One main reason a child is forced to spend their developmental years abroad have to do with their parents’ work, be it multinational corporations, military, embassy or missionary work. My M blog musings is about the missionary kids.
I’ve read somewhere that missionary children are the third culture children who spend most time abroad in their developmental years, but usually they spend it in only one country. So when military children or media workers’ children might move from country to country every second or third year, missionary children might spend as much as ten years in one country. This has been the case with most missionary children I’ve met, though a few have lived in two or three countries (other than their passport country).
Another difference that often is pointed out, is that missionary children have more interaction with the local community and less contact with their home country, than other third culture children, and are thus more likely to fully integrate in the local culture. This leads to, of course, that they will struggle with adjusting to their home country because they identify more with the country in which their parents have worked as missionaries.
I have not spent this much time abroad to say I am fully one of these children, but I was born into the missionary culture in East Africa and have been a part of it as I grew up, with my dad in Africa, until I lived in West Africa as teenager together with other missionary kids at an American dorm school. There are a few things I have pondered about my background, and being a missionary child is one of these things.
First, I must say that one missionary is very different from another missionary. Missionaries from Europe are usually different from American misionaries. Missionaries from North America are different from South American ones. It also depends on what church you represent, be it Lutheran or Baptist or other. Some believe strongly in helping out in the local community through aid work, teaching and health work, while others believe in preaching and building churches. Some have a high degree of education (engineers, doctors, teachers) while others have not. Some like to live near missionaries from same country, others like to live in ”solitiude” amongst the locals, far away from other missionaries. Some are very liberal and others are extremely conservative. The reason I say all this is because when I tell I’m a missionary child, people at once think they know exactly what a missionary is. Well, you’re wrong. Amongst missionaries I’ve known, I have met every human type ranging from the utter selfless and kind humanitarian ones who doesn’t flinch in face of the extremes to the type who looks down at everyone or even thinks them evil for not sharing their moral or religious belief.
An important thing that separates missionary kids from other third culture or cross culture children, is that their parents have a strong religious belief which they want the whole world to share (thus the missionary thing). Throughout history missionary children have been either left in orphanages at home or placed at dormitory schools far away from their parents. I think this can leave a feeling in the child that he/she is “in the way” of their parents’ important work, that they are secondary to this. That doing God’s work is more important than raising a child, so to speak. This is crucial in development years when the child needs to be seen. Today it’s much better and internet helps to keep the distances feel smaller.
I grew up thinking I was not important to my parents, especially my dad, that their mission work was more important than me. I always felt shameful if complaining, because they were doing a noble work: saving the world. And though I haven’t had such an extreme upbringing as many other missionary kids, I have both had the feeling of being put at the sideline and also felt the shame of grieving in face of the higher good and the need to deny there is a grief. See also my post about losses.
I went back to Africa as an agnostic teenager after being several years in home country, at a time when I felt a mixture of shame and pride that many teenagers have towards their parents, but my shame was closely linked to the missionary activities and my dad because he was religious. Still today I hesitate to say I am a missionary child because in the end it is all about trying to convince people about a religious belief. At the same time I have witnessed how much good missionaries do for the locals and how much respect a selfless missionary gets who doesn’t preach his/her religion when helping people. But I am conflicted about this. I will probably always be.
Please note that this is a personal blog tour, and these are my reflections. So I’m not saying that all missionary kids share the same experiences as me.