You might be a missionary kid if…
You frequently can’t think of a word in your native language, and it’s common to speak two or even three languages in one conversation.
You call a baseball a football, because the closest thing you’ve seen is a soccer ball, which is called football pretty much everywhere but in America!
Your first word as a baby was not in your “native” language.
Your favorite foods are unfamiliar – make that unpronounceable – to friends and family in your native country.
You are completely unaware that openly peeing at a public park is not considered appropriate behavior in some places.
International travel is a common place activity. Trans-atlantic flights are no longer new and exciting. Jet lag is a familiar foe.
“Going back home” actually refers to returning to the country where your family serves, not the one where you (or at least your parents) were born.
I’ve shared in previous posts that I became a missionary kid at twelve years old, along with four younger siblings. Now, I’m raising my own two kids on the mission field – a three year old daughter, Nora, and a nine month old son, Titus. Being a missionary kid was probably one of the most formative aspects of my childhood. It affected my worldview, my values, faith, interests, language skills, and even the way that I process my thoughts and experiences. Josh and I hope that God will use our kids’ missionary childhood to shape them, as well.
A recent trip to my childhood home, Kyiv with my kids, mom and sister
I want to point out right from the start that much of this post probably applies not only to missionary kids, but to many expat children, whether their family is in missions, military service, or working abroad. It’s also important to be clear that the experience of missionary kids varies significantly, depending on a whole host of factors. For example, are both parents of the same nationality? Did they grow up in the same national culture? How many languages are spoken in the home? Was a child born in their native country or in the country where they now live? Does the child attend public or private school, or are they homeschooled? Do the parents encourage their kids to blend into the culture, speak the language, socialize with people native to their “new” country?
Within my own family (extended and immediate), we have very different missionary family situations. My siblings and I were raised on the mission field by parents who were both born and raised in Indiana. Our ages ranged from twelves years to three months when we first came to Ukraine, and my youngest brother has spent over seventeen of his twenty-two years here. I’ve lived a shorter time here, comparitively, but some of my teenage and young adult years, which are extremely formative, were spent in Ukraine.
Now that we’re all adults, I have siblings in three different countries: two in Ukraine, one in America and one in Finland. My brother who serves at a church in Finland, where he is married to a Finnish woman and has three children who were born there, all citizens of Finland, not America. Their home is truly a blended culture, and they speak Swedish (mom’s native tongue) and English (dad’s native tongue) regularly.
Our family (Josh and mine) is culturally blended, but in a different way. We were both born and spent many years in America, but I have long considered Ukraine home. Our oldest child was born in Indiana, but was sixteen months old when we moved to L’viv. Our son, Titus, was born here and as of yet has never been to the States. Josh speaks English with our kids; I speak English with Nora and Russian with Titus. Titus recently spoke his first word (other than Mama and Papa), and it was in Russian, not English! Josh, Nora and I are all learning Ukrainian, so there are commonly three languages spoken (or at least attempted at!) in our home.
Travel is a regular part of life for our missionary kids – trains, buses, airplanes…
A huge part of being raised in another country is learning to “fit in” wherever you are. For those who are born abroad or move overseas very young – infants and toddlers – there is less of an adjustment, since they are basically being brought up in that new country from the start. Even for those children, though, there are plenty of differences between the culture and language in the society around them and in their home, which will inevitably include aspects of their parents’ birth country.
For kids who move at a later age, like me at age twelve, there is a much bigger adjustment process. I’ve spoken with numerous missionary kids who were older when they moved; my own experience confirms what they have told me. Many times, as an older kid, you don’t want to “leave home,” leave your friends, schools, social lives, and all that is familiar to you. It can be extremely difficult at first to feel at home in your new environment.
There are already established social circles in your new country, so you have to struggle to find your place, all the while dealing with homesickness. You have to adjust to new foods and smells, something that comes much more naturally to younger children. The older you are, the harder it can be to learn a new language. I remember being embarrassed by all the mistakes I made when learning to speak Russian – it’s hard for a kid to shrug off the laughter and jokes made by even well-meaning people around you when you’re trying so hard to fit in.
When you move to a new country, you inevitably deal with culture shock. Even the smallest things can seem strange or be an adjustment – some of these things you would never even think about until you see them for yourself.
In Ukraine, for example, many people do not have air conditioning in their homes or screens on their windows. Light switches are about waist high, and bathroom light switches are always outside the bathroom door. Most bathrooms are divided, toilet in one room – sink and shower/tub in the other. Often, plumbing is bad, so you have to throw used toilet paper in a trash can, rather than the toilet. In public places, many toilets are “squat pots,” a ceramic platform on the ground with a hole to squat over.
Signs in bathroom stalls in Ukraine – the first one telling you not to put toilet paper in the bowl, the second one…pretty obvious, I guess!
Most people live in apartments in the cities, and there aren’t subdivisions outside the center of town, like in American cities. Instead, houses are located primarily in small villages on city outskirts. Generally speaking, there aren’t the same economic-class divisions in residential areas. You don’t have as many “good” and “bad” neighborhoods, like you do in the States. Here it is common to see a billion dollar mansion built next to an old, dilapidated village house with a cow in the back yard.
Three different houses in the same small village outside L’viv
New and old apartment buildings in L’viv
Roads can be in horrific conditions – pot holes like I’ve never seen in American cities. Most people use public transportation – buses, trams, trollies, subway, and it’s not uncommon for them to be so full of people that the doors barely close! Public transport is considered safe, even for young children without their parents. For those who have cars, seat belts are hardly ever used – in fact, you might even get strange looks from people if you put yours on (that is, if the car even has them to begin with)!
When you consider all these differences individually, they aren’t a big deal. But as a pre-teen or teenage kid moving abroad for this first time, knowing this is to be your home, your new norm, it can be incredibly intimidating. The fact is that seemingly every little part of your life is now different than all you’ve known before. For many missionary kids, that fact is enough to make you want to turn on your heels and high tail it back onto the airplane that took you away from “home.”
Thankfully, graciously, God doesn’t leave you in that moment of panic. I shared in a previous post, Childhood in a Post Soviet Country, that God used our move to Ukraine to grow me up and to develop my faith in Him. I consider it one of the best experiences of my life, and I know that many other missionary kids go through that same process – first being angry and hating their new world, coming to acceptance, and then being totally transformed and impassioned by missionary life.
Reverse Culture Shock – What is Home?
Part of adjusting to your new home is truly accepting all those big and small differences as normal. As you do, your sense of the familiar, even of what constitutes “home” changes. What many people may not realize it that missionary kids, because they’ve adjusted to their new lives, often struggle to re-adjust to their native countries when they visit. Things have changed in that place, and they have changed, too. In fact, as a missionary kid, you often make as many blunders returning to your native country as you did initially in your “new” home.
I vividly remember my first furlough back to the States at thirteen years old. It had only been one year on the mission field, and while I had finally learned to love Ukraine, I was thrilled to “go back home,” as I still considered Indiana at the time. To my shock and amazement, when we returned, I quickly realized that I was no longer the same person, and this was no longer home in the same way it had always been.
Right off the bat, I felt out of place. We had just arrived to the Chicago O’Hare airport, and I was in the bathroom, washing my hands. I couldn’t find paper towels, so I went to the hand dryer on the wall and proceeded to look everywhere for the button to turn the thing on. Why is there no button? Not at the side…no…not the other side…what in the world?! I don’t recall whether I saw someone else use another dryer or if I eventually managed to pull my foggy brain out of long-airplane-flight-mode enough to figure out my first experience with an automatic hand dryer. But I do remember that feeling of embarrassment…looking around, wondering how many people were laughing at this kid who was apparently too stupid to figure out such a simple machine. Of course, they had no idea that I’d never seen one of these before! Back in those days, Ukraine barely had hand dryers at all! Or paper towels…or soap in bathrooms that, if you were lucky, had cold running water.
This is a crucial moment for a missionary kid. It’s hard enough in your pre-teen and teenage years to not feel ashamed of stupid things you say or do (and let’s face it – there are plenty of those moments!), but there’s an added level of embarrassment when you know that this particular thing you just said or did makes you look even dumber, even weirder, because it’s not “normal.” In that moment, you have a choice. You can give in to those burning cheeks, drop your eyes, hide and hope against all hope that nobody saw…or you can learn to laugh at yourself.
Over the years, my family (first my parents and siblings, and now Josh and I, as we watch our kids) have laughed good and hard about the ridiculous things we’ve said and done because we were raised overseas.
As I said before, my youngest brother was only three months old when we moved to Kyiv. His first time back in the States, he thought every playground set in someone’s backyard was a public park, because most people in Kyiv lived in apartments and no-one had a private playground set. My mom had to constantly tell him, “No, I’m sorry, we can’t go play there!”
Whenever I am in the States, I frequently have to stop mid-conversation because I can only remember a word in Russian, not English. Oh, the looks you get, staring mutely into space as you try to summon those words!!
One of my brothers was amazed by the concept of sending mail via mailbox (you have to send from the post office here). He joked that it was a “magical box, and when you put up the flag, the mail just disappears!”
When these same two brothers were teenagers, they were back in the States and went to a movie theater. They stood with their tickets at the entrance, looking awkwardly at the attendant, and finally just asked him where their seats were, because movie seats are assigned in Ukraine!
Culture shock is a very real thing, but I had never imagined that I would have culture shock returning to my native country. In some ways, I think “reverse culture shock” is worse, because you expect to feel natural in this old environment, but you don’t. It’s important to understand that missionary kids often do not feel 100% at home anywhere they go.
Even in their native country, they may be unaware of current slang and social trends (this is much easier to keep up with nowadays, due to social media). They speak differently now that they have learned another language. I remember a friend in Indiana once asked me if it’s normal to say the word “yes” or “no” repeatedly in Russian – to say, for example, “Yes, yes, yes, I did get that message from you.” I had to stop and think – yeah, that’s normal in Russian speech. It had never occurred to me that I had adopted that into my English speech, as well, and that this was not “normal.”
As a missionary kid back in your native country, you often find that you’re different from everyone around you – different sense of humor, different style of dress, different interests and VERY different experiences. Once again, you may find yourself homesick, only now it’s for your new home, your new norm. At the same time, you are usually excited to visit family and old friends, to have those long-anticipated foods you can’t get on the field, and to visit favorite places you’ve missed. It’s a strange thing to find yourself in between two worlds, two homes.
A missionary kid experiences many emotions when visiting their native country.
(photo credits in image captions)
Helping a missionary kid feel at home…wherever they are!
I share all of this partially to give you a glimpse into my life and the life of my family. More importantly, though, I hope that this post will give you a greater understanding of any missionary kids you know or might meet in the future. If you visit them on the field, know that they are thrilled to introduce you to their world, and take an interest in every little thing they show you. If you meet them while they are on furlough, please remember that “home” is a complicated idea for them and they may be feeling pretty out of place – your support will mean the world to them. Ask them about their lives, interests, experiences, and be a listening ear when they’re struggling to understand their feelings. Very simply put, be a friend!