by Bill Loewen
Specific things parents can do to smooth some of the painful adjustments.
I am a missionary’s kid (MK). I returned to North America alone at the age of 17, after spending most of my growing up years overseas. My time in other countries included the highest peaks of joy in my life, and the corresponding low valleys of pain. Two decades later, my emotions roller-coaster as I think about those years. I am a world citizen, having enjoyed the privilege of exploring three continents. I painfully started over in three schools, on three continents, in three successive years of high school. I made lifelong friends. I said goodbyes too many times. I learned to live in a culture foreign to my own. I am still not sure where I belong.
My parents cried, hugged, and kissed me as I boarded a plane in Zambia leaving for North America (the continent my parents had always called “home”) to make my own life alone. I left my parents knowing I did not belong to the culture in which they lived.
I returned home and spent the first days gratifying my desires for hamburgers, TV, and pizza. The luster of my arrival soon tarnished as I realized that I did not share much with my peers. I did not share their interests in sports or cars with mag wheels. I felt claustrophobic in the rigid churches.
I tired quickly of being a foreign novelty without close friends. I did not feel understood by anyone. I stayed home. I cried. I wrote many letters to my true friends overseas, and wondered where I fit in. If I was home, why did I feel like a foreigner?
The process of adopting North America as home took years. Depression set in periodically, surprising me at how near the surface of my consciousness it lurked. At college, a friend’s jealousy of my perceived freedom to go skiing over Christmas while she had to go home triggered a painful period.
I wrote my parents, “I want to visit you.” I could not use the words, “I want to come home.” I flew to Africa for six weeks. I visited my old school. I petted my dogs. I vacationed on the beach. I was not home. My high school friends were gone—the place was hollow. My parents were used to being alone; I was an intruder. This was not home. I realized I had to look into the future to find myself.
In 1981, I read an article in The Mennonite titled, “What’s it Like to be an MK?” by Mary Kauffman. Mary asked a group of MKs in Taiwan what home was to them. I raged for days after reading their mixed-up responses. Couldn’t the author see their pain?
I thought eight years of processing had resolved my emotions, until I joined the Mennonite Central Committee as personnel administrator in 1989. I found myself recruiting families to go overseas. Parents asked me what the future held for their children in the countries where MCC wanted them to go. How could I share the joy and pain of my experience? Struggling to help other parents discern the best options for their family assisted me to clarify my thoughts on my life as an MK.
In my experience, younger and older children interact differently with their environment. Although I believe babies are born with strong genetic characteristics, they are also like sponges that indiscriminately absorb their environment. Small children seem to pick up language and local customs with no effort. Parents rue the disappearance of a second language in their pre-schooler a few months after returning to North America.
Small children can experience culture shock. It is my perception, however, that a small child’s universe is more centered on his or her family. A small child’s security will be more tied to a family’s strength and stability than to the external environment.
Older children, as they reach their teens, differentiate themselves from family. The absorption of environment slows, and the experimentation of “Who am I?” increases. Teens will test their environment. They will practice their social skills. They flirt, date, send messages out to other teens around them and adjust to the messages they receive back. The differences in themessages a teen receives from the environment versus the family during the timeofdifferentiation are critical.
Parents should be aware of the messages, explicit and implicit, that they give their children about where “home” is. As a parent, ask yourself, Do I expect my children to be North American? If you are raising your children in another culture, will you be happy if they adopt that culture as home and raise their own children there? The first step in a child’s security is the clarity and honesty parents have of who they are and who their children are. Parents teach cultural identity to their kids.
The gap between a cultural identity taught by parents, and the cultural identity learned through the interaction with environment during teen years, can be the source of much insecurity and pain. The narrower the gap, the greater the potential for security and stability. The wider the gap, the greater the potential for culture shock when he or she returns to the culture the parents called home. Some kids are able to withstand greater shocks than others.
Here are ways I have found that parents can either close the identity gap, or strengthen their child to deal with the gap.
1. Assess each child’s development needs and choose the appropriate school arrangement. Options for MKs include home schools, local schools, correspondence schools, boarding schools, and international schools. All of them have strengths and weaknesses. Not all are available worldwide.
Knowing your children and choosing the appropriate school setting is critical. I have counseled families who terminated their overseas service early because their children could not adapt to their choice of school. I have listened to the pain of MKs whose family stayed on their service terms overseas while they suffered in schools they hated.
2. Acknowledge and legitimize the pain your children feel when you move. Telling your child that your door is open whenever they want to talk is not enough. Telling your child there will probably be rough spots during a move and periodically asking them how they are feeling are important. Taking initiative to talk with your child can prevent many unspoken cries for help.
3. Whenever possible, travel individually with each child. It is a universal rule in parenting that individual attention for a child strengthens his or her sense of security. This becomes even more critical when the cultural environment outside the family is foreign. The number of MKs who have shared warm memories about times they traveled overseas with one parent is striking.
4. Give your child every opportunity possible to socialize in a setting with other kids of the culture you call home. The older the child, the more critical this becomes. Some privacy and distance from parents is needed during these opportunities, which include vacations, church experiences, social visits, shared meals, or any kind of contact where kids can learn and practice socialization that will be needed in the culture they will return to.
5. Do some fun things as a family. The low valleys of identity pain can be countered with delightful memories of camping, hiking, and exploring exotic places. A grinding family experience of parents being married to Christian service, and dragging kids along as an afterthought, will probably destroy a child’s identity.
6. Family rituals and customs are important. I know families whose identity is based on activities outside the family. They rarely eat together, talk, or see each other as a family during a normal day. In settings where the external environment changes drastically, such as a cross-cultural move, this can be stressful. Families that already have internal rituals that can be a source of security may weather changes in the environment more easily.
At this point in my life, the good memories outweigh the pain. I still cry easily when I talk about my MK experience. I hope I can take my two daughters overseas and give them some of the joy I had growing up in other cultures and minimize the pain. Inmy daughters, I find that I have an anchor that allows me to enter foreignculturesknowing that I have a home somewhere else. May God grant me the wisdom to provide them with their own anchor and not just use them as mine.
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