Growing Up Different

As told from a 12-year-old ABWE Missionary Kid expert

From Message magazine issue "Missions on the Frontline"

I have been a missionary kid in South Africa for eight years—more than two-thirds of my life. I’ve grown up living in one country and saying that I belonged to another.

There are lots of cool things about being a missionary kid (MK), but every MK knows that there are also things that are not so cool. Over time, I have learned how to get over the stuff that bothers me and make sure I don’t take the cool things for granted.

Some MKs struggle with the fact that they never belonged to a certain country or that they look or talk different than the majority of their neighbors. My sister and I are the only white girls in our youth group, and every time I talk to someone, they ask me if I am American — every single time. Some MKs feel that they can’t fit in with their friends because they are different. I struggled with that for years, but trying to forget that I was different just didn’t do any good. So, I had to acknowledge that I was not African, and when I got over how I felt about being different, I realized that my friends didn’t care. I felt so dumb for spending so many years fretting and inwardly complaining about how different I was, only to realize that my friends like mehowIam.TheylikemeevenifItalk with an accent or if I have no idea what is going on with the rugby teams.

One of the worst things an MK can do is spend their whole time on the mission field trying to cover up their true identity because sometimes it is fun to be different. For example, being an American gives people a chance to find out what Americans and America are like. I have answered lots of questions about America and sometimes they are absolutely crazy, like “Do you see movie stars all the time?” “Does everyone live in mansions?” and my personal favorite, “Does America have trees?” During my time in South Africa, I started developing my own nationality. I’m American — there is no doubt about that — but I have started to fit in with my South African friends as the African/American. I’m different and it is ok. I have cool stories to tell in America, and I have cool stories to tell here in South Africa.

“I’ve grown up living in one country and saying that I belonged to another.”

It took me a long time to realize that I’m not an oddball that doesn’t fit in; I’m a girl that has tons of different stories and experiences to share. There are lots of neat things that my family can do here that we would never be able to do if we lived in the States. For example, we live close to a game park, and almost every month, we get to see lions, giraffes, hyenas, wild dogs, and lots of other animals. And the park isn’t the only place to see amazing animals. A nearby town has a leopard that lives right on the edge of town, and in another town, residents have reported hippos in their backyard. MKs all over the world have loads of stories that would fascinate other people for hours, but it’s easy to forget that we have experiences and opportunities that most kids never get.

Being an MK also forces you to develop lots of social skills because we have to interact with a lot of people, whether they are kids in an orphanage, pastors in a rural area, or sick women in a hospital. While it can sometimes feel like being in a torture chamber, those moments teach us how to interact with all different kinds of people. Those moments also teach us how to be encouraging and helpful and how to honor God through all our actions and words in any circumstance.

There is no doubt that being an MK comes with many hard things, like relocating to a different country and leaving family behind, but in each of those things, I’ve had the opportunity to see God work in wonderful ways. My dad was just asked to be the Regional Administrator for East Africa, which means that we have to move to Tanzania. I was very upset and am still going through the process of giving pets away, saying goodbye to friends, and packing our house. Most people would freak out at just the idea of moving to a different country – let alone packing up without knowing what house, car, or church we will have. But that is what we come to embrace as MKs. People say to trust Jesus and see where He leads you and what He gives you. And no one understands that better than MKs.

Abby Farran

Sometimes they are a simple “see you tomorrow,” while other times they are forever. Many times, those “forever goodbyes” are associated with hugging friends before airport security or kissing our pets one last time. David Pollock, a pioneer in TCK research, wrote, “Most TCKs [Third Culture Kids] go through more grief by the time they are 20, than mono-cultural individuals do in a lifetime.”

Unfortunately, for Missionary Kids (MKs) and TCKs, the goodbyes go deeper than that. We must give up our favorite foods, the culture we adapted to, and sometimes even a language. My family moved to South Africa when I was four. Fast forward 13 years: I’ve given up three countries, and each one has brought different heartaches with the goodbye.  Instead of simply saying goodbye to people, we must give up every single familiar aspect in our lives. To say “goodbye” means the loss of a world to an MK, and I want to help people understand the blend of pain and beauty that we are left with. “MKs just learn to love and leave,” in the words of Linda Kelley, a mother of MKs.

No one really talks about what happens afterward. No one shares about the months they cried themselves to sleep. No one mentions the heartbreaking feeling they got when something so precious to them was no longer in their life. No one wants to come to grips with how much those goodbyes broke them.

I’m here to tell you that they broke me—that they broke us.

Even though MKs struggle with this grief daily, we never talk about it. It feels trivial to bring up how we cried that morning because the air smelled different, or because there weren’t any birds outside our window. We don’t want to complain or seem ungrateful, especially when our families are in the middle of transitioning to a new field. Our entire world has changed—with a new language, culture or atmosphere—and every single encounter we have reminds us of our loss. And yet, we don't want to make our parents feel guilty about the move. Instead, we stay quiet and push those feelings aside.

“I learned to squelch the grief over the loss of that person in my daily life, with their warm smile, hearty laughter, and comforting hug,” said Debbie Warren, MK from Nigeria. “A phrase I heard often—‘We’ll see them in heaven’—told me to stuff the ache and stop complaining.”

In one sense, this is true—we will see some of those people again. But our tears aren’t just for the people. They’re for the colors of the native fabrics, the taste of our favorite foods, and the smell of sea salt in the air. I don’t go a day here in Portugal without longing for my old home in Tanzania, even though I moved over a year ago. MKs don’t simply mourn the loss of people; we mourn the loss of a country.

The pain and loss continue to build as the grief begins to overwhelm us. Unfortunately, most MKs are never taught how to properly handle grief. Instead, it grows in secret until it starts to affect every part of us. Some of us never move on and simply choose to numb the pain. We cut ties with our old lives, but we never attempt to build a new one. Others develop a constant fear of loneliness and loss, throwing themselves too quickly into friendships and relationships in the hope that they won’t ever have to say goodbye again.

The fear of goodbyes is very real. It’s a natural tendency to try and avoid the same type of pain in the future. While some MKs have no problem saying goodbye, others struggle with the concept. They find different ways to word it, or they avoid goodbyes altogether.

Another MK from India, Joy Ziemann, said, “I have a hard time saying goodbye. It is easier to say ‘see you’ and pretend it is not really goodbye.”

I’m trying my very hardest to show churches, family members, and supporters what being an MK truly means. I want you to know that, while we may seem strong, or emotionally detached from the moves, we struggle with the loss of countries, cultures, and customs. It’s not as simple as moving states or school districts. We feel the grief from these moves for years.

However, I can say that over the years the pain fades. It gradually shifts to a dull ache that comes and goes. And you know what? I wouldn't trade those memories for the world. I wouldn’t change a single second of my past, even if it would’ve made the goodbye less painful.

Goodbyes never get any easier, but they eventually turn into bittersweet memories that remain with us forever—a closing point in that part of our lives which ended a wonderful chapter. These goodbyes slowly morph from painful experiences to melancholy memories that are never forgotten.

This is the beautiful art of goodbyes.