(September 14, 2016) Erica Grace, ex-missionary to South America, challenges us to understand and appreciate ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of a missionary kid’s life.
The enthusiastic Sunday school teacher asked the class: ‘Who wants to be a missionary when they grow up?’
‘Ugh! Not me!’ I muttered under my breath.
You see, I was already a missionary kid (MK for short) and couldn’t see what all the hype was about being a missionary! At that time all I could see were the bad things.
Most MKs’ lives are full of constant upheaval.
I was entering year nine and had already been in five different schools, in three different nations and three different languages! We had moved so often I never had a chance to really make long term friends. No, not a glamorous life at all!
MK school trip
Whether in your ‘home country’ or ‘host’ country the MK is the odd one out. Everyone is constantly asking: ‘Where are you from?’ Even if you’re born in the host country people can see you are different and you stand out. Neither you nor your family look like them and so you are a bit of a curiosity.
Even when you return to your ‘home country’ you still feel like a foreigner. This is your parents’ home country, and you meet your parents’ extended family but you’re still the odd one out. You are not up to date with changes in this society, the recent news, or cultural norms.
Imagine how ridiculed I was when we went back to USA for furlough and everyone was talking about ‘Dr Pepper.’ I decided to be part of the conversation by innocently asking: ‘What kind of doctor is he?’ Well, you can imagine the rest. Who would have thought someone would name a drink ‘Dr Pepper’!
One common and highly frustrating factor for an MK is the extremely high expectations put on us ‘just because our parents are missionaries!’ Do people think missionaries are more holy, or another breed of Christians?
This happens in both cultures, both at home and abroad. I remember being singled out by a national pastor because I was chewing gum at a camp meeting. He told me publicly how disgraceful this was and what a bad example I was setting for the rest of the youth especially since I was the ‘missionary daughter’! Ugh! They expected us to know the whole Bible, to be able to play every instrument, to be perfect saints. That’s a heavy unnecessary burden.
But the expectations also come from the parents. Whether intentionally or unintentionally the message you receive is ‘make me look good.’ So typically the MK feels an overwhelming pressure not to mar his parents’ reputation. Everything one does, says and even the clothes one wears would reflect on the parents. It’s a very suffocating experience because there is practically no one with which the MK can just be natural.
Education is one of those things that often fall through the cracks. You often see gaps between the education done in the host nation and then the further education in the home nation. Our children went to a missionary kids’ school run by Americans with an American curriculum, hence they knew everything about the 50 states of the USA and American history but hardly knew anything about Australian history!
One of the most difficult things is that the parents – who are the missionaries – don’t particularly understand what the MK is struggling with. They’ve had their formative years in one country and are in a sense, mono-culture. They were raised and grew up in their land and when they were adults were called to another land. They see everything from that stand point.
The MK, on the other hand, generally was not raised consistently in one culture and so his formative years were rooted in two or even more different cultures. This child cannot explain to his parents why he’s not thrilled to be going back ‘home’ for the simple reason that to him – it doesn’t feel like home. In other words, the MK struggles with some issues alone. Only another MK would understand him fully. (Note: I’m using ‘he’ in these reflections but of course MKs of both sexes are intended).
At that time of my life I couldn’t appreciate the good things about being an MK – but there are many.
For example, MKs tend to travel a lot. That in itself is a wonderful education. They get a whole different perspective of the world and different cultures. They are interested in international affairs and people groups. They understand what a dictatorship is, or a ‘coup d’état’ for instance. Many have experienced them.
In most cases MKs are used to meeting the ‘cream of the crop’ in Christian circles and also secular circles. I didn’t realise it was actually an honour to meet such renown people close up and personal, many staying in our home!
The MK has the ability to be proficient in languages. Whether the MK is born in the host nation or arrives as a child he will pick up the language much faster than his parents, and can actually speak without an accent. Some MKs pick up not only the language but the dialects as well.
The MK adapts cross-culturally very easily and is a keen observer and absorber of cultural nuances. Inadvertently he picks mannerisms, body language and even facial expressions unique to that culture. He often does this more effectively than his parents who may struggle with these things for a long while. But this is why among MKs a favourite topic of conversation is ‘culture.’ This also makes the MK more empathetic to other people and less prejudicial.
Because the MK is used to travelling and moving frequently he has a high degree of flexibility. This person is not fazed if changes have to be made at the last minute, he will just roll with the punches.
And then there’s the ugly – the downright painful
Because the MK is aware of frequent changes he values friendships more deeply than monoculture kids do. He tends to invest a lot more of himself in every friendship which often isn’t reciprocated in the same measure. This can be very painful.
The MK has a lot of knowledge but it’s not particularly relevant at ‘home.’ No one will ever ask him to name the five highest peaks of the Andes Mountains, for example. His knowledge is not appreciated or even recognised.
The MK tends to find monoculture kids superficial. The monoculture kid, on the other hand, finds the MK too intense, a bit arrogant, with very strong opinions and deep convictions. I was once asked by a monoculture kid: ‘What is the capital of South America?’ I burst out laughing and said: ‘Good grief! Are you serious?’ I didn’t realise that he saw me as arrogant, and I could hardly believe his ignorance. Didn’t he know South America is made up of 12 countries?
MKs are notoriously independent. The MK will try to figure things out for himself and finds it hard to ask for help. He’s been brought up with the understanding that missionaries are here to help others, not realising that he, too, has needs. Sometimes this can have detrimental effects.
But I think the greatest pain for the MK comes when he realises that he can never really go ‘home.’ There’s a part of his being that will feel homesick at times, but not necessarily for a geographical location. Not surprisingly, an MK typically loves to talk about heaven. That is where we know for sure we are ‘home’- what a day that will be!
How to help MKs
In a personal way, one of the things that help the MK the most is to have a stable family. If Dad and Mom have a strong marriage, then he will be more stable. Together with the stability of the family, his own personal relationship with the Lord will enable the MK to transverse through the different stages of life. It’s good to know that we serve a Lord that never changes! ‘I am the Lord, I change not!’ (Malachi 3:6) is part of the compass of life.
From the church’s standpoint, if they support a missionary family they need to be made aware of each member of that family. Each individual member is important, not just the parents. It is good to have intercessory prayer for the children, noticing their ages, paying attention to where they were born.
When the family returns ‘home’ have people ready to engage with the MKs. Ask intelligent questions, like: What sort of sports are played in your host nation? Do you play it? What is their food like? Which is your favourite food? Can you teach us a few phrases in the other language? Show us in a map where you live.
So, am I glad I was an MK? Yes, now I am.
The good has far outweighed the bad and the ugly, the painful. It has given me the skills I needed for the life God had ordained for me both as a mother and a missionary, raising a family overseas. I understand my children and we’ve modified our life style so our kids could enjoy their experience as MKs while watching out for the pitfalls.
But … I still long for heaven… Home!
Erica Grace is author of Foundations for the Family, a biblical teaching series suitable for whole congregations. Warmly welcomed itinerant ministers, she and her husband, Chris, are also on the ACC Multinational Pastors Team, Victoria. Links: firstname.lastname@example.org / (041) 270 2945