Being a missionary kid on an American college campus was like being in a play. In this play, I was the only one who didn’t know my lines and the only one who didn’t understand the stage directions. Everyone else was following a script; I watched fellow actors who seemed confident and comfortable on stage. To make matters worse, I was pretty sure I was wearing the wrong costume as well.
I auditioned for this play willingly. A college degree was necessary to become a teacher, and so on a practical level, I was pleased to have landed the part. My parents dropped me off at Calvin College in Grand Rapids in the fall of 2000. My experience with the United States was mostly limited to southern California, so the tall leafy trees and brick buildings on campus felt doubly foreign. Michigan was a long way from my boarding school in Germany, and I felt each mile of separation in my bones, so fragile I might shatter from the thought of it. I look at this picture now and smile: my mom, ready to throw up at the thought of leaving her oldest daughter in a strange state, and myself, already dead inside. I understood that the friends I had made in high school, fellow missionary kids, were having similar experiences at colleges all around the country. But the thought didn’t diminish my utter loneliness in any way.
We sat on a bench outside of my new dorm and tried to say goodbye. My mom, sensing the misery in my slumped shoulders and downcast eyes, put her arm around me and said: “Don’t worry, honey, soon this will be home.” I stiffened, and clamped my lips shut in a thin line. How dare she? The audacity of calling THIS PLACE home was a betrayal of everything I held dear. She couldn’t have picked a worse, or truer, thing to say.
I relished my role as a missionary kid and grieved the loss of my high school years, so rich with friendships and belonging, like I would grieve the loss of an actual person. I would never see them again. Things would never be the same. I would never know happiness again. I would never belong again. So, I did my best to hold on to the past, journaling; scrapbooking; emailing; and talking on the phone. Every so often I would wonder if this was healthy behavior, but the thought was quickly dismissed. Wasn’t closure important after all? Wasn’t it okay to let myself be sad before I was ready to move on? And this was how I spent my first semester of college. Any spare time I had was devoted to sleeping, eating, studying, and preserving my MK identity.
Because my parents had moved to the same small town in Germany where I went to boarding school, I was able to come home for Christmas in more ways than one. It was a welcome intermission, and I relished this time off-stage. This set felt so familiar: the forest was still there; my favorite coffee shop beckoned me inside; and the best hiking trail, cold and muddy, still offered the loveliest views of the village. There were a few friends in town, but it was mostly quiet, and mostly lonely. Nostalgia was my constant companion. I snuck away one day and sat in the empty stairwell of my high school. For the first time, I felt the weight of time marching forward, of new students climbing these stairs, and of alumni who would never grace these halls again. Everyone else was moving on. I vowed through my tears that I would move on, too. I would go back to college and give it a shot, try to put down some roots.
I arrived back on campus in January, determined to invest in new friendships. It was surprisingly difficult to make new friends in the spring semester; it was as if I had walked on stage in the middle of this first act, and when I returned to resume my part, everyone had already moved on to the second. Just like that, I was lost again. I hadn’t realized that all of the incoming freshman were scrambling to find friends, make connections, and establish their place in this new social setting… in September. The stage had been new to all of us, and I was so engrossed in my own role that I didn’t notice the other actors tripping over their lines as well.
My identity as a missionary kid was a role that I clung to with a white-knuckled grip, afraid that the slightest give would see it slip away. I clutched it fiercely, proudly, unwilling to acknowledge that God is the giver of many good gifts. I had to learn to hold lightly this treasure given to me, to make room for other roles, other identities that opened doors to new communities of belonging: special education teacher, mother, church ministry leader. It took many years, but I was eventually able to loosen my grip on my beloved MK-ness and embrace my other selves.
This process looks different for everyone. For me, there were two key factors that helped loosen my grip. First, I recognized that the skills that had helped me adapt to different cities, countries, and cultures in Europe were the same skills that I needed to use to adjust to college life as well. With this in mind, I became more intentional in seeking out relationships with the people around me. I went out with friends, I dated, and I tried to have fun. Basically, I started letting myself grow and embraced my identity as a social creature. Secondly, the more time I spent in my field of study, the more common ground I found with those around me. I was able to form a bond with other students who were studying to become special education teachers, simply because we were united in pursuing the same goal. We shared some of the same characteristics, and by the time I graduated, I was proud to be able to say: “I’m a special education teacher.”
Ultimately, making room for other roles besides that of Missionary Kid was the hardest and best thing I’ve ever done. It helped prepare me for other plays with different settings and new scripts, and I was finally able to recognize the common humanity in all the actors around me.