Matt Jones, Missionary to Thailand
In the last CGO article, we spent 1354 words illustrating the reality that when you interact with missionary kids on campus at BJU, it’s pretty common for their insides to not match their outsides. MKs have spent a lifetime on the mission field learning what’s “normal, expected, and appropriate behavior” while kids growing up in the States have spent their lifetime learning how to operate within the cultural norms and boundaries of American society.
Those of you who have traveled outside the U.S. for missions trips or family vacations understand clearly that American culture emphasizes customs, traditions and values that are very different than even neighboring countries like Canada and Mexico. When MKs spend their developmental years outside the boundaries of the continental U.S., the way they approach life will naturally be quite similar to the way people in their host country approach life.
When you see a new international student from Haiti staring wide-eyed at all the choices on the Chick-fil-a menu in the Den, don’t get impatient if they have to take a few extra seconds to order. Similarly, don’t think it’s all that unusual when you see a group of Chinese students grilling bacon and cooking noodles in a hot pot at the gazebo. You might not like the smell of kimchee, but you can tell Korean students love their fermented cabbage. For them, it’s one of the few reminders of “home” and a life they’ve left behind.
So why is it so easy to give grace and be patient when international students on campus at BJU do things that are “different” or “out of place”? Simple answer: Their outsides match their insides. You don’t (or shouldn’t) expect them to know what you know. You don’t (or shouldn’t) expect them to act like you act. You don’t (or shouldn’t) expect them to enjoy the exact same things that you enjoy. When you see them, the differences in their appearance or accent rightfully elicits a sense of compassion and understanding because you realize their background and culture are very different than yours. You understand that they don’t understand all you understand, and you understand that you don’t understand all that they understand.
Simply put, we don’t hold international students to the same set of cultural expectations that we do for those who grow up around us in our American culture.
**Enter missionary kids from stage left**
MKs arriving on campus probably just got off the same plane from Tokyo or Lima or Frankfurt that brought the international students to the States, but our expectations for these two groups are vastly different. When we see them unpacking their stuff in their dorm room, we don’t expect the MKs to be struggling with culture shock. We don’t expect the MKs to be craving the exotic foods they’ve eaten their whole lives which are now only available at Sirin Thai for $10 a plate. We don’t expect the MKs to be struggling to figure out how to use a credit card or pump gas at QT. On the other hand, we DO expect them to know what we know and think like we think. We DO expect them to be able to talk about baseball or American football or the NBA. We DO expect them to be able to order a triple shot dirty chai latte at Cuppa Jones or Bridge City Coffee.
Why do we expect these things? Because these are things that most American college students have been doing for years.
So, let me ask you a question: when someone doesn’t live up to your expectations, what happens to your opinion of them? When someone stands way to close to you when they’re talking, how does that make you feel? When someone pulls out in front of you in traffic after not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign, what’s your reaction? Disappointment? Frustration? Anger? You EXPECTED them to stop because that’s the rule of law; but for one reason or another, they chose to not follow the norms of society. There was an expectation that they would behave in a certain way, and they failed to live up to that expectation. Have you ever considered how many cultural expectations you place on people around you without even thinking about it? We have hundreds of unspoken expectations in American society regarding things like etiquette, personal space, manners, behavior, and the way we dress.
**Enter missionary kids from stage right**
As MKs are learning to navigate and embrace the U.S. culture, it’s really easy for them to step on cultural landmines that can defy our personal expectations of behavior. Maybe in their host country, nobody EVER stops at stop signs so neither do they. Maybe in their host country, people have no concept or appreciation for personal space, so they stand a bit too close when they’re chatting with you. Maybe in their host country, liking cats isn’t considered deplorable behavior. I know—gross, right? Totally unthinkable, but it’s true that in some remote, back-woods, underdeveloped pagan corners of the world, people allow cats to coexist in their presence.
So, what can you do as a red-blooded-mono-cultural-American to help build bridges between where the MKs are coming from to where they are now as undergrad students at Bob Jones University? Good question.
Four Ways to Build Bridges with MKs on Campus
1. Be a Cultural Translator.
Take time to help MKs understand the “whys” behind the things that Americans think is normal. In conversations, double back from time to time just to make sure they are on the same page you’re on. Take time to ask them “Does that make sense?”. If you notice things that they do that are out of the ordinary that might offend some people, explain it to them. They’ll likely welcome the input.
2. Ask Them Tons of Questions.
Take time to try to understand the “whys” behind the things they think are normal. Ask lots of questions about where they grew up. Ask them about their favorite foods and favorite experiences. Ask them what they miss most about their mission field. Ask them when they’ll get to see their family again or travel back to their “home” overseas. Ask them what’s hardest about being in the States.
These types of questions might feel a bit awkward at first because we often reserve questions like these for deeper friendships or until we’ve known each other for a long time. For many reasons, most MKs LOVE to jump right into this level of conversation, so just go for it and don’t be shocked when they ask these sorts of questions about you!
3. Don’t Assume Anything.
Even when they give the impression that they’ve mastered the U.S. culture, realize that MKs are pretty good at being Cultural Chameleons. MKs have amazing skills at adapting in social settings based on who they are with, and just because they laughed at your joke, it doesn’t mean they “got” it.
Also realize that things that might seem harmless to you like touching their heads or putting your feet on their beds might be really upsetting to them.
4. Make the Effort to Find Them.
Ask them from time to time if they need help with practical stuff like getting to Walmart or the grocery store. Invite an MK to a meal once a week. Check in with them weekly and give them a safe place to just talk. Don’t worry about having the right answers or the right words to say; just listening is golden.
MKs on the BJU campus often function like Hidden Immigrants. Physically, they may not look or sound like international students, but they bring to campus a very multi-cultural background that may cause them to color outside the cultural lines of the U.S. society. Rather than interpreting this behavior as strange or antisocial, take time to reach out to them through conversations, meals, and kindness.
Working to build bridges to and from MKs on campus is a rich and rewarding endeavor that will likely create some of your best and most fulfilling lifelong friendships!
Matt Jones, Missionary to Thailand
Let’s talk about hearts. No, not metaphorically. Not figuratively. Not philosophically. I’m saying let’s talk literally about your heart. I’m referring to your squishy little grey 10-ounce organ that’s sitting about 16 inches below your eyes right now and silently working hard to keep you alive.
Consider the facts: Your heart circulates your 5.6 liters of blood through your entire body around 3 times per minute. The average child has around 60,000 miles of blood vessels inside of them, while a typical adult has about 100,000 miles of arteries, veins, and capillaries supplying every inch of your body. In one day, your blood travels nearly 12,000 miles inside of you! That is the equivalent of driving from New York City to Los Angeles and then back to New York City and then back to Los Angeles and … then back to New York city once more. All in a day.
But what happens when that blood flow is disrupted? What happens when your heart says, “I’m tired of your throwing French fries and chicken nuggets at me, and I’m tired of your spending more time on Instagram than you do on the treadmill.”? Well, if your blood flow is restricted to your heart for any reason, you have a really serious problem that needs immediate attention. Doctors refer to any condition that affects the way your heart operates as “heart disease,” and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) says that the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States is heart disease.
Heart disease is a voiceless predator, and more often than not, you would never know that the person sitting across the room from you at Chick-fil-A has 90% blockage in two of his arteries. He’s smiling and enjoying his spicy chicken sandwich and waffle fries (and “Diet Coke,” of course) without any indication that anything is wrong. From the outside he looks fine, but his insides don’t match his outsides.
So, the question I assume you are asking right now is “What does any of that have to do with missionary kids on campus at BJU”? Well, I’m glad you asked.
Over the past four decades, missionaries, authors, sociologists, pastors, and mission agencies have dedicated countless hours of research and observation to try to better understand the unique challenges of growing up overseas as a missionary kid. Though it’s a bit presumptuous to make sweeping blanket statements about any group of people, there are certainly inherent hardships that come when your insides don’t really match your outsides. What do I mean by that? Well, again, good question.
All across campus, there are dozens and dozens of students who have grown up as “Third Culture Kids” which loosely means that they have grown up “between worlds.” Missionary kids, military kids, the children of international schoolteachers, and a few others fit into the TCK definition. They’ve spent some of the most important and impressionable years of their lives learning how to comfortably survive in a host country where they have learned new languages, customs, cultures, and traditions. These remote corners of the worlds aren’t exotic to them—they’re just “home.”
These kids have also lived with the constant tension that they would someday graduate from high school and would be expected to pack up everything they own and leave that “home” (mission field) to return to their “home” (passport) country. Metaphorically, they’ve had one foot in their passport country and one foot on their mission field. Most MKs would say they “partially belong” in both places at the same time, but not 100% in either place. Now those same MKs are sitting across the aisle from you in English 102. They’re down the hall from you in Georgia Creel. They’re working behind the counter at Chick-fil-A in the Den. When you look at them on the outside, you don’t really see all that’s inside them. Their insides don’t match their outsides.
While these MKs were learning to greet people with a bow or learning how to not offend people in their host culture, American kids were learning how to shake hands firmly and look people in the eye while talking to them. While the MKs were learning to eat rice, noodles, spicy curries, jamon, and churrascarias, American kids were chowing down on cheeseburgers, Lucky Charms, and Taco Bell. While MKs might have been the only foreigners in their whole town on the field, American kids were graduating from high school with kids they’ve known since kindergarten. The list goes on and on, and it’s easy to see how an MK’s insides might not match their outsides.
For those of us who grew up in America, it’s a challenge to understand this contrast. MKs look just like everyone else on your hall. MKs sound just like everyone else in your classes. MKs have ten fingers and ten toes (typically speaking) just like everyone else. So why don’t MKs act like everyone else? What makes them different from other students who grew up in America? Their insides don’t match their outsides.
While they look American on the outside, on the inside they’re a strong mixture of Brazilian, South African, Spanish, Mexican, Thai, Korean or 189 other countries! While American kids were learning about all the elements of pop culture in the U.S., MKs were learning how to fit into a completely different cultural system. This means there are some basic elements about “life in America” that we take for granted that many MKs have never experienced before. There are “do’s and don’t’s” that no one has ever explained to them, and it will take time for them to add American culture into their worldview. Their insides don’t yet match their outsides, and they need a safe space to tell their stories.
When students arrive on campus in August ready to face the grind of college life at Bob Jones University, every student is feeling the tension that comes from being away from home. The tension of leaving your close friends and family and getting to know new roommates is rough. Every student is wondering if it’s even humanly possible to live on dining common food for six months. Every student is wondering how many times they can wear the same shirt before they have to go downstairs to do laundry.
Sitting in Pathways every week equips the freshmen to face these and other on-campus challenges, but what about the extra hurdles that MKs bring with them from overseas? It seems that most mission organizations, colleges, and even families often treat the rigorous challenges of MK life—especially those associated with high mobility, transitions, and repatriation—much like heart disease: if there are no obvious problems on the surface, just ignore it. If you can’t see it, it will probably go away on its own. It can’t be all that serious if an MK’s insides don’t match their outsides, can it?
I mean, when was the last time an MK tried to burn down FMA? When was the last time an MK came unhinged and tried to graffiti the top of Rodeheaver? Aren’t most MKs just naturally “quiet” and like to be by themselves anyways? Aren’t they supposed to be “resilient” and able to handle everything that life throws at them?
Our problem is that we assume there is no real need to worry if we are not able to observe any serious symptoms. We presume that any underlying tension in MKs will just go away on its own if we wait long enough. Sometimes we make assumptions about MKs on Campus because we misinterpret their personalities and idiosyncrasies as something they’re not. Their insides don’t match their outsides, so they’re not only learning to be Bob Jones University students—they’re also trying to figure out what parts of American culture they need to know to survive!
So, what’s next? How can you help? What part can non-MK students on campus play to help build bridges with MKs? Great question. We’ll talk about that more in the next article…
Matt Jones, Missionary to Thailand
All transitions are tricky. They represent the end of something old and familiar, and the beginning of something new and unknown. When facing transitions, you naturally experience a period of grief and mourning over the losses that now lie somewhere in your past. God has created us with an amazing and extensive spectrum of physical and emotional responses to the changes that take place in our lives. For instance, when you’re happy, you smile. When something is funny, you laugh. When you’re angry, you find something to throw at a cat. When you lose something or someone that you love, you grieve.
In that way, missionary kids are no different than other BJU students. When incoming freshmen arrive on campus, they naturally miss their beds, their mom’s cooking, their high school friends, and probably their dog. They probably even miss their annoying siblings, and even their dad sitting in his recliner snoring while watching football on Sunday afternoons. But I have some dramatic news for you, wait for it, here it comes: there are some MAJOR differences between MKs who come to BJU and other American kids who show up on campus for the first time.
Profound, huh? Think about this with me for a minute. What are some of the major differences between a typical BJU dorm student and a missionary kid who grew up in some remote corner of the world?
The MKs probably can’t go back home.
What else is different for MKs?
The MKs are learning two new cultures at once.
The first few weeks at BJU are fun to watch. In those initial days, students receive approximately 2 million details and pieces of information that they need to remember to be able to succeed. It’s essential to figure out “Can I get to Alumni 301 from the Fine Arts building in 4 minutes?” Or “Who am I going to go to lunch with today? Is there a bathroom somewhere in FMA? Why is the line at Chick-fil-A always so long, but Papa Johns’ is always empty? Do I really get demerits if I jump in the fountains? Why is that creepy guy in my freshman speech class trying to follow me on Instagram?” Figuring out the answers to these questions is a necessary ingredient in every student’s college experience. No matter where you grew up, you have to be concerned about more than just academics; you also have to learn Bob Jones University dorm student culture as well. That can be tricky!
It’s easy in the swarm of college life to forget that MKs aren’t just learning “BJU culture,” they’re also trying to learn “American culture” at the same time. What am I talking about?
So, what’s the point in writing all this? Well, MKs need to remember several important things about life in the States:
Students who grew up in the States but live among MKs on campus need to remember several important things as well:
“We know and are known by the telling of our stories.” -Michael Pollock
Missionary dad of four amazing MKs
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.