What You Need to Know About Missionary Kids Returning to Their Birth Countries

Disclaimer: This is a very different topic from what I normally cover on my blog, but I wanted to share some thoughts that are important to me. I hope you learn something new if you decide to read through this! 😀

Ever wondered what it’s like to be uprooted to travel to a country where you don’t fit in? If you think I’m talking about moving to the missions field, think again. I’m talking about returning to Canada, my birth country.

If you don’t know me, I’m a missionary kid in Malawi, Africa. I’ve lived here for close to 10 years now and I’m what’s called a third culture kid, or TCK for short. I’ve blended my parents’ cultures (American-Canadian and German) with the local culture to form my own distinct, third culture.

This weekend, my family is travelling to Canada on furlough (also known as home assignment), and I’ll be with them for the first few months before leaving for my own missions adventure. As I prepare to return to Canada, I’m not only saying goodbye to Malawi indefinitely, but I’m also preparing to enter a totally different world. Even though my passport says I’m Canadian, the Great White North – and more importantly its people – are strange to me.

Few non-missionaries can even begin to understand what furlough is like. Most people envision joyful reunions with extended family and lots of vacation time. And while the first is usually present, furlough is often a very difficult experience – especially for TCKs.

If that surprises you, read on. I’m going to discuss why TCKs often struggle while visiting their passport country, what home means for many of us, and what you can do to support TCKs.

Before I dive in, I do want to say that furlough does come with many blessings. There are a lot of wonderful people who show love, generosity and hospitality to TCKs, and I want to give a shoutout to them. But my goal with this article is to shine a light on the hidden struggles and battles that most people know nothing about. Missionaries especially are expected to be perfect and never have problems, and that’s a heavy weight to bear. 

What does furlough look like?

To understand why furlough can be difficult, let me first give you a quick idea of what furlough typically looks like for our family. Furlough is different for every missionary family, but there will usually be similarities.

The first thing to know is that furlough is not a time of rest for most missionaries. Instead, the focus is on raising support and reconnecting with old supporters. For us, that means speaking at a different church nearly every weekend. Supporting churches can be quite far away, so it’s often necessary to get up really early (4 am isn’t uncommon) or to travel to the church on Saturday and spend the night at someone’s house in order to make it to the Sunday morning service. During the summer we’re often asked to speak at camps as well. We regularly spend 10+ hours in the car during a given weekend.

Furlough means near constant travelling and almost no free weekends. Especially during the school year, that quickly becomes draining. Spending months at a time doing school on weekdays and travelling during weekends is brutal. I speak from experience when I say that this is a great way to burn out.

All of that is simply the backdrop to why TCKs often struggle with furlough. So with that in mind…

Why is furlough often difficult?

1. Reverse culture shock

You may have heard of culture shock. It’s a feeling of disorientation and often frustration when people move to a place with an unfamiliar culture. What you’re likely less familiar with is reverse culture shock, where you feel out of place in your original culture.

Reverse culture shock is more subtle than ordinary culture shock, and combined with the fact that few people expect it, it’s often much harder to deal with. 

I’ve experienced reverse culture shock a number of times, but often don’t process that until weeks or months later. Though I hate to admit it, the main thing I associate with reverse culture shock is anger. Malawi is one of the poorest nations in the world (typically in the bottom ten), and the inherent wealth, privilege and wastefulness of North Americans can be maddening.

In Canada, which is by far the most wasteful nation per capita, huge quantities of food are thrown away on a whim. In Malawi, “hunger season” is a recognized part of the year. To go from a place where moms with babies on their backs regularly come to your house asking for food, to a place where it’s carelessly tossed out is jarring, to say the least. But for me, people begging is a part of my world, while waste is not. Added up, differences like that can start to feel overwhelming.

There are of course other factors that impact reverse culture shock. For one, you yourself have changed to fit your new, foreign culture, but you often don’t realize it. Your home culture is also often different in small ways, and the combination of changes in yourself and the culture you left can be startling. The differences in values between the cultures can also come as a surprise.

For children and teens, the impact of reverse culture shock is especially difficult. Many don’t have the training or the maturity to understand what they’re going through, but that doesn’t change the emotions that they’re feeling. Even when you are prepared for culture shock, the emotions can hit hard.

2. Not having a home

Many missionaries don’t have an established “home” while they’re on furlough. That can be especially difficult for TCKs, who often already struggle with a sense of homelessness.

Many missionaries are hosted by families during their furloughs, and while we’re always incredibly grateful for their hospitality, it can be hard to unwind in someone else’s home. It’s the little things that build up which tend to take the greatest toll. Less personal time and space is always a challenge, as is setting aside family time when others are around. Living out of a suitcase for six months also loses its appeal pretty quickly.

3. You’re surrounded by people who don’t understand you

The phrase third culture kid already hints at this: our culture is unique. Because of this, people often don’t understand us. Sure, the words coming out of our mouths make sense (most of the time, anyhow – I make no personal guarantees), but that doesn’t mean that people can make sense of us.

Especially for children and teens, it can be really hard to make new friends and fit in. This leads to a lot of loneliness during furloughs, and while some TCKs will have people to reconnect with in their passport country, that isn’t always the case.

4. People who think they understand you

People who claim to understand you are often worse than the people who genuinely don’t understand you. Most people who say they understand have absolutely no clue what life is like for you, and everything they say comes out sounding cheap. It’s a way to talk about themselves and their own experiences.

Most often, there are two people who fall into this category: people who have been on short-term missions trips and people who think North America is terrible.

I don’t mean to knock short-term missions, but the experiences of someone who went to Guatemala for two weeks do not compare to the experiences of someone who has lived in Africa for the majority of their life. Yes, you may have seen poverty and led a Bible study, but that’s a far cry different from living in the nation where you serve.

This isn’t to say that long-term and short-term missionaries can’t have great conversations! I enjoy chatting with people who have had cross-cultural experiences, and they’re often very interesting people to talk with. Just please, don’t say that your experiences are the same as ours 😉

The other category of people is far worse. Conversations tend to run along the lines of “well we have poverty here too! Have you seen the single pothole in our town?? We’re practically a developing nation!”

That’s a caricature, but I’ve heard a lot of people express that sentiment. There are individuals living in poverty in North America, but to suggest that you understand systemic poverty because you saw a homeless person in the town over is ridiculous. Try eating a meal of fish heads and corn mush with your fingers while seated on a dirt floor before you tell me that you understand poverty. Our experiences are not the same.

(As an aside, fish and meat of any kind are a treat for most Malawians, and our hosts for that meal were showing us hospitality by serving fish).

5. We look normal… but we’re not

I’ve already mentioned not fitting in, but one aspect that isn’t often considered is that we look like we should fit in. TCKs physically appear the same, dress the same, and often have the same accent as our monocultural counterparts, so people expect us to be “normal”.

Though many of our differences are positive things, that doesn’t make it any easier when our differences show through in potentially negative ways. Lack of understanding goes two ways, and things that seem apparent to North Americans often seem like rocket science to us. Being able to drive, understanding certain social norms, and even using a credit card can trip us up. When people don’t understand our background, failure to understand simple things can further our sense of alienation.

6. Talking to people

This is partially a joke, but constant interaction with people while on furlough can be draining as well. Not all of us are extroverts, and when you combine social exhaustion with the stresses that I’ve outlined above, it can become quite overwhelming.

This isn’t to say that you should avoid interacting with TCKs. But if they seem uncomfortable being sought out/put on the spot, or if it looks like they’re pursuing some personal time, give them space. And if you want us to come on stage during a church service, please tell us beforehand (or even ask if we would be comfortable going on stage).

Passport country ≠ home

When our family returns on furlough, we regularly hear the words “welcome home!” from people who mean well. But stop and ask yourself what makes a place home for you. For most people, the answer has to do with family, friends, places that they love, and the comfort of a familiar setting. None of those things are inherently tied to your country of birth.

Try, for just a moment, to put yourself in my shoes. My immediate family is always with me in Malawi. Growing up, my friends were all in Malawi. From the blue depths of Lake Malawi to the soaring peaks of Mulanje Massif, the places that I love are predominantly in Malawi. And for over ten years, my actual house – my familiar setting – has been in Malawi.

The majority of my remembered life has been spent in Malawi, so for me, going on furlough means leaving my home behind for months at a time. It’s a time of displacement, and to a degree homelessness. To then be constantly “welcomed home” in Canada can be frustrating and even painful.

On occasion, I tell people that Canada is no longer home, which is usually met with a sense of incredulity. My response to that is that while I love seeing extended family and certainly don’t mind convenience food, home is far more complex than simply the place where you were born.

But even though I consider Malawi to be my primary home, my feelings around the word “home” are often confusing. Many TCKs struggle with this. When you’ve lived in many countries and have family in even more, it’s hard to pinpoint a single place as home. Our family has travelled to 24 countries across 4 continents (I lost a tooth on each continent, in case you were wondering), and we’ve begun to joke that home is where the suitcases are.

Counting only close relatives (grandparents, aunts, uncles and first cousins), I have family in the USA, Argentina, the Netherlands, and Germany. I used to have an uncle in Brazil, and my brother is currently in Belgium as a student in a NATO program (that was true when I first drafted this article… he’s now in Italy). I personally hold dual Canadian-German citizenship. If your head is spinning at this point, let me assure you that mine is as well. This is a taste of why home is so hard to pinpoint.

Many people who have been abroad for shorter periods of time do still consider their passport country to be home, however. Given that, what’s the appropriate thing to say to people who have just returned to their birth country? My suggestion is to simply ask them where home is now. It shows an interest in their experiences and lives, plus it avoids stepping on any toes.

How to Support TCKs

At this point, I hope you have a better sense of some of the struggles that TCKs have. While many issues like reverse culture shock are things that we’ll need to sort through on our own or with family, there are ways in which you can support us while we’re on furlough. Here are some incredibly simple ideas to get you started.

1. Ask thoughtful questions

Since so much of our time on furlough is spent talking with people, it’s always refreshing when the conversation is interesting! Many people talk with the missionary kids to virtue signal, and it shows in the questions that they ask. They’re looking for an empty conversation, which is usually what they get.

As an example, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had this exact conversation: 

Person: So is Africa hot?

Me: Yup

-cue awkward silence-

The question “Do you speak African?” is similarly painful. There are over 2,000 living languages in Africa, and even as a relatively small country, 17 languages are spoken in Malawi.

My intent here isn’t to judge; I’m not a steller conversationalist, and I get that sometimes it’s hard to ask the right questions.  But if you have a genuine interest in learning more about a TCK, here are some ideas for things you should and shouldn’t do while talking with them:

DO:

  • Be specific. Ask questions about the country where I’m from, not about the continent where I live. That’s a little like expecting a Canadian to know Costa Rican culture because they’re all in North America.
  • Ask questions that are multi-faceted. Instead of “is Malawi hot?” ask “what are the seasons like in Malawi?”
  • Think before you speak. First, check if you’re asking a question that you’re genuinely interested in. Second, check whether or not your question is insensitive to the individual or culture.
  • Ask questions about us. We are more than our experiences, and while we often enjoy talking about where we live, it’s also nice to be valued for who we are.
  • If you have the time, look up some info about where we live before chatting with us. Showing off your newfound knowledge likely won’t impress us, but we will be impressed if you use it as a starting point to ask deeper questions. We’d still love to chat with you even if you haven’t had the chance to learn about our country, though!

DON’T:

  • Ask yes or no questions.
  • Be afraid to ask kids interesting questions. While I couldn’t have held a complex conversation about cultures when I was 10, I could still have shared plenty of interesting facts and stories. Ask questions that are age-appropriate, but don’t assume that younger TCKs can’t hold a conversation (in my experience TCKs are actually better at talking with adults than most children their age).
  • Assume you know more than the TCK. I’ve had people argue with me about what life is like here. I don’t think I need to explain why that’s problematic.
  • Ask questions that are awkwardly personal. While it’s good to get to know us, we don’t want to bare our souls to a stranger. It’s a conversation, not an interrogation. Just because we’re happy to answer most of your questions doesn’t mean you can ask us anything 😉

As with most situations, the words of Stephen Covey apply well here: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. If you want to ask us questions, we would love to answer! The key to a successful conversation, however, is to seek to understand the person you’re talking to. This means intentional listening, thoughtful questions, and a desire to learn.

All that said, don’t be afraid to chat with us. Yes, there are best practices to avoid accidentally being insulting or insensitive, but so long as you’re cognizant of our background and want to have a genuine conversation, we would love to chat with you. 

2. Value us as humans

While we’re on furlough, we’re often treated as a travelling circus act. We’re new, we’re different, and we’re a cheap source of entertainment. And honestly? That hurts.

Everyone wants to be valued for who they are, and TCKs are no different. We often enjoy talking and sharing about our unique experiences. They’re what shape us. But we don’t want to be valued only because we have fascinating stories.

As a kid, travelling to a new church every weekend, we would often attend the children’s service while my dad preached. With or without advance warning, the children’s pastor would often point us out as missionary kids and ply us with questions. Sometimes the entire time was dedicated to asking us about our stories. The other children would eagerly ask us questions, occasionally even approaching us after the service. And then as soon as they got bored, we would be tossed aside. Our worth was expended once our stories no longer held their interest.

I would love to say that I haven’t experienced the same thing from adults, but it’s still a pretty common situation. People treat us specially while we’re interesting, and then stop caring as soon as they’re done with the conversation. I’m better equipped to deal with it now, but especially as a kid those situations really stung.

Quite often, I avoid telling people that I grew up in Malawi until we’ve already talked about something else. Even though I’m able to celebrate my unique childhood, I want to be known for who I am, not just what I’ve done. I know that if I open a conversation with my experiences, I will quite often become “the Africa guy” and not a normal person.

So please, if you get the chance to meet a TCK, treat them as a person, not a source of entertainment. Value us for who we are, not our experiences.

(And to all of those people who have made me feel welcomed, valued and loved as a human while still recognizing my experiences, thank you. You’re the main reason I stay sane on furlough).

3. Go the extra mile

While this is usually good advice regardless of the situation, it always means a lot when people go the extra mile for TCKs. We’re foreigners in our own country, and any effort to make us feel welcome is appreciated.

There are a lot of different ways that you can go the extra mile, but keep in mind that you don’t need to be extravagant to make us feel welcome.

One example from our life was a church that gave each of us kids a McDonald’s gift card. There isn’t much in the way of fast food in Malawi, so we were thrilled to have money for junk food. Since we were on the road a lot, my mom also appreciated that it helped our family budget and was a practical way for us kids to start using cards to pay for things. (If you want me to haggle over the price of vegetables, I’m your man, but don’t expect me to know whether to tap or swipe a credit card).

Little things like that can make a surprising difference in our lives.

I wouldn’t change my life

As I wrap up what has become a surprisingly long article, I want to reiterate that there are many blessings that come with being a TCK and even going on furlough. While I focused very heavily on the challenges that people like me face, I wouldn’t trade my life for any other, despite the hardships.

If you learned something or found something surprising, let me know in the comments! I would love to chat with you. And if you found this article helpful, please consider sharing to spread the message 🙂

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MaryHelen Gensch
MaryHelen Gensch
4 months ago

Thank you for sharing! The TCK is a revelation to me; makes sense and I appreciate knowing that. I want to be welcoming to the missionaries who visit our church and your article is helpful.

I do wish you and your parents/ family will be able to find moments of rest. I will pray for that!

Tobiah Gennari
Tobiah Gennari
4 months ago

My Mother had us all sit in the living room while she read it out loud. So I think it’s safe to say the article was remarkably successful!

Ari Morsella
Ari Morsella
4 months ago

Thank you for this, Jonathan! I’ll certainly be passing it along! Praying for times of refreshing in what will be a busy season. Safe travels to you all.

Jerah
Jerah
4 months ago

This is such important information! I’m a TCK who moved “back” to my passport country four years ago (not that I’d ever live here before), so now I’ve found a host of other struggles that aren’t furlough-related. Still, reading this was nostalgic, haha. I wish I’d had it back when we were still doing our summertime tours of North America to raise support!

Kristianne
4 months ago

I relate SO much to everything you touched on in this article! It’s so refreshing to hear from another MK and know that I’m not the only one who has struggled with these things! Thank you for talking about this important topic–it’s something that definitely needs to be talked about more in our circles.

Johanna Stam
Johanna Stam
4 months ago

A very well written article, Jonathan!! A lot of food for thought…thank you

Hadassah
Hadassah
4 months ago

Thank you so much for writing this! I’m also a TCK who moved “home” to my passport country a few years back. Like you, I hold a dual citizenship and travelled and moved a lot while my family served overseas.Your article put a lot of my emotions of the last few years into words. Moving back has made me realize that I’m never going to quite fit in anywhere. I still don’t fit in here in passport country, but I wouldn’t fit anymore in my overseas home either. It’s a very alienating feeling of homelessness, as you described in your section on furloughs. Thankfully, this world isn’t our real home! Again, thanks for writing, it really means a lot to hear that I wasn’t alone in them and that other TCKs struggle with similar emotions and difficulties!

Abby Higdon
Abby Higdon
4 months ago

Hey Jonathan,
Thank you for sharing! As an adult TCK I resonate with what you wrote. Furlough years were hard for me and I still experience many of these same phenomenas. I really appreciate the language that you have framed around these conversations. I especially like/resonate with the section, “people who think they understand you”.

Carol Rags.
Carol Rags.
4 months ago

This is very well written Jonathan. As an Adult TCK who has raised 2 TCKs I appreciate reading your perspective and will share it with my 2 young adult TCKs and others. Strength and grace to you!

Leah
Leah
4 months ago

Always enjoy learning about perspectives different from my own. I have a number of TCK in my world and it is helpful to see from their perspective. I have always felt it weird to say “welcome home”. I usually just say “welcome to the states”.

Micaiah McPhail
Micaiah McPhail
4 months ago

Wow Jonathan, what a well-articulated article! I’m an MK as well. This article sums up so much truth about the lives of so many MKs/TCKs that they’ve never put into words or had clearly understood by others. And great advice for those desiring to be a blessing rather than a burden to TCKs. Keep it up! Are you writing any books with a goal to publish in the future?

Micaiah McPhail
Micaiah McPhail
4 months ago

Gotcha! My older sister’s a writer, so I kind of understand 😄 . Here’s her blog, by the way: https://foreveraforeigner.com/

Richard
Richard
2 months ago

Wow! I’ve been on many short term mission trips from construction to prayer walks, and at least five that were specifically to serve at a camp for TCKs! Through the teachings at these camps, I thought I had learned a lot about challenges that TCKs faced (and I did learn a lot!), but your article opened so many other “windows” to challenges that TCKs faced that I had never known. Thanks for your honesty and openness and I pray that in the future I will be even more sensitive to the TCK issues that you highlight

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