“Home” is a difficult word for most missionaries kids (MKs) to define. They have a passport culture which they can legally claim as their “home”. They also have the culture in which they have been raised. In addition, some experience a multi-cultural school culture where they feel most at “home”. Their experiences living abroad have been quite different from those of their parents. They have lived abroad during their formative years, whereas their parents lived in the passport culture during those critical formative years. MKs often are more fluent in the language of their adopted county than are their parents! They have been shaped by and understand at a deep level the values, mores, and customs of their adopted country. However, they may not have that same depth of understanding of their passport culture. Sometimes parents are surprised at the things that their children don’t know about their “home” culture. After all, they all have a passport to that country, speak the “home” language in their house, and visit that country on a regular basis. Their family observes all the customs, holidays and traditions of the “home” culture. The assumption is that the children will feel just as at “home” in the passport culture as do their parents. Although even adults feel disoriented by reverse culture shock upon re-entry to their home culture, the truth is that their children’s culture shock is much worse.
So how can parents prepare their children to go “Home”? The first step is to take time to say “Good Goodbyes”. Make sure that the child knows well in advance that they are leaving their adopted home. If there is a chance that your family will not be returning, let the child know about that possibility. Give the child enough time to go to all their special people and places to say goodbye. Take pictures, say thank you, give gifts to friends, and pack mementos. Bring pets and special toys back with you, if at all possible.
Educate your children about the process of cultural transition before you go “home”. It is important for them to know that everyone feels some disorientation when they move between cultures. They may feel irritable or weepy, or they may feel confused or afraid for a few weeks. Let them know that these feelings are common reactions to moving between cultures, but that eventually the new culture will feel normal to them. Assure them that if they have any overwhelming feelings, they can come and talk with you about it. Give them time to adjust to the new environment before you embark on a whirlwind trip to visit all your supporters and family. Build in time as a family to rest and find your bearings.
Warn children that North Americans are not especially knowledgeable about the rest of the world. People may ask “stupid” questions, and your child may be tempted to make fun of these “ignorant” people. This can hinder their ability to make friends. Help them understand that these people haven’t had all the opportunities to learn about the world that they have had. Also, these people are trying to show an interest in them by asking these questions. Help your child prepare and practice saying short responses to common questions such as “Where are you from?” or “What’s it like to live in _________?” Encourage your child to tell their stories about life, but without always mentioning the country in which it happened. For instance, they can talk about the fun they had on a class trip to the beach, without mentioning that the beach was on the French Riviera. If they mention a foreign location every time they tell a story, their new friends may think that they are showing off, or they may tune out because they have no frame of reference for that location. Encourage your children to view getting to know North Americans as a cross-cultural experience, and to use their skills in cross-cultural adaptation in this situation of coming “home”.
Some children refuse to make friends, thinking that it isn’t worth the effort, because they will just be leaving soon to return their adopted country. Try to encourage them to make friends, even if you will only be “home” for a short time. Children that sit at home with nothing to do tend to become lonely and sad. Mom and Dad can’t provide for all the social needs of their children. Talk about the joy that having a friend brings today is worth the sorrow of saying goodbye tomorrow. Be sure that you are modeling this attitude by reaching out to build friendships yourself during home visits.
Encourage children to watch and listen, and then to ask you questions if they see people doing something that doesn’t make sense to them. For instance, if you have been living in a country that values relationships more than completing tasks, your child may be bewildered by a new friend who hurries past her to get to class on time, without even stopping to greet her. Help your child understand that cultures have different values, but that each culture has something worthwhile to offer. Often children will express negative opinions about the passport culture, while idealizing the adopted culture which they just left. Help children realize that there are good and bad factors to living in both places. Play a game where each person mentions one good thing and one bad thing about living in each place. Help your child to focus on the good things about their current situation, but also give them permission to grieve the things they have left behind. If they become withdrawn, have significant behavioral changes or seem overwhelmed with grief, find a competent counselor (or play therapist for children ages 3-11) who can help them work through the losses that they are experiencing. Remember that their losses are more significant than the ones you are experiencing as an adult, because they have lost the only world they’ve ever known.
Re-Entry camps and seminars are very valuable in helping a child or teen adjust to their passport culture. Interaction, Mu Kappa, MTI and other organizations have excellent re-entry programs for teens or even the whole family. These programs are well worth the cost, and may prevent problems later on. You budgeted time and money for cultural orientation when you went to the field, and you should also budget for cultural orientation upon your return. I have served as a counselor at re-entry camps for 18 year old MKs returning to the US for college. No matter how self-confident and well-adjusted your MK seems before re-entry, they will experience a drop in their self-confidence and emotional adjustment during their first year back in the US. These re-entry programs reduce their anxiety and give them the tools they will need to connect with mono-cultural peers and to understand the North American culture.
Cindy Duff, M.A.
Executive Director, Compass Ministries
Compass Ministries provides support and counsel to missionaries and their families at no charge. Their pastoral counselors have lived overseas and understand the unique stresses of cross-cultural ministry. Their mission is to refresh missionaries and provide support and encouragement to missionary children whatever their age.