When it comes to her cultural identity, HyoJung Jang says she isn’t sure where she fits. “I don’t think there’s a name for it,” said Jang, a 21-year-old junior majoring in music and mass communications at Anderson University. “I spent a lot of time throughout high school in Thailand.” Her parents are Korean — she was born there. But she’s lived in Korea, Laos, Thailand and now the United States.
Speaking carefully, she explains, “I am proud of being a Korean. The sense of being Korean hasn’t changed, but I do not draw the boundary there. I see myself as me. (Culturally) I don’t classify myself as Korean. My roots are Korean, and I am Korean but I think it’s a little more than that.”
That little more is what makes her, and many others, missionary kids — MKs for short. Like preacher’s kids (PKs), MKs occupy a unique spot in the world. Like military kids, they’re often relocated. Like PKs, they’re grounded, sometimes firmly, in Christianity but not into a specific cultural identity outside their religious views.
Those MKs are growing into young adults, negotiating their 20s and ensuing identity questions that affect many young Americans around that age. Anderson University, being church-based, is trying to accommodate them.
Keren Berrios, a 20-year-old AU junior majoring in management, is an MK too. She grew up in El Salvador, where her parents are from, but followed her parents’ ministry to Romania at 14 [photo: AU student Keren Berrios works on a paper in Nicholson Library].
Like Jang, no matter where she grew up, she finds herself at AU now, and still making adjustments.
In Romania, Berrios said, the people were closed — not rude, just standoffish. The difference between an open Latin American country like El Salvador and Romania, a former Communist Bloc country still recovering from Soviet occupation, was crystal clear.
“The people in El Salvador are a lot like the American people; you know them 10 minutes and they tell you their life story. But over there, you know (Romanians) a couple of months and they’re still talking about the weather,” Berrios said. “The surface culture is very closed. You don’t trust anybody. But they’re very loyal once they know you."
Berrios’s younger brother, Gerson, 19, is an AU freshman. When the family moved to Romania he adopted the Romanian culture moreso than anyone else, according to his sister. He was 13 when they moved.
“He became more Romanian than any other person in our family,” she said. “He embraced their culture very well —the way they relate to people, talk, react.”
The difference between his story and hers, Berrios said, is just a matter of personal preference.
“We all took in whatever part of the culture we wanted, and we all became Romanians in a certain way,” Berrios said.
For instance, she’s a self-described history geek.
“I found out everything I could about their history.”
But the people of today interested Gerson more, she said.
“Of course, it was hard to talk to him sometimes, and we were like ‘why are you thinking that way?’” said Berrios. “But that was OK.”
That was OK.
It’s subtle but hits on another characteristic of MKs — open mindedness, or “a much broader worldview,” according to Wikipedia’s online entry for missionary kids.
The Internet has other MK resources. Most aren’t about them like the online encyclopedia’s entry, but for them.
Many are social networks. They cater to kids transplanted into foreign cultures by their parents forays into the mission field.
They even have their own inside jokes, perhaps too obscure for those not familiar with the transience of missionary life. For example, there’s a site with jokes modeled after the “You might be a redneck if...” jokes made famous by blue-collar comedian Jeff Foxworthy.
They’re called “You know you’re a missionary kid when...” jokes. Some are serious, such as, “You know the difference between patriotism and nationalism,” and others just narrowed in on specific ways of life in undeveloped countries, such as, “When your mom sends you out to sweep the street in front of your house,” or “You calculate exchange rates by the price of Coke.”
All jokes aside, Berrios said she considers herself more West European or Latin American, but she hasn’t decided on where she fits in the U.S.
Of her parents’ attitudes toward where they lived and worked compared to their homeland, Berrios said, “I was born into a family that said ‘We are not from here.’”
She found AU through a college fair in Hungary. Scott Martin, part of AU’s international recruiting effort, was a big reason she chose the school.
Martin, who grew up a MK with parents serving in Africa, is the director of international student services at AU, and oversees the cultural resource center, an office designed to accommodate foreign students and acclimate them to AU.
One way they welcome others is the “Crash at the Martin’s” party.
The director and his wife invite the young people to their home for an evening of relaxation away from school.
“This is a time and place where students don’t have to perform, they can say what they really think, laugh at whatever they think is funny, in general, let down the natural guard that students have put in place to cope with being disconnected from the support network they grew up with,” Martin said, in an e-mail.
Martin said he could not give an exact count for MKs at AU, because he believes not all of them announce themselves as such. He said he thinks there are dozens, and personally deals with a handful every day.
On being an MK in Laos, Jang says, “At first I thought it was really cool before I moved to the country where (my parents) worked. But then I got bored really quickly.”
She explains that eight years ago Laos didn’t have proper roads for cars, even worse — no shopping malls. Korea was more advanced, and she’d grown up accustomed to modern amenities there.
“I just didn’t like that,” Jang said. “I had to give up all that to (go to Laos) where there’s nothing to do.”
As an MK at boarding school she lived “with other kids who had a lot of overseas experience,” and had to study in English beginning in eighth grade.
“As time passed by I became really thankful for having that kind of experience,” she said. “Not a lot of people are blessed with that experience. I think it added a lot to my character and personality and how I became the character that I am today.”
After Laos, she moved to Thailand where she finished high school. That wasn’t easy either. She missed her family and had to readjust to a new place.
“Being away from your parents in your teens was just the hardest thing,” Jang said. But she grew to love Thai culture.
Similar to his sister, Hyunjun Jang, HyoJung’s 19-year-old brother and an AU freshman, doesn’t feel completely at home in Korea because of the distance created by travels.
“I don’t feel comfortable in Korea,” he said. “For some reason I feel like I don’t belong there.”
But Hyunjun said his sister is fitting in well in the U.S., evidenced by her accent when she speaks English, which sounds to him increasingly Americanized.
Maybe traveling as an MK made Jang adaptive, versatile, ready for a complex, shrinking, post-modern world.
When calling Jang’s AU phone number, if she doesn’t pick up, her voicemail does. In the prompt she says “Hello, this is Julia...,” but didn’t correct someone she’d just met who consistently addressed her as HyoJung in conversation.
By adopting the name Julia, she’s made an adjustment, probably to make it easier on teachers and friends whose English-speaking past and ignorance of Korean makes it difficult for them to pronounce her name.
Furthermore, it’s another step away from a heritage her parents embrace, but with which she admits she doesn’t identify well.
The first listed joke on the “You know you’re a missionary kid when...” joke site might shed light on her mindset: “You can’t answer the question, “Where are you from?”
— Writer Lee Noble is a reporter with The Herald Bulletin in Anderson, Indiana. Story reprinted with permission.