What follows is part one of a series by ElectroMagneticJosh, a man whose parents were Evangelical missionaries. This series will detail his life as a Missionary Kid (MK).
Part 1: The Introduction where I talk about myself and Missionary Kids
Regular and former church-goers might remember these people. They were part of your church but never physically there; opting, instead, to live on the other side of the world as missionaries. Every three or four years they would return and report to the congregation (either taking up a Sunday service or maybe doing the rounds to all the various weekly home groups). They often required someone to dust off an old slide projector so everyone could see their pictures (until the merciful advent of power point).
Maybe you enjoyed these reports, maybe you found them dull or, just maybe, you have no idea what I am talking about. Whatever your perspective please read on if you are interested in finding out more about Christian missionary work (with a specific focus on protestant and evangelical missions).
Before I continue it would be rude of me not to introduce myself. I was not a missionary but the child of missionaries. In 1983, just shy of my 3rd birthday, my parents left the socialist democracy of New Zealand to work as missionaries in the right-wing dictatorship of the Philippines. I and my younger came with them. I grew up immersed in the proselytizing wing of Christianity and, while I am now an unbeliever, for most of my life I was a committed believer. I am, and I always will be, a Missionary Kid (MK).
Hopefully that puts some of what I will discuss in perspective. I am planning on writing about that world; the “frontline” of Christianity (at least that is how the missionaries see it). Obviously this won’t be a “pro-mission” series of writings, but it not intended to be an exposé either; more a personal perspective. For my first entry I am going to introduce the idea of Third Culture Kids.
Any discussion about MKs needs at least make mention of Third Culture Kids. The Wikipedia page provides some decent information if you want to read further but, for now, I am going to provide my own definition of a TCK and how it may have shaped some of my perspectives on life.
Firstly; what is a TCK? Well the best way to answer is to compare it to most people’s own experiences. For the majority of human beings their formative years are spent in the culture of their parents. They are formally educated in their country’s education system and their peers are the children of their parent’s peers. They share the same common history, enjoy the same cultural touchstones and learn the same values. The odds are high that you, reading this, fit into that category. If so then you were or are, depending on your age, a First Culture Kid. You were raised in the culture of your parents and, whether you realize it or not, have and affinity and implicit understanding of its traditions, taboos, and its sense of humor.
The next category is the Second Culture Kids. Unlike the First Culture Kids; these are children who spent their formative years in a culture different to their parents which they were expected to join. The most obvious example, and the only one I can think of, is the children of immigrants. While their perspective on life is shaped by the culture they were raised in their parents still retain the “old” attitudes and values. If you fit into this category you are likely to have experienced some unique conflicts with your parents over the “right way” of doing something. Often what your parent’s value may seem incongruous to what you believe is truly important out of life. This can be over the big issues like acceptable career paths and life-partners or over small issues like wearing jewelry or enjoying certain entertainments. You grow up in a culture different from that of your birth and, as a result, identify more with the new than the old.
That brings us to the group I belong to; TCKs. Like the Second Culture Kids we are raised in a culture different to our home or passport country (as we often call it). We are people who, despite being raised in a different country, are ultimately expected to return and integrate to our passport country’s culture. TCKs come from three main sources as the children of government workers, expatriate business people, or missionaries. It is the MKs that, on average, spend the most time in a single “host” country while the other categories of TCKs move around between more countries and spend less time overseas in total. As a result; MKs often have the hardest time integrating back into their passport country upon their return.
While I did interact with other types of TCKs growing up (my parents were friends with some expatriate workers) the majority of people I grew up with in the Philippines were either Filipinos (of the same Christian denomination as my parents) or other MKs. In other words; while it could be said that I identified with both Filipino and a New Zealand culture it was still through the lens of Christian culture. This meant I was unaware about a lot of Filipino cultural practices – particularly their social gatherings. Like Christians in many other countries the Filipinos my parents worked with had replaced the more “worldly” activities available to them with Christian alternatives. They especially avoided things with alcohol and dancing.
When our family would return to New Zealand on a four-year cycle for a year before going back to the Philippines I had a very similar experience. The people I interacted with the most were family or church people. Again; it was a very Christian-heavy environment. There was, however, one key difference; I always attended the local public schools when I was back. I’ll talk about the specifics of my MK education at another point but the public schooling was interesting to me. Every time I started afresh the other kids always seemed so godless (which they were).
I didn’t stop me wanting to socialize. Not only did I manage to make friends each four-year cycle but I got the added bonus of feeling smug on the inside because of the things I, as a good Christian, refrained from doing. When I was younger not swearing was my main spiritual differentiator but, on subsequent returns to New Zealand, I graduated to avoiding smoking which lead to avoiding drinking, not having sex and deciding not to experiment with drugs. In that regard I was similar to many Christian kids who defined their religious practice by the things they didn’t do.
None of this builds a case for MKs having trouble re-integrating back into the passport country. But I was lucky. I am naturally extroverted and enjoy new experiences so every-time I came back I saw it as an adventure. I also had the good fortune of having long-standing friends from the church that commissioned my parents. At the age of 18 I returned to New Zealand to start University I had a group of friends already and quickly made new ones. I had Uni friends during the week and church friends during the weekend with a slight overlap as a couple of them went to both. For me, unlike many of my former MK classmates and my own siblings, re-integration was relatively easy.
One final word on this topic; I said that I was lucky because of friendships I had to return to and the fact I could easily make new friends. One other aspect is the cultural integration. I wasn’t fully up with the nuances of Kiwi (a term New Zealanders call ourselves) culture but I could fake it until I was. I also was fortunate that I lived in the Philippines where a lot of the population read, speak and understand English. As a result a lot of entertainment (music, tv, film and books) came from North America and the UK – the same place a lot of popular entertainment in New Zealand comes from. When it came to the pop culture of my generation I had very few gaps.
There is a lot to be said for sharing these cultural touchstones. I know some MKs who grew up in remote areas (isolated tribal villages and the like) who found it hard to join in casual conversations when they returned. This was problematic because people in their late teens tend to talk about entertainment a lot and without the shared culture and history to draw upon pop culture can be a powerful way in. In my case I made friends with people who enjoyed similar movies, music, and video games.
Of course I still have moments, although not as often as I used to, where I’m with a group of people. Be it friends or colleagues it is inevitable that the topic will turn to an event reminder of a joke for which I have no point of reference. Many people experience this when moving to a new town or joining a new circle of friends – but try to imagine that on a completely cultural level. A level where you realize that this was something that everyone in the country probably knows. It is this reason that many TCPs seek out each other’s company and the company of immigrants. Regardless of whether or not we have a shared history we all understand the feeling of being a cultural outsider.
Traversing the culture gaps are further complicated by the fact that MKs look like the people of their passport country. Often certain allowances that are made for immigrants are not made for us when it comes to understanding slang words or making social faux pas. This affects MKs differently depending on their personality. While I am the type to laugh at my mistakes I have seen others who retreat very quickly from groups once they have done something they might deem humiliating. It probably doesn’t help that most of the MKs are returning home in their teens to either complete high school or because they have just graduated.
It isn’t all negative though. When I think about my childhood I realize I had an opportunity most people don’t have. I experienced two countries, two cultures and two ways of life which are very different from each other. My experiences were mostly positive and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. When I look at MKs I find that those who take the perspective of both cultures with them and are able to appreciate those unique experiences that those from either one wouldn’t have are the ones who do the best in life. This is regardless of whether they end up living in their host country, their passport country or somewhere else entirely.
I won’t elaborate further as this will start to bleed into some other topics I plan to write about. For those who have found this interesting so far: I am busy but will do my best to write more so if there are any questions that you have feel free to leave them in the comments and I will take them on board when writing future updates. I will give you an indication of some other ideas I already have like the “call” to missions, MK education, Mission agencies, the validity of mission work, and maybe even a look at the Open/Plymouth Brethren.