Years ago, during the ages of exploration, Europeans came across people groups foreign to them. As their ships landed on the shores of Africa and South America, the Europeans were astonished to find civilizations living in manners so vastly different. From the moment of those first encounters, the pale Europeans took it upon themselves to educate and refine the darker skinned cultures they met. They called this responsibility the “white man’s burden.” They, as educated people were laden with the calling to reform the lands onto which their ships happened to beach. Decades later, I believe, the burden isn’t gone. It has just changed. Both the need itself, and the people carrying it.
“Your parents are working for GOD. That is AWESOME.” “MK’s are the coolest kids out there – no one else has this opportunity!” “You should feel SO blessed to live this life.” These were the phrases thrown at me, and other MK’s, during annual mission meeting or school retreats. We were the wonder kids. We were the products of the Southern Baptist American dream. In the states, every church was praying for people like our parents, they were taking up offerings for our families, for our parent’s work. And there, in Africa, volunteers were handing us sour patch kids as if it was the greatest blessing they could bestow upon our sheltered minds.
But we were anything but sheltered.
We didn’t know about slushies or bubblegum inside lollipops. We didn’t know how to work digital cameras, Gameboys, or current fashion trends. And yet, because we were white and carried American passports we were supposed to be versed in this culture completely foreign to us. So, we spent one week out of the yearly 52 learning how to be America, hearing how great our lives were, how wonderful and important our parents work was, and then we were sent home. At home we met our faulty generators, dirty water, and cholera ridden neighborhoods. Our “sheltered” lives.
Yes, we were blessed. Yes, our parents work was awesome. Yes, we were the superstars of Christianity. But, as all sane celebrities say, being a star comes with a price. The burden of an MK can be two fold – guilt and silence.
And so, we all in our ways carried the burden. The MK burden. Some people carried it much better than others. Many of my friends gloried in being MKS, they were born to live on the mission field. Their feet were appropriately barefoot and their attitudes were properly enthusiastic. My feet were barefoot, and that’s where my claim to being a good MK ends. I followed my parents around the country of Angola, bumping along in the back seat for 16 hour journeys and I never felt like a “good” MK. I enjoyed the scenery, the experience, and some of the projects I was able to help with, but I also compiled baggage. As a child, I saw things my university peers will only ever see on the news. I saw epidemics, I saw poverty, I saw what civil war does to a country untouched by democracy. I saw starvation, water depravation, and the third world standard of living. All of these things were absorbed by my tiny eyes and stored in my little heart. I couldn’t tell you when the guilt started to grow, but I can definitively say it had grown exponentially by university. I saw these humanitarian atrocities accepted as the norm, and I got out. Perhaps that doesn’t make sense, most first world citizens would welcome consistent electricity and running water. In some way, to rationalize the feelings I have, I need to compare them to survivor’s guilt – a phenomenon in which tragedy strikes, some fall and some live. In my case, Angola was the tragedy. And I was a survivor, a privileged white American, able to escape on an aeroplane to a first class university, receive an education, and carry on in a western world I neither belong to or understand. The guilt of being able to plan a wedding here in America, while girls my age are on their third child in Angola, is at times overwhelming. It is one of the burdens MK carries.
The other is darker. Selfish. Introspective. It goes back to those loud statements from the volunteers. Our parents work is awesome. We are the superstars. So why are we so lonely? Why are we so desperate to leave when this work is so important? I don’t think I ever wanted my parents to leave their work until I was in high school. In Angola, I felt I had a home. My house was definitely ours, IKEA furniture and all, it was a safe, familiar place. In boarding school, nothing was familiar. Everyone has different families; families nothing like mine. Then my parents moved to the Middle East. And I was diagnosed with depression. Even then, in the midst of being lonely, very lost, and sitting in the counselor’s office week after week I never thought I had the freedom to ask my parents to leave. I couldn’t be the MK who failed. I couldn’t be the one who took two faithful individuals away from the Lord’s work. I couldn’t be that selfish. High school came and went, I don’t think I reached my lowest there, it just felt like it.
No, the lowest moments, the darkest moments came in university. New counselors, same pills. New roommates, same loneliness. And even then, in moments where I wanted to take my life, moments in which I wanted to see what would happen if I drove into oncoming traffic, or if I took the cut deeper, or took one too many Xanax, I couldn’t be honest. I wasn’t honest with my parents, my friends or myself. I buried the pain, smiled at the questions and told people “Yes my parents are missionaries in the Middle East, they work really hard and serve well.” I didn’t tell people “I’m angry, I’m alone, I wanted a home to grow up in, a home to go back to, I want to know that it’s okay to feel this terrible, even when my parents are doing such good work. I want to know I’m not an evil person for being bitter, when the life we’ve lived is the one of the faithful.” But I never said those words. I don’t know what would have happened if I had. I couldn’t say them. I couldn’t be the one MK who needed her parents to leave their work, I just needed to find other ways to get through it, shoulder the burden and move on.
This is, hopefully, the most inconclusive post I will ever write. I don’t have answers. I cannot tell other Third Culture Kids how to overcome the loneliness or the bitterness, because I haven’t done it myself. I can only tell them; I think it’s normal. I think, for some, being a third culture kid if second nature. And for others, we handle it in small, growing moments. We have moments of understanding, breakthroughs of compassion and gratefulness. We also have moments of irrational anger, confusion. We have moments where we wish we could crawl back into our past and build a safe house all around our childhood selves – a safe house that will never change, never move, never be left empty.
We move past those moments and enter reality. The truth is, my parents live overseas. Their house is in Scotland. In August, my home will reside in the heart of my husband. My parents work and serve well. It is hard. It does hurt. But it’s not the end. And, as I grow a little older, more honest words come out of my mouth, and the honesty (although I need to work on its delivery) will help to heal some of the past.
I hope someday to return to this post, maybe in ten or twenty years, and be able to add an author’s note. In it I hope to say something more substantial, something more decisive, to all the TCKs and MKs struggling with guilt, loneliness, fear – all of it. What I can say now is have faith. Have faith like your parents have faith. Trust, trust that God loves you, for what more in this world could we ask?