My daughter was two when we first arrived in East Asia. Eighteen months later, our son was born with the assistance of local midwives. Even from the earliest days, I loved how God painted on the blank canvas of my family’s life using East Asian themes and colors.
That was twenty-seven years ago. Now my children are adults who have moved to mission fields of their own. I didn’t realize it during their childhood, but experiencing life overseas with my kids taught me meaningful lessons about cultural adaptation, reentry to the United States, and growing older.
Kids find their own ways to adapt to their overseas environment.
My daughter used to joyfully sing at the top of her lungs on the back of her dad’s bike as he pedaled in tandem with his new local friend. As she grew, I watched her carry the same enthusiasm into many cultural experiences and embrace every moment.
Conversely, my son pulled his baseball cap down farther over his eyes each time we went outside. He found safety under the brim. Over time, however, I realized something else was happening under there. He was becoming a keen observer of people and culture as he quietly watched, learned, and engaged in his own way.
I discovered that they each have personality-driven ways to encounter people and culture. I found both of their approaches to cultural adaptation both acceptable and adorable.
Children need preparation for re-entry to the United States.
My daughter and I walked into her classroom together for her first day of American public school during our family’s temporary furlough. As I joined the other moms in the back of the room, I saw my daughter grasp her pencil and line up with her second-grade classmates. I suddenly realized I had not coached her in the mundane task of pencil sharpening. I thought I had surely failed and the pencil would be her undoing.
Yet, there she stood, craning her neck around the kids ahead of her and watching them insert the pencil into the sharpener and grind their Number 2 to a perfect point. I watched her take a turn, and with a whirl of the handle, she, too, completed the task.
In that moment, I recalled coaching her to be a good observer when she encountered something she didn’t understand about American culture, and that’s exactly what she did. Perhaps I wasn’t a failure after all. She was a champion to me that day as she emerged from the pencil queue, victorious over her cultural challenge.
God gives them everything they need when they need it.
As an eighth-grader at a public middle school in the United States, my son encountered many difficult situations and peer pressures that he hadn’t previously experienced in East Asia. Rather than retreat in this new territory, he used the cultural observations skills God had given him to thrive in the middle school setting. He allowed God to instruct and enable him to stand firm as he thoughtfully engaged with this new “culture” and chose friends and activities that closely fit his moral compass. Looking back, I see that God protected and instructed him throughout his eighth-grade experience far better than I could.
My children’s realities don’t have to be the same as my own upbringing.
As a family, we lived firmly in the culture where we served believing that God wanted all of us to be there. I had a simple faith that even though I might not understand the implications and impact living cross-culturally would have on my children, I could trust God with the results—with their lives.
I remember one particular moment of counting the cost. During a stateside assignment, I longed to stay to keep our daughter in public school and in the wonderful church programs for children. But I knew in my heart it wasn’t the life she would have. The things she would miss out on in the United States paled in comparison to God’s desired reality for her life.
“My kids’ geographical and cultural context helped develop their understanding of the world, their future roles in it, and their relationship with an entirely trustworthy God.”
My kids’ geographical and cultural context helped develop their understanding of the world, their future roles in it, and their relationship with an entirely trustworthy God. And I became at peace with that reality.
I adjusted to and learned to love my new role in their lives.
When they began university in the United States, I cried and clutched framed photos of them to my chest while wailing, “I needed more time to love them! I wasn’t through having them close to me!”
I wanted to know all the details of their everyday lives. We had been such a tightly-knit family. Yet, I gratefully watched God help them transition to independence. At university and even now, they still take on life in similar ways to their childhood methods—one with a vibrant enthusiasm for the culture d’ jour and for making new friends, and the other with quiet determination to learn, understand, and relate to the people and culture around him.
I cherish watching them continue to embrace their God-ordained life with the same delightfully personalized approaches. And I’ll continue learning more about them and about our faithful God who keeps adding his strokes to the canvas of our lives.