Helping missionaries return well
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The year was 2003, and a young couple was…
A small crowd cheered as the final flag was placed.
The symbolic ceremony was part of Global Reunion, a camp held each year for Third Culture Kids, or TCKs — children who grow up in a different culture from that of their parents.
Each flag represents the country where the TCKs have spent much of their life. For many, it’s the only home they’ve ever known.
As they stood among the flags they sang.
“The Lord be gracious, gracious unto you.”
It was the final moments of a week that had bonded them all. The group of about 100 is made up of children, teens, young adults and parents who have spent years living in other countries and are now trying to adapt to life in the United States.
“The transition, it was tough. Absolutely tough,” Charlie Hancock told The Christian Chronicle.
Charlie Hancock stands by the Japanese flag following the closing ceremony of Global Reunion.Hancock has been in those shoes. A TCK himself, Hancock came to Global Reunion a few years ago as he was trying to adjust to a life after his family moved from Tokyo to United States.
“They left everything they knew behind,” Nancy Hartman said.
Hartman is one of the organizers of Global Reunion. The camp focuses on helping Third Culture Kids adapt to life in the States. Though many are U.S. citizens, they are the children of missionaries, military officers or international businesspeople. When their families return to the U.S., many TCKs have difficulty adapting to a “home” they’ve never known.
“People just assume they know about America because they look and sound American. Their passport says they’re American,” Hartman said. “They don’t know American culture but people assume they do.”
The chance to be in the U.S. — bonding with extended family and even old family friends — often is exciting yet frightening for these teens and children. Hartman says many quickly realize this country is much different from the one they’ve left, the one they’ve always known.
And that’s where problems begin.
“Kids learn a culture from age 1 to 12. They start applying it at age 13. So, if they move back between age 13 and 16 they’re applying the wrong culture,” Hartman said. “Very quickly at that age their peers say, ‘this is a weird person,’ and they’re out.”
The phrases they’re familiar with are no longer cool. The way they dress is different than their new peers. For a teenager, this can be devastating.
“They very quickly don’t have an identity. They can’t figure out who they are,” Hartman said.
It’s a struggle Hancock has experienced.
Born in New Orleans, his family moved to Tokyo, Japan when he was a year old. For 17 years, Tokyo was his home. So, adapting to the culture in the U.S. was hard for him.
“I didn’t understand the social interactions in America, like how that worked,” he said. “I feel like I kind of fire-hosed people with information right off the bat. I thought that’s how you make relationships, you just talk about your background, let it all out. But in the U.S., it’s a little more different. It starts with small talk.”
Understanding humor was also a struggle. He says those first few months back were a dark time, not knowing where or how to fit in. He watched a lot of television, using the shows to learn how to socialize like an American.
A sculpture of a Brazilian favela by Michelli Keith at the Global Reunion. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
“I didn’t really have a sense of identity or belonging. I was forcefully trying to be something that I’m not,” Hancock said.
It was during that transition period his parents learned about Global Reunion. They encouraged him to come and he now says he’s glad they did.
He says camp helped him to adapt, gave him tools to deal with a culture he was not familiar with, even taught him how to deal with the grief of leaving the place he had considered home.
Hartman says campers spend a whole day on grief, focusing on guilt the teens have for missing the country they grew up in, struggles to adjust to new schools and youth groups, and giving them the language skills to express what they are feeling.
At the end of that day they hold a special ceremony where the teens write down the losses they have felt during the transition. They then tie those to a balloon and, one by one, release them.
“It’s very emotional. Makes me emotional just talking about it,” Hartman said. “They do it together so they don’t feel alone in their grief.”
For Hancock the experience was life-changing. So much so that he now comes back as a camp facilitator, helping other TCKs.
“We all know empathy and sympathy are two separate things. I can truly empathize with these kids and what they’re going through,” Hancock said.
One of those kids is 14-year-old Quincy Rush, who was born in the U.S. but grew up in Mexico.
Quincy Rush, right, poses with a friend he met at Global Reunion.
“They show us how to bond better with normal kids, kids who weren’t out of the country,” Rush said.
Rush just moved back to the U.S. a year and a half ago. He says it’s been nice to be close to family. But the cultural adjustments, at times, are challenging.
He says coming to Global Reunion is something he’s really enjoyed because of the friends he’s made.
“TCKs, when they get together, like with other people, there’s awkwardness,” Rush said. “But when you get together with each other you like bond right away.”
Hancock agrees, the friendships are incredible. However, he says the camp is doing more than just building friendships.
“It saved my life, literally. Like literally,” Hancock said. “I know a couple others that would say the same. It goes to that extent.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION on Global Reunion contact Nancy Hartman at [email protected].
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