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Searching for home: MK’s and TCK’s share stories of their searches for home

February 1 2018

“Where is home?” This is a question that many of us have been asked. Most of us have easy answers: Home is whatever city or state we grew up in. Some people, like me, have grown up in one city our whole lives. Others have moved once or twice. But still, for some the concept of home is a relatively easy thing.

For other students on campus, home is trickier to pin down — whether they be from military families, or they had to bounce between houses, or their families moved around a lot for any number of reasons. One such group is made up of missionary kids (MKs) and third culture kids (TCKs). MK refers to someone whose parents do mission work, while a TCK is someone who grew up in a different culture than their parents’ for any number of reasons. Many MKs and TCKs come to Wheaton having never lived in the states for an extended amount of time. In addition to having to adjust to being on their own, they’re also adjusting to a new culture, way of living and set of social rules. This can make the question of “where is home” difficult to answer. I asked some of Wheaton’s MKs and TCKs to tell me about home.

Sarita George

Photo Courtesy of Sarita George

When I sat down with junior Sarita George in Lower Beamer, I got a glimpse into life in Peru. George was born in Omaha, Nebraska, but when she was two, her family moved to Arequipa, Peru. They lived in Arequipa for a year “for language learning” before moving to Abancay. “We lived there until I was 11 … and [we] moved back to Arequipa for five years, which is where I did high school.” Hearing George talk, I got the impression that Peru has always been home for her.

George talked about some of the cultural differences between Peru and America. The funniest one was the different views on weight. “Where [I] come from, it’s a compliment to say, ‘Hey you’ve put on weight!’ It means, ‘Hey, you look good,’ which is fun because it means every time we go back to Peru, people are like, ‘Hey, you’ve fattened up.’ But every time we come back to the States, people say, ‘Hey, you’ve lost weight.’ And both mean it as a compliment.”

Another thing that George appreciated about Peruvian culture was the warmth people had for each other. She said everyone was very welcoming and hospitable. Community and spending time with people were extremely important. Sitting with George and listening to her speak, this warmth and love for being with people that she learned in Peru radiates through her. She brought this very communal and people-oriented mindset to Wheaton, taking the time to listen to me — even though I was supposed to be interviewing her — and embodying what we call “intentional community.”

Near the end of our time together, George talked a bit about her post-college plans. She’s currently engaged to fellow Wheatie, Zach Davis, and they’re getting married this May. After graduating, she’s going to follow in her dad’s footsteps and become a doctor, with the intention of doing medical missions, making her home wherever the Lord takes her.

Meg Hutton

Junior Meg Hutton grew up in Kyoto, Japan and describes her experience as an MK as “atypical.” Hutton’s mom was a TCK who also grew up in Japan, so most of her mom’s side of the family stayed in Japan. Hutton also saw a lot of her dad’s side of the family, since they started making frequent visits to Japan after her parents married. Her family didn’t move around as much as some missionary families, so Hutton lived in the same place her whole life.

Hutton’s schooling in Japan could also be viewed as atypical — she went to a bilingual international school, which she said was “rare.” The school was started by her uncle and had classes in both Japanese and English. This makes a Christian and English education much more accessible to Japanese students. Hutton’s parents used to teach at the school, which was attached to the church building where her father worked. “Church and school were in the same buildings, and actually we lived in the church, so we were known as the kids who lived at school.”

Hutton appreciates the punctuality of Japan. “They apologize profusely if the trains are even just a minute or two late. There’s none of this ‘Where is the bus?’” She said that, in America, she has sometimes been faced with the dilemma of when to arrive, explaining that “[a] meeting is supposed to start at six, but most people won’t get there till 6:15, so do I show up at six or at 6:15?

Not having to move, the proximity of her family and her connection to Japanese culture, gave Hutton “strong roots in one place” but made the move to Wheaton a hard one — especially since it was one so far from home. Hutton said that it took her older sister, “pretty much six years [to adjust], so college and then some … So, it just takes a while.” For a while, Hutton refused to call Wheaton “home,” because she felt so strongly that Japan was her home. When her mother stopped her one day and gave her permission to call Wheaton “home,” Hutton allowed herself to start putting down roots here.

Christina Festen

Photo Courtesy of Christina Festen

Senior Christina Festen grew up in the Central African Republic (CAR), living in “a pretty remote village.” Her parents were Wycliffe Bible translators. She was homeschooled through elementary school because there wasn’t another place for her to go to school. “The kids in my village, if they wanted any secondary education, they had to leave.”

When she was in eighth grade, Festen moved to Cameroon to go to boarding school. She could have continued to be homeschooled, but she wanted to be around peers and kids her age. “All my friends [in the village], by the time I was in eighth grade, had either left for school or were married. So it was kind of like my peers were also moving on in life.” Going to an international school also gave her the ability to come to college in the U.S. She described the CAR as “the place of [her] formative years” and Cameroon as “[her] most memorable place.”

One of Festen’s favorite things about boarding school was its community aspect. Everyone lived in what they called “hostels,” where up to 13 kids lived together with an older couple “who were like the parents.” Festen described these hostels as “living in a family situation with friends.” As a result, dorm life wasn’t a novelty and a struggle like it was for some freshmen coming into Wheaton. Festen said that the weirdest part about living in a dorm in Wheaton wasn’t how many people were constantly around, but the newfound opportunity for alone time. “I could sit alone in my room and study, which I never did before.”

In 2012, while Festen was at boarding school, civil war broke out in the CAR. She hasn’t returned to her childhood home since the conflict started. This past year, her parents moved back to Wheaton, the first time they’d been back since Festen’s freshman year. Being able to live with her parents brought up a sense of homesickness. “This break, because I live with [my parents] now, when I didn’t have to pack up anything for break and just stayed at home, I realized that it had been kind of hard since they left.”

Cindy Hu

Junior Cindy Hu was born in Wenzhou, China and lived there until she was 11. When she was nine, her mother moved to Tanzania for business. Hu and her father continued to live in Wenzhou for two years before finally reuniting with her mother.

Hu found the move to Tanzania to be jarring; she was still learning English, she had to leave all her friends and she found fitting in challenging. “When I was in Tanzania, I was the only Chinese student … I had a really difficult time just being with [the other students] because sometimes they would invite me to parties.” When Hu and her family would visit China during summer breaks, she felt even more misplaced. Her friends’ lives had gone on without her, and she started to feel less and less like she belonged.

Her sophomore year of high school, Hu went to a Christian boarding school in Kenya — it was here that she started her personal relationship with Christ. She had struggled with feeling alone in Tanzania, and this feeling was amplified in Kenya where her classmates mainly spoke either Korean or Swahili. When she returned to Tanzania for her last two years of high school, Hu transferred to a Christian school.

Since she had moved to a completely different continent when she was 11 and struggled to put down solid roots then, Hu said that her transition to Wheaton was “fairly smooth.” But moving to Wheaton added another layer of complexity to Hu’s search for a place of belonging as she looks to the future. Hu acknowledged that Wheaton is a very temporary place, commenting that her time here has seemed to fly by. She said the easy thing to do after graduating would be to return to China, but Wenzhou has changed so much that it isn’t the city of her childhood anymore.

Jozua Van Bakel

Photo Courtesy of Jozua Van Bakel

Van Bakel was born in Taiwan, where he was adopted with his brother by his parents, and lived there for four years. He then moved to Hawaii where his parents felt called to serve as missionaries with Youth with a Mission (YWAM). Van Bakel said that since he grew up on the YWAM base it was very normal for him to see people of many different ethnicities interacting with each other.

Van Bakel said that he feels at peace and finds satisfaction in being American and recognizes that this makes him different from other MKs at Wheaton. “I am the American MK — my parents came here and did missions instead of going out to do missions … For me, I place comfort in the fact that I can claim to be American and year by year, being here at college has helped me kind of assimilate to that, but I still hold on to a lot of the cultural pieces that define me as me.”

Hawaiian culture places high importance on the concept of land and nature. While speaking, it’s apparent van Bakel has picked up on this. He mentioned how the Chicagoland area is a bit of a difficult place for him to live because of how urban it is, calling the lack of nature “whizz-waz,” and explaining how much he misses the ocean (we both lamented over the travesty that is the Lake Michigan “beach”). Being in Wheaton, he feels as though he has no connection to the land, making it hard to obtain a feeling of “home.”

Home is a concept that, for van Bakel, is about feeling rooted and caring for the issues that concern a community. “The question that kind of lingers in my heart as a TCK is ‘should I even care about this? Because if this is not my land, should I ever care about this?’” Van Bakel said that what he’s learned at Wheaton is that, as Christians, we should care about issues that confront the different communities that we find ourselves in. But if he doesn’t identify with the land, Van Bakel still doesn’t fully know if he should take a stand for that community.

Alicia Mundhenk

Photo Courtesy of Alicia Mundhenk

Junior Alicia Mundhenk grew up in Ok Ao, Papua New Guinea (PNG). The youngest of three, her parents have been in missions her whole life. Mundhenk said that she spent the first seven years of her life “in the middle of nowhere.” Her family then spent four years on furlough in Texas before moving to the Western Highlands of PNG shortly after she turned 11.

When I asked Mundhenk about the cultural differences between the U.S. and Papua New Guinea, she said that “the list is honestly too long to condense well. Papua New Guinea is categorized as the least developed nation in the world, while America is categorized as the more developed nation … Both places have their own beauty and their own flaws, but humanity is the same at the core — different cultures just express it differently.” One difference, though, is in how people interact in PNG versus in the States. Mundhenk described how it’s rude to look elders in the eye when talking to them in PNG, whereas in the United States, it’s considered rude to not make eye contact.

Recalling the times she’s been able to return to Papua New Guinea, Mundhenk said that “it has felt as though [she] can breathe again because [she’s] finally in a world that makes sense.” Even though PNG is a world that makes complete sense to Mundhenk, she still expressed a struggle with the question of “Where is home?” “I never had closure leaving Ok Ao, and in many ways I still idealize that as my home. But, if I’m honest with myself, home is people.” Since she was born in Ok Ao, Mundhenk was accepted as one of the community, but after moving around, she “became an outsider in a country [she] will always call home.”

In America, Mundhenk had the opposite problem, as she was accepted into a culture because she looked like she belonged — even though she felt like she didn’t belong. As a child, Mundhenk told God that He could send her anywhere in the world except America. Ironically, she now feels as though God has called her to do ministry in America, saying that she believes she will eventually be able to call America “home.”

As we all move towards graduation and the rest of our adult lives, the question of “home” will become one that many of us may have to wrestle with. As I talked and listened to the stories of MKs and TCKs I realized that perhaps we can gain insight from them on how to deal with this question as it comes. Will home be the land that we are most connected to, as it is for van Bakel? Perhaps it will be people, as Mundhenk has found. It might even be multiple places, as Hutton found as she called both Wheaton and Japan “home.” Some of us, like Hu, may be searching for home for a while. Home might be something that we’re continually searching for until we reach our final destination: home in heaven.


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