Transition back into the “home culture” is another huge adjustment in an MK’s life. This stage is also known as “reentry.” This happens when the MK leaves the mission field and returns to his parents’ home country, often permanently.
This is a stage that deserves a lot of attention since it is usually very stressful and emotionally volatile for MKs as they try to adjust to this new, and possibly permanent “foreign” culture.
I have put a lot of thought into how to word this post because this is a serious topic. It is absolutely imperative that a lot of consideration be put into how to ease this transition for MKs before they are sent back to the home culture. Like Moses’ mother did not just throw him into the Nile river to fend for himself, but she built a basket of reeds to protect him, so must parents of MKs put some effort into the preparations for their own kids going out into the “river” of another country/culture. Moses’ mother made an effort to keep him safe, yet also released him into God’s hands on that river. Releasing them and trusting God to watch over them when you are not there is probably the hardest part for the parents, but both are necessary.
Often when MKs come to the United States for college, they go through a form of culture shock. It is complicated because they may not have expected to experience this, since technically they may be “Americans.”
Often there are expectations that have been built up before the MK comes back and that can actually make it harder for them when those expectations are not met. They may be imagining fitting in and being like everyone around them for a change, only to find that, in spite of their similar appearance to their peers, they are absolutely a foreigner. This can lead to a lot of confusion and frustration in the MK, and even in some cases, depression.
I remember coming back to the States for a year as a child. I had such high hopes of how amazing the “States” was going to be and how I was going to drink Dr. Pepper and be with all of these “friends” I thought I had waiting for me from before we had gone to the mission field. I remember pulling into the driveway of the rental house we were going to be in for that year and seeing some of these “friends” waiting for us. As soon as I got out of the car and saw one of my friends, I could see such disappointment in her face. I was not what she was expecting. She was wearing tons of make-up, huge earrings and had amazing hair, and I was standing there in tennis shoes, shorts and a 101 Dalmatians t- shirt. Right then I knew that on some level, I was not what I was supposed to be in the eyes of my peers. A couple of girls at school decided to take it upon themselves to humiliate me publicly that year at school, from mocking my clothes to calling me the “missionary kid from hell.” That was just a very hard year, full of disappointed hopes about this big fantasy called “America” that I had built up in my mind. Though I loved parts of it, like seeing relatives, and traveling and drinking Dr. Pepper, I could not wait to get back to Peru where I could just be loved for me.
By the time we had our second furlough and I was in high school, I decided to just keep my head down and get through that year. That’s exactly what I did. I was very quiet and just endured that school year.
With that in the background, approaching college and a permanent return to America was not something I was really looking forward to. In my mind, I thought I could just get through college and hightail it back to the mission field in some capacity and then…exhale. But, our stories very rarely turn out the way we plan them…because we are not really the ones writing them. How often we forget that…that even the pain is written into our lives by the nail scarred hands of the One who loves us with a love that is deeper than pain and higher than pleasure and wider than we could ever fathom.
Now, as I go forward talking about reentry, keep in mind that I am pulling from my own experiences, the experiences of many MKs that I know and also again from the book, “Third Culture Kids” (please buy this book. Just please buy it and read it. It will take 20 seconds and you will have it on your kindle. You won’t regret it.)
Soon after coming back to the US, it is common for MKs to go through a lot of confusion about who they are. It does not take long for them to realize that they are not altogether American, contrary to what their passport says.
An illustration for this phenomena is to describe the MKs’ parents as yellow people. They come from a land of yellow people. Then they move to a land of blue people. Their children are not yellow, but they are not blue either. They are green. The greens don’t really fit with the yellows or blues. They are their own unique culture that is neither and both of the original cultures at the same time.
Obviously this can lead to feeling “out of cultural balance.” You do not understand your peers and they do not understand you. You look just like your peers, but you do not think like them. You want to assimilate and fit in, but something in you feels like that would be a betrayal to your previous culture. Top that off with dealing with grief from recent loss of the life/culture/identity that you had before and that is a difficult combination.
There are 3 common responses of MKs to this season of changing cultural worlds. (These are taken from the TCK book by Ruth Van Reken that I mentioned above).
The first common response is to become a chameleon. An MK will observe and try to become what he sees around him in order to fit in. This is a response where you hide your past because it is too painful to carry into the present. I took this approach toward the end of college. I missed Peru so deeply, and it was completely gone to me because my parents had left the field, so I tried to shut down that part of my life.
The second kind of response is where the MK has to announce their differences on a loud speaker. They are the ones wearing the toga to class. They have to make sure they stand out and emotionally scream “I am not like you.” They are afraid of losing their past. They are clinging to the past at the expense of the present. This approach can keep them from the very friendships that would bring healing and comfort.
The third response is where the MK retreats like a wallflower. This response can look like isolating oneself in studies and avoiding people, or escaping into a hobby or music to avoid reality. This response often masks depression.
There are so many more complex issues that go into the reentry phase and it would be almost impossible to fully describe or explain them in a blog. That is why I strongly recommend doing your own research and thoroughly looking into these things for yourself before the transition takes place.
I have some thoughts to share with parents of MKs that I am taking from the TCK book chapter on reentry. While not all of these things may be possible options, again, knowing your own family, resources and networks in the US can help you come up with your own plan for your child’s transition.
Hear what the author has to say about parental responsibility in this transition:
“Parents must remember that they have the ultimate responsibility for helping the children through reentry. This is such a basic fact that it almost seems silly to say, but, believe it or not, we’ve seen TCKs arrive at universities with no clear idea of where they will go for long weekends, during school breaks, or even during summer vacations. It seems as if parents have shipped them back home while they remain in another country in the rather vague, blissful assumption that everything will work out by itself—perhaps relying on other relatives to take care of their children, even when those relationships have never been nurtured. It’s not enough to presume that relatives at home will automatically pitch in to take care of a “homeless” TCK. We can’t state this point strongly enough. Any time parents send their children back home (and also to a different country altogether for university as sometimes happens) while they themselves remain overseas, parents are still responsible for making sure their children are protected and cared for. It’s their absolute responsibility to make sure their children have a designated “home-away-from-home.”
Pollock, David C.; Van Reken, Ruth E. (2010-11-26). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (p. 232). Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
While there is no way to make this easy or completely painless, there are things that parents can do to make it as painless as possible.
One thing that can help is to plan to bring your MK back “home” on their breaks from school for Christmas, even summer, or part of it, just so they can touch base with that part of their lives and feel connected to that foundation once again. Another thing is to make sure that practical things are taken care of such as, banking. Most MKs have never had a bank account or written a check before. It is all new. Learning those things before they are in front of their peers at college can save a lot of embarrassment. From driving practice to currency to how to dress for winter weather… don’t assume anything when they have not grown up here. They are from a different world. Even as an adult, I keep learning practical things that I just never had to deal with…like driving on snow and ice.
Another thing that can help greatly is having these conversations beforehand. If they are aware that there could and probably will be some big bumps in the road, they won’t be caught off guard when their bubble of expectation is burst and they find themselves feeling so foreign no matter where they go.
To MKs themselves I would say, I wish I could sit down over coffee, or Inca Kola, look you in the eye and say, “When you come back to the US, above all, you must find a church and stick with it. It will not feel like home. It will not feel like your dad’s church, but you must stick with ONE church. Don’t visit a different one every week because you cannot be known and loved and cared for if you are never there. Get involved. Go to a small group or Sunday school and let yourself be known. I would tell them that people do not have to understand you in order to love you. It’s OK that you are different. There are amazing people here who want to know you. Don’t push them away because you are aching for the people you have left behind. I would say, let people minister to you right now. I know that as MKs we do it all for everyone, but allow yourself to receive from the body of Christ. Let them in. Find other MKs when you need to be heard and need to talk out how you are feeling. Do not be afraid to ask for help. And finally and most importantly, remember that you are never alone… under any circumstances, no matter how you feel. The God who has gone before your parents and made a way for them will do the same for you. He is your Father and he will never leave you or forsake you. Nothing can separate you from His love and His presence. No airplane ride. No distance. No pain. No cultural crisis. You have Him forever. You cannot lose Him. You cannot lose Him.
Take a few minutes to watch this MK interview on transition.
My mom did an awesome job when helping me transition to college. She roomed at a friend’s house just a few blocks away and stayed nearby for several weeks while I attended orientation, set up my dorm room, and started classes. She was truly amazing! We shared meals together those first weeks, took walks, talked about my new experiences, tried out different churches, and I got to know the family she was staying with who continued to support me even after my mom returned back to Peru.