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…
Shadrach Nyeko, BJU Seminary Student
Before going to the States for the first time in 2013, I had a lot of expectations that may not have been very accurate. For example, the picture I had in mind concerning the entire United States was that of New York City—skyscrapers everywhere and busy streets full of people! But when I got off the plane in Memphis, Tennessee, I knew that I was wrong. For me, and probably for most new international students, coming to the States was extremely exciting. But that excitement is not without some measure of anxiety and fear of the unknown. So, what should you expect as an incoming international student? And how can you engage the American culture in such a way as to impact and be impacted for the glory of Christ?
Expect some cultural differences.
As you interact and observe American life and culture, expect that some things are going to be different from your own culture; and that is okay. The food is going to taste a little different. I had to get used to eating cheese in almost every food. Expect to be a little bit overwhelmed by the sheer volume of options at any given restaurant. Let a friend help you. The American idea of personal space might be surprising. As a general rule, Americans expect a lot more personal space and label more stuff as personal. So, the best thing to do is to always ask before using an item that does not belong to you. Time management might be stricter. No need to get discouraged by these differences. Embrace what is required of you.
Interact with people.
Don’t isolate yourself. It is very easy to take the easy way out and stand aloof, uninvolved, and unconcerned. But the benefits to that approach are few as compared to engaging and interacting with people—all kinds of people. Perhaps you have found a friend with whom you share a common culture. The tendency is to hang out with only that friend to the exclusion of anybody else. Isolating yourself, whether individually or in a closed group of your comfort, will prove to be detrimental in the long run, and it will not give you the opportunity to maximumly impact the people God has put around you, or to grow to your full potential in all aspects of life.
Learn by observation.
When you interact with people around you—whether its in class, in the dorms, during co-curricular activities like sports and music, in restaurants, or in church—, you get the opportunity to observe what the norms are. As a result, you don’t feel out of place after a while. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Also, in most cases, you can google words, phrases, or idiomatic sayings that you don’t understand. Sometimes people speak with movie references, so if it sounds appropriate, you can google those for the context too. Be careful, however, not to copy everything you see or hear. Use your common sense and Biblical convictions to sort through the things you observe.
Focus on your academic task.
It is easy to become so busy with the numerous activities on and off campus and, consequently, devote less time to academics. This can be detrimental because as a student, your first priority is your studies. You are fully responsible for getting all your work done within the given deadlines. This means that you will have to pick and choose what you can and cannot do. I personally felt pressed for time playing for the collegiate soccer team, coupled with ministry class and church-related responsibilities. In hindsight, however, I feel like that experience prepared me well for my incredibly busy life right now (planting a church and trying to make progress on a PhD). You will have to plan well for your time, not neglecting time for rest and time for prayer.
Recognize your Christian responsibility.
Wherever you are, as long as you are a believer, you possess the privilege and responsibility to continue growing spiritually and to help others to do the same. You are still responsible for making disciples even when you have assignments pending. This means that you cannot afford to just find a comfortable pace and coast your way through. Survival is not the end game. Attempt to make an impact for Christ by living out an exemplary Christian testimony. Find a local church and commit yourself to doing any work of the ministry that is available. Reach out and be a blessing to someone. The rewards will not be insignificant.
In the end, all people are just people. There is no need to get caught up in the cultural differences. God’s grace is ever-present and sufficient to enable you to thrive even as an international student. Remember to enjoy your time in college—make friends, laugh, do fun things (that are acceptable). Consider your time at BJU to be a gift from God!
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.