, from which I definitely borrowed.

***

You find yourself in the hallway with a family recently returned from Bangladesh or Korea or Brazil. You don’t have a lot of time, but want to engage with the kids. What can you ask?

Some quick questions:

What is your favorite movie/song/book? Doesn’t have to be about their life abroad! We are all so much more than where we physically live.

What is the strangest thing that has happened to you in your host country? And then laugh with them or gasp with them, even if you don’t quite understand. 

Is there a special sound or smell you miss most about China/Peru/New Zealand…?

What time do you get up in the morning and what do you do first? What is a school day like for you?

What is your favorite place to take visitors to in your host country?

What is your best holiday tradition?

Tell me about your best friend there or your pet or your favorite teacher.

How do you decorate your bedroom?

In other words, questions that let a kid be a kid, that value the place they came from and the people they love there, and that give you a potential connection point – like oh I love that book, too! Or, my first grade teacher was just the best, too. Or, I know a kid in your grade who also has an alligator eat their pet monkey (okay, maybe not, but there is surely a way to connect someone with a common interest of say, soccer).

***

And deeper questions, maybe if you are a close friend or a family friend, or are mentoring or have longer time to talk, maybe over dinner with an older TCK or on a long car ride:

If you could change one thing about your TCK life, what would it be and why? If you could give one part of your TCK life to someone else (because you love it so much), what would it be and why?

What aspects of your host culture do you find yourself doing no matter where you are, or if you change something how do you adjust it? 

Do you notice yourself shifting between cultures? What does that feel like in your physical body or mannerisms?

What excites you about being back in your passport country? Or, what do you feel nervous about? What are you looking forward to? Or dreading?

What can I do to help you right now? Or in the future?

What else would you add?

Questions Third Culture Kids (and Their Parents) Dread

Next month I will share Questions Third Culture Kids (and Their Parents) Love, so stay tuned.

You just arrived in your passport country. Someone is approaching. You can’t remember who they are. You can’t remember where you are. What time is it? What language do they speak here? They are getting closer and closer and then the questions start…

Aren’t you glad to be home? Two hard things about this question – first, the TCK most likely does not consider their passport country home, especially if they have been abroad for a long time. My own kids vacillate, but most consistently they say that Djibouti is home. That’s where their bedrooms are, their treasure boxes, their bookshelves, their dog, their holiday traditions, their friends and school and church and sports team, their memories. That’s where they feel comfortable. Second – the TCK might not be glad. That’s a massive assumption. They might be angry or bitter or sad or intimidated or confused.

Don’t you remember me? Probably not! They’re kids. Even adults! We’ve been gone a long time, have maybe visited a lot of churches or gatherings. We love you. And the kids love you and we are so grateful for you. But we might be jet lagging, culturally overwhelmed, weary or broken. Please remind us of your name. I have been so thankful when someone just says, “Hi Rachel, Marilyn. We were in Bible study a couple years ago…” Almost every time, I know who they are, but that little gift is something I’m glad for.

Where do you buy clothes/food/stuff in your country? The kid might start thinking, “Uhh…my parents buy it…or are you saying I’m dressed funny? Or are you asking for a story from the market or…?” This is a complicated question and especially teenagers might feel awkward about it, already wondering if they are fitting in or sticking out.

How is your host country? Um…What do you mean? Third Culture Kids are just kids, they probably don’t know the political situation or the COVID situation or the economic situation. How is it, like the temperature? The food? The education? This is a confusing question.

You must just love it there! Okay, so that’s not a question, but it makes another big assumption. I was never asked that as a kid when people found out I lived in New Brighton – do you just love it there? Wuh? I dunno. I lived there. It was a place. I’ve learned to answer that question with, “Most of the time.” And people laugh and don’t really care for more than that. Still, I don’t like that question because what do you mean? Should I love it there? What if I don’t? Would you care to hear that longer, complicated answer?

How’s the ministry? Not only do the kids maybe not know or not care, they aren’t the missionary, They are a kid. Would you ask a pastor’s kid about the quality of the church work? Would you ask the child of a surgeon how surgery is going? Plus, not all TCKs identify as missionary kids. 

Say something in XXX language. For my kids, their language ability is a treasure. They use their foreign language skills as a shield sometimes, when they feel overwhelmed in the USA, they start speaking to themselves in their learned language. Or, it is a unique gift that they will pull out when they want to, like when they see a Somali at the store. They don’t often want to spill that gift out, or feel like it is a party trick.

How was your trip? Uh, not a trip. A life. Still living it…

Don’t forget next month I’ll share the great questions people can ask.

What are some questions you or your kids dread?

A Letter to My Son About Covid Grief

by Shannon Brink

I wrote the following letter to my son about the grief that he is feeling right now. Our family had to come back suddenly to Canada and it’s not the Canada we looked forward to, nor the one we left.  I hope it resonates and encourages other TCK parents out there who are needing to express similar things to their kids.

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dear Oldest Child,

I know we have already asked a lot from you. We moved you across the globe. You said goodbye to all you had known. You entered into a place that never quite felt like home. The dust on your feet, falling asleep under the heaviness of a mosquito net, forced to be in spaces and places that felt uncomfortable for so many reasons.

I know you have dreams too. You wish you could be a soccer star, but you haven’t had the chance to be on a real team. You wish you could ski down mountains, but there is no snow where we moved. You wish so many things, and we have kept you from them as we’ve embarked on a journey towards our own choices and calling, with you along for the ride.

And you have grieved. Often silently, sometimes loudly, and we have felt the weight of it.  We have grieved family gatherings and playgrounds. We have grieved easy outings and libraries and oh so many things.

You have been so patient. We have counted down days to come back to your home and native land. You have made the lists, stated the hopes, and built your expectations for this special short time, this one gap where you could enjoy all the things you remember and long for. This time when you could take off the foreign face and be familiar. A place where you could play with your childhood friends in our cul-de-sac, and enjoy all the things your hearts have longed for.

We had made oh so many plans in those 2 years for this time now. Just as you got comfortable in this new place, we had to bring you suddenly back to where all your hopes lay.

But nothing is as you hoped.  You couldn’t stay in the house of your earliest memories.

And now here we are.  I had hoped this day wouldn’t come, but here it is.

You didn’t get to go to summer camp.  I know this was your only chance in maybe 5 years. I know I have told you it will change your life as it changed mine. I know I told you it would be one of the best things in your childhood, and now you cannot go. I know that’s the last thing that you were hoping for, after everything else had fallen through. Now it’s not happening either.

You have grieved more than most kids. It’s not really fair, you’re right. How could it be, that we could be so close to all that you had missed, and just when we needed a break from all that was unfamiliar, all that was difficult and uncomfortable, you are thrown back into the fire of uncertainty and confusion. This isn’t the home you left. This isn’t the childhood of your dreams. It has changed.

But remember, dear one, it’s not over yet. God hasn’t changed. Not even a little bit. My childhood will not be your childhood. My experiences will not be your experiences. I know this feels like too much to ask of a 10-year-old, and in many ways it is. Still, I believe this will build in you a resilience that is real and will steer you well in the days ahead.

I know your hopes are crushed, and I feel your pain too. In the midst of all this pain and disappointment, I still believe your childhood will be richer than you think because of our extravagant, loving Father, who will give you all the experiences you need to become the person He is shaping you to be.

This is hard. It’s another loss on a mountain of losses. I am crying my eyes out because it pains me so badly to see your pain. God counts all of our tears mixed together, every one. He has a bright future for you, and He won’t let you down. Our faith will just have to grow stronger together.

I’m so sorry.  We love you, we see your pain, and we’re here with you.

-Mom

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

Shannon is a mother of 4 kids, a nurse, a writer, and a missionary in Malawi. Her family is currently residing in Vancouver, Canada because of COVID. Her writing explores the awkward spaces of life like waiting, grieving, calling, and transition, which seems to become increasingly relevant in our lives and in our global story. She has just finished her first book. Find her at shannonbrink.org.

The Pink Bike

by Rebecca Hopkins

In April of last year, I moved away from Indonesia—my home of 14 years—and sold almost everything. And so, in June, someone gave me a pink bike.

I’m not exactly sure who. My aunt and uncle did the very loving thing of collecting used and new items from their friends to restock a home we didn’t yet have for a life of whose shape we weren’t sure.

I’m pretty sure they mentioned the giver’s name. But the problem was, there were so many names and gifts, and I was disoriented from all the changes that the gifts were still hard to take in. I’d traded one set of overwhelm for another.

On the first truly warm week of summer in Colorado Springs, I pulled the pink bike out of the garage of my parents’ house where we were staying. It took some adjusting to get the seat the right height and to figure out the gears. I had to remind myself that traffic flows on the right side of the road in America. But soon enough, I was moving and the wind was flipping my pony tail and my legs pushed strong.

And then, as I rounded the corner, I realized I hadn’t ridden a bike in 10 years.

The last time I’d ridden was when I was pregnant with my first child, living on a tiny island in Indonesia where my husband worked as a humanitarian pilot for a nonprofit organization. I remember trying to convince myself that the tropical heat, terrible bouts of morning sickness, rough roads, crazy motorbike traffic and neighborhood harasser weren’t adequate reasons to stop riding for a time. But my new motherly instinct won out over my normal risk-taking personality.

I didn’t give up jogging or writing or teaching English to neighborhood kids. But for reasons I can’t remember, I didn’t really ride much once I gave birth. And one day—three kids into motherhood—someone stopped by my house and asked if he could buy my now rusty bike. Without thinking much of it, I said yes.

Life filled with kids and culture and small airplanes and jungle adventures and serving and I didn’t really miss the bike. The next time I touched one, I was holding the back of my son’s bike, holding it steady, urging him to pedal, telling him to be brave.

It broke all our hearts to sell my kids’ childhood bikes that last week in Indonesia. The two small crates we were allotted filled up fast. We had a million choices to make, and the bikes just didn’t make the cut.

They’re just bikes, I told myself, while holding my son, watching someone leave our yard with his bike. It’s just a dollhouse. It’s just their baby clothes. It’s just their school table. It’s just a cat.

It’s just a house we’ve loved and a life we’ve built and friends we adore and the only country my kids have called home.

When I learned my uncle had found bikes for my kids, that knowledge kept me going through all the decisions we had to make. I guarded the news from my kids like a state secret so that we could all watch their excited faces at the unveiling once we got to the States. I hadn’t known, though, about the bikes he’d found for my husband and me. But when I saw all five of them lined up, I could see, for the first time, the building blocks of a new adventure.

Getting back on a bike several weeks after our arrival in Colorado was… like riding a bike…except…when it was harder than that. The angles on the roads felt too sharp, my agility less than I remembered it, the air too dry and thin. And when I needed to stop, I couldn’t seem to both jump off the seat and keep my feet from becoming entangled on various bike parts. I dumped it a couple of times, both times while others were watching.  I brushed the dirt off my hands, put on a smile and waved. “I’m OK. Just fine.”

“You always have a lot of energy to move forward,” my sister recently told me. “You’re good at it.”

She has a way of mirroring back who I am in a kind, affirming way.

I feel like I’ve spent my whole nomadic life honing what is probably also a natural part of my personality.  I can keep my eyes on my next step, look for the good in people and places, find ways to connect and put energy into building…building relationships, building a home, building a life. I’ve developed what may seem like a conflicted relationship with putting down roots and uprooting. I’m a wanderer and nomad at heart who intentionally grows roots wherever I land.

I’ve read much about “third culture kids,” this category of highly mobile people who’ve moved in and out of countries and cultures in their childhood. As an Army kid, I was one. Now I raise them. These past few years, I’ve been listening to what others are teaching about them, what I’ve experienced and what my kids are saying.

For all the beauty that a third culture kid lifestyle brings (understanding of and appreciation of a broader world, ability to adapt, a near-absence of prejudices, foreign language aptitude), these kids (and later, adults) know so well the world of loss. Sometimes the losses feel real and present, like loss of bikes and houses and friends and pets. Sometimes the losses are hidden and ambiguous loss, the unseen, hard-to-put-into-words losses such as dreams, confidence, identity and belonging.

For me, it’s actually easier to keep moving, keep building, keep Pollyanna-ing my way through hard things than to stop and grieve. Both taking the necessary time to mourn and also putting energy into moving forward can feel like a balancing act.

In late summer, I joined my dad on a bike ride on Cottonwood Trail at sunrise.  He’s so much better at biking in mile-high altitude than I am. I followed behind his smooth, quick pedaling with my own pumping heart loud in my ears. Soon, I had to shed my sweatshirt, and I stuck it in my backpack with my water and phone. I was still carrying so much else, too. All that was now missing from my life felt heavy. In so many ways, it felt hard to breathe.

“Watch the corners,” Dad coached. “Sometimes there are pedestrians out here, too. Also, be careful of sand.”

The ride was hard and tiring, but also freeing and empowering. And I soon found my own rhythm between pushing myself and pacing myself.

I found a way, too, to both keep my eyes mostly on the trail and also notice the beauty around me. Everything was pink—sky, mountains, rocks, my cheeks. And my bike.

Maybe I was starting to fit here. Maybe, too, I was finding my way.

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

Rebecca Hopkins wants to help people feel heard, seen and welcome. She spent the first half of her life moving around as an Army kid and the past 14 years trying to grow roots on three different Indonesian islands while her husband took to the skies as a pilot. She now works in Colorado for Paraclete Mission Group and writes about issues related to non-profit and cross-cultural work. Trained a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding, and truths that last longer than her latest address. You can find her online at www.rebeccahopkins.org.

How to Help Our Kids Say Healthy Goodbyes

My kids have to say a lot of goodbyes.

We live in Djibouti but my husband and I are both from Minnesota. Our family spends some summers in Minnesota and when we leave Africa, we have to say goodbye to friends and coaches and teachers. Then, come August, when we return to Africa, we have to say goodbye to grandparents and friends and cousins.

Other goodbyes are more permanent. Expatriate families come and go often here. Military and diplomatic families have two-year postings. Businesses move their employees on. Development workers finish projects and leave. Families leave for health reasons, for children’s education, because of insecurity, because they are finished with their work. Local families send children abroad for a French education in Europe or an English one in Canada or the United States.

One spring my daughter had to say goodbye to one of her best friends. They finished fourth grade, the friend was moving to Europe, my daughter was staying. I thought I would have to help with the goodbye – maybe give some ideas or provide some words for how to talk about what they were feeling.

And though we did talk about it, my daughter excelled in love her friend well and in saying goodbye wisely. She showed me how to do those things selflessly and creatively. 

Here’s what she did:

Got Personal. She wanted to give her friend something unique and precious, something that would remind her of their friendship, not a quick toy or bag of candy. She looked at the store and she also looked through my box of gift ideas. Then she saw two matching picture frames in a box in our storage area. I’d had them for years and never used them. Each was 8×10 and covered with sparkly stones. The outer edge was looping wire – perfect. That led into the next idea:

Created Memories. She scoured my computer for photos of the girls together. The next time her friend came over to play, they printed the photos and designed photo pages, slathering them with stickers and phrases cut out from magazines that made them giggle and reminded them of shared memories. Each girl decorated two photos. One to go in the frame and one extra. They signed the back of the frame with their names and hearts.

Kept Memories. She also made her own photo page. She wanted to remember her friend, too. Sometimes it is harder to be the one left behind, the hole seems so noticeable, while the friend who moves away is on to the next adventure. She made her own frame and photo page and propped it up in a prominent place on her bookshelf.

Took Time and Used Her Talent. Two days before the final departure, she and a third friend wrote an original song for the girl who was leaving. The two girls practiced it with me for several days, then performed it and recorded it and gave the girl a sheet of paper with the words written down.

My daughter didn’t cry while she practiced the song with me, but I did. I still do, sometimes, when we watch the video.

Goodbyes will always be hard, but they are also opportunities to help our children remember a good friend with delight and to help them celebrate. I believe this contributes to resiliency and a willingness to engage in the next friendship that comes along, without dreading the sadness of the inevitable goodbyes.

How do you help your kids say goodbye well?