Peoples of China

Kids in Transition


I still remember my freshman year at a Christian college on the east coast. I was assigned to a freshman dorm, and the first few weeks were occupied with getting to know the other guys on the hall.

We almost all came from different states and our parents represented a wide range of professions. And then there was “Buck.”* Buck was the first real missionary kid I had ever met other than seeing the typical “parade” of missionary families during our church’s annual missions conference. All the missionaries would introduced themselves and walk across the platform.

Buck was different. Very different. None of us in the freshman dorm were ultra-hip; after all, we were wide-eyed freshmen in a conservative Christian college in the 1980s. Nevertheless, Buck could not relate.

Buck lived in the dorm room next to mine. The conversations we all had in the dorm in the evening before the RA would enforce our 11 o’clock lights out revolved around sports, music and movies. Buck would always confess that he had no idea who that athlete or that celebrity was. We would stare back in disbelief and laugh nervously. Then he would make a comment that seemed to be straight out of a “Leave it to Beaver” episode. Again, more awkward stares and uncomfortable laughter.

During this period of my life, God was moving me in the direction of missions. I wanted to understand Buck and be his friend—I really did. Rightly or wrongly, I felt sorry for him. But I also wanted to fit in. I wanted to be liked and accepted like other insecure, freshmen guys. So, would I risk sitting with Buck in the cafeteria when he was wearing clothes that screamed “missionary closet”? Would I defend him when he made his strange comments when we were hanging out in the dorm? Would I help him navigate this new culture that he found himself immersed in, a culture that was supposed to be his own?

I did. Sometimes. But not always. I occasionally joined in the laughter that came at Buck’s expense.

Buck lasted exactly one semester at my college. I don’t know where he went after Christmas break. All we knew was he didn’t come back. Someone else moved into that dorm room and Buck was largely forgotten except for the occasional ridiculing reference to the missionary kid.

If God was calling me to missions, how could I have been so callous to his struggles? In hindsight, I realize that I didn’t have the knowledge or tools to understand what Buck was experiencing—not to mention help him work through these issues. Thirty-two years later, however, I still remember Buck and the struggles he faced.

As God moved me through my college and seminary years and closer to cross-cultural service, I determined to find a way for my future children to be “normal.” On a cold January morning in1993, I boarded a flight from Columbus, Ohio, on my way to a new life in East Asia. I had no idea how I would help my future kids deal with reentering their “home” culture. I didn’t even have a wife at that point! What could I possibly know? I had not even heard terms like “third culture kid (TCK),” “reentry,” or “member care.”

Fast forward to 2015. I am now a husband of 20 years with three teenagers and one younger child. My 22 years of service in Asia were coming to a close. God had gently, graciously, and clearly shown our family that the “going” part of our mission’s involvement was finished. Our family began building our R.A.F.T., the now well-known acronym for Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewells and Think Destination.

My wife and I attempted to do our best to prepare our kids for making America our home rather than just our temporary home leave assignment. For our family, 2015 was much different than 1985 was for Buck.

There are tools that make reentry and transition potentially much smoother for kids who have grown up physically absent from their passport culture. Of course, there are still pitfalls and struggles, but can you imagine how much the missionary kids of the 1980s would have appreciated the fact that “holey” jeans were cool?! Or the fact that the really hip millennials shop at Goodwill and thrift shops because they want to, not because they have to?

The Internet, mobile phone technology, Skype, global satellite TV, the proliferation of DVDs and the relative affordability of international airfare have all contributed to the ability of missionary families to stay connected, at least to some degree, to their home culture. The North American church and mission agencies have all recognized the need for enhanced member care in the area of reentry.

All that to say, the situation for third-culture kids in 2017 is generally much better than it has ever been. We thank God for his provision in these things; nevertheless, transition can still be perilous. Here are a few things that our family has learned in our transition back to the United States.

Connect to a church. Without a doubt, connecting to the right local church has been the single most important decision for our family since returning from Asia. As parents, we chose to give our kids a voice—much voice—in the choice of a church home.

Because of employment opportunities or the lack thereof, our family did not return to the area where our sending church is located. We started from scratch in a new city looking for a church that would provide a place for us to worship, fellowship and, most importantly in our opinion, to give our kids a chance to grow in their relationship with Christ.

Your family might be returning to the same neighborhood where your sending church is located. You may want to consider that your sending church may not be the ideal, long-term, home church for your family. Many of us, especially those who served in restricted access countries, have spent many years involved in churches or local fellowships that would best be described as “house churches” and were often very international in nature. Talk to your kids about what they are looking for in a church. Maybe they want a new experience that is vastly different from what they have been used to. On the other hand, they might want something that shares some similarities to what has been familiar.

By God’s grace, we listened to our kids. In the process of visiting new churches, we found several that evoked a highly negative reaction from our kids. They were not accustomed to certain styles or degrees of formality or what they observed to be the marriage of patriotism and church. However, one Sunday when we walked out of morning service and all three of our teenagers asked if we could bring them back that evening for the youth service, my wife and I shared a glance with each other while trying to maintain a calm exterior and replied, “Sure. I think we can do that.”

Connect to mentors. Quite possibly your choice of a home church will also address the issue of mentors for your kids. As parents, it hurt our pride a little bit to realize that our kids needed other mature, trusted adults in whom they could confide. But after we recovered from our self pity, we have been so thankful for the provision of mature (but still much younger than us!) Christians to meet consistently and regularly, one-on-one, with each of our teenagers.

Here’s the kicker: these meetings and relationships are the things that our kids value above everything else in their schedule. They will sacrifice almost anything they can in order to keep their weekly times with their mentors. These times of discipleship have undoubtedly been the key to a healthy and happy transition to America for our kids. We didn’t arrange for these times. We didn’t ask these individuals to do this. God designed these appointments.

Make wise education choices. Our kids had a variety of educational settings during our time overseas including national schools, home school, online school, and some hybrids or combinations of those. When we returned from Asia, we involved our kids in this decision process as we did with the choice of a church, and we concluded that a private, Christian school would be the best option. In our particular situation, our school choice provided the most intercultural and TCK opportunities. Those are the kids with whom our kids have found common experiences to build friendships.

Our school choice has been a struggle for us financially because we no longer have the option of sending out a newsletter with an “urgent need” for which our supporters were always so ready and willing to assist us. It’s up to us now. Some people probably think we are being unwise with our resources, but the struggle has been worth it. Your decision may lead you to a public school, an online school, or home school. At the risk of stating the obvious, choose the best option for your family no matter what others may think.

Connect to their TCK friends. There may be opportunities for your kids to connect with friends, especially other TCKs that they know from your host culture. Since we returned to the US we have made opportunities for our kids to travel to spend time with friends from their “previous life.” In a couple of instances, it involved flights from one coast of the US to the opposite coast. We do not take this travel casually, nor do we take these opportunities for granted, but for the sake of our child’s transition, we have made the effort and counted the cost. It has proven to be worth it. Help your kids make healthy connections.

Laugh. Finally, be intentional about reminding your kids about the laughter you shared in your host culture when you were overseas. My kids laugh harder at my recounting my goofy mistakes or cultural missteps than anything else. Remind them of the things that made you laugh as a family. There have been enough stressful times during our reentry and transition; laughter is truly good for our family’s soul. Laughter draws us together as a family.

By God’s grace, we know much more and have access to much more in 2017 than my college dorm mate, Buck, and his parents had in 1985. May God bless your family as you navigate the ups and downs of reentry!

Stephen Sark

Stephen Sark

Stephen Sark received his bachelor's degree in cross-cultural studies from Liberty University and a master's degree in TEFL from Columbia International University.  He and his wife, Patty, spent 22 years serving in China with about half of their years spent in the northeastern city of Shenyang and the other half... View Full Bio