In 1980 we carried a baby onto a plane bound for the mission field of Taiwan. We didn’t plan to return to the States for four years. That baby and another one yet to be born would grow up in Taiwan, but we had to look past that. Someday they would want to return to the States for college. Unless the Lord called them to be missionaries in Taiwan or some other Chinese country, they would have to fit into American culture. Actually, no matter what they did as adults, they would need to be able to fit into American culture on furloughs. Even in foreign countries they would likely have American friends they would need to understand. Little did we know then that the Lord would lead us away from Taiwan during their high school years and move us to a very different country of New Zealand.
Last month’s blog talked about adapting to the culture of the host country, but we were aware that our kids also needed to be able to interact in their home country. They wouldn’t be able to keep up with all the latest TV commercials which, for some reason, form such a strong part of American culture. But we needed to help them understand American culture as well as the cultures of their host countries.
1. Give your kids a regional identity.
“Where are you from?” Generally MK’s hate this question. They hardly know where to begin to answer. If they say they are from some foreign country, other kids may disconnect because they can’t relate, or even feel your kids are showing off.
People don’t mean that to be a trick question. They are just looking for connections. Giving your kids a regional identity with some part of your home country will give your kids more connections. It gives them a group to belong to. Face it, in their home country, almost no one will be from the country they grew up in.
We realized that Americans have, not just a national identity, but a regional one. Art and I grew up in Montana and Colorado. That American sub-culture is different from the South or California or the Northeast. Our kids needed a regional identity too.
In Montana, our furlough home, people hunt, fish, climb mountains, and chop wood. None of these activities seemed very important in Taiwan, but our girls needed to know what it meant to “come from Montana.” We did take our kids hiking. On furlough we sent our kids to Bible camp in Montana. We tried to give our kids a taste of the farm and the mountains. Furlough gave them the opportunity to meet our friends and their kids. We never succeeded in making them avid campers, but we tried to give them enough activities in those places to at least give them some sort of regional identity.
2. Avoid disposable friendships.
“Friendships are disposable.” I remember thinking this as a teen. My dad was a church planter, and because of some special circumstances in his ministry at that time, I moved at least once a year during high school. One year I went to three schools the first month. I finished up the year at the school I liked the least. I didn’t fit in and finally decided that I didn’t have to make friends there. I just had to get through the school year. In time I revised that a bit, but you can see how friendships seemed disposable.
Many MK’s visit a different church every Sunday during furloughs. Even if they are friendly, many American teens aren’t prepared to make friendships that quickly. Short term friendships can be valuable too. Sometimes short term friendships come back around as you get older.
Help your kids to understand that life is enriched by many kinds of friendships. Help them to keep in contact with some of their friends. Email and Facebook makes that easier than it was in years past.
Kids can also benefit from friendships with adults. They can extend their family with “aunts and uncles” who are co-workers on the field or take a special interest them in their home country. We had some adults that worked hard to stay connected with our kids. My daughter Lori writes, “Whether the relationships MK’s make are with kids or adults, In the States of on the field, these meaningful relationships can easily last a lifetime if they keep in touch.
Make the effort to help your kids build relationships with people in your supporting churches so that when they leave home they will realize they have friends in their home country who care about them.
3. Visit well-known national places while you are on furlough.
You have to travel anyway. Go the extra mile to see historical places, see national parks, or do fun activities. Research ahead of time so your kids will understand the significance of where you are going. One thing you kids may not get overseas is the significance of being a citizen of your home country. They may never be as patriotic as the average citizen, but they do need to gain some understanding of why a citizen feels proud of his country.
Years ago most Americans felt a strong pride for their country, many feeling it was the best in the world. Sometimes today they have the opposite problem. Politics and problems have stolen their pride to the point they aren’t even respectful of government leaders.
Missionary parents need to give their kids pride in and respect for both their host country and their home country. They need to help them see the good and deal with the bad realistically.
4. Choose books and DVD’s that will help your kids understand the culture of their home country in a good way.
Helping your kids become comfortable in two cultures may be a big task, but it is well worth it. It will help them reach adulthood with a positive attitude about their MK experience.
Jordan Axtell is a fictional missionary kid in my two most recent books. In Broken Windows Jordan comes to terms with some of the issues M.K.’s face. He is especially haunted by the fact that his parents have been faithful missionaries, but seen little fruit for their labor. Broken Windows is currently free for Kindle through Tuesday, June 14. This weekend I launched Deja Who?, Book 2 in the same series. In that book, Jordan finds himself especially suited for a ministry to international students because he grew up in Taiwan.
You can find Broken Windows here.
You can find Deja Who? here.