“South Africa is really a country?”
I resisted the urge to sigh in frustration as I explained once again that yes, South Africa is a country, not a region of Africa.
“Wow, I had no idea,” the lady said after I finished.
This was just one of many interactions I’ve had with people in my passport country who hold many misconceptions about Africa.
Besides clarifying that South Africa is indeed a country, I’ve had to explain that no, we don’t have lions and elephants roaming in our backyard. Yes, we have grocery stores and most of the modern conveniences people in America do. No, we don’t live in mud huts.
It can be exhausting trying to correct people’s misconceptions. Sometimes, I’m tempted to roll my eyes at the absurdity of the questions. Didn’t they ever learn geography? I ask myself. Have they never seen photos of modern-day cities in Africa? Don’t they realize that we’re not in the 1800s anymore?
Part of the TCK Experience
Misunderstandings about one’s host country are a common part of the TCK experience. And they go deeper than these surface-level misconceptions that can be easily corrected in a few seconds.
Misunderstanding extends to home, grief, identity, and so much more.
Just the other day, a coworker asked where I was from. After explaining that I grew up overseas, I ended with, “So I don’t really know where I’m from.”
“Oh,” she said, laughing awkwardly.
It made for an uncomfortable experience because I sensed she didn’t get it. And it was a sharp reminder once again of how I’m surrounded by people who don’t understand me.
In her book Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century, Tanya Crossman writes: “One of the hardest things for many repatriated expats is the sense that neither the depth of the pain they are experiencing, nor the reason for it, is understood by anyone.”
Feeling misunderstood can cause us to isolate ourselves even more. We stop talking about our experiences because people just don’t get it. It’s too complicated to explain. And we’re afraid of alienating ourselves even more from others when we’re so desperate to blend in.
Dear TCK, you are not alone in being misunderstood. But while it’s a relief to know we’re not the only ones, don’t fall into the trap of further isolating yourself in the process.
Instead, take steps to foster understanding with those who aren’t necessarily like you.
Understanding Their Perspective
While being misunderstood by people in our passport country is frustrating, that doesn’t mean we should reciprocate it.
Jesus wants us to extend compassion and understanding to others.
And what better place to start than by trying to see the perspective of those in our passport country?
Remember, they don’t have the same experiences you do. They have only ever lived in one culture and one country for their entire lifetime. They have different perspectives of the world, different values, and different backgrounds.
And that’s okay.
God didn’t ordain for us all to live the same lives. Instead, in His wisdom, He gave each of us different experiences, backgrounds, interests, and life paths. All this culminates in creating a colorful melting pot of people we can learn from, especially in the church.
How neat is that?
As TCKs, it’s important for us to realize that while the people from our passport country may not have had the same experiences as we do, they still have value to share. They have experiences we can learn from, if we’re humble and teachable enough to recognize that.
Respond with Grace
So, the next time you’re approached with a frustrating question or misconception, take a deep breath. Remind yourself of where they’re coming from and seek to answer the question as patiently as you can.
If you’re frustrated by the lack of knowledge and understanding about cultures around the world, take action. Be the one to lovingly educate others and to help them understand your perspective.
With your unique TCK experiences, you can be an effective bridge-builder between the cultures you grew up in and the people in your passport country.
Your TCK Superpower
As TCKs, we know what it’s like to be different. To be the minority. To be misunderstood and maybe even stereotyped by those around us.
Instead of bemoaning the fact that we are misunderstood, we can take that experience and use it to better connect with others who are also different.
Author Matthew Jones makes this powerful observation in his book MKs in Focus: Thinking Biblically About the MK Experience: “Many MKs have spent their lives overseas being the minority. Many MKs have spent their lives listening to broken, imperfect English. Many MKs have spent their lives interacting with people who have a different skin color than them. What group of people is better prepared to lay aside prejudices and stereotypes and obey the mandate that Christ outlined in Acts 1:8?”
Dear TCK, you are in a unique position to empathize with and love those on the fringes of society. Use that to your advantage.
Connect with the other foreigners around you who are also trying to navigate a culture vastly different from their own.
Reach out to that friendless young person who is lingering on the edges of your social group, struggling to find their place.
Encourage the other TCKs in your life that they are not alone.
Use your experiences of being misunderstood to love the forgotten, the outcasts, and the strangers around you better.
You might be wondering, “How do I just be okay with being misunderstood?”
Great question. It comes from knowing that there is Someone who understands.
He knew you before you were born (Jer. 1:5). He sees your heart (1 Kings 8:39). He knows every thought before you even think it (Ps. 139:2). He understands your struggles, your loneliness, and the constant tension of this TCK life.
On a human level, He also knows what it’s like to live as a sojourner in this world. He was deeply misunderstood, even to the point of rejection, by His own people of Galilee.
You can be at peace even as you’re misunderstood because God already understands. And you can trust Him to bring something good out of that misunderstanding and to grow your patience and compassion for others.
Keep Sharing Your Story
Dear TCK, don’t let your fear of misunderstanding keep you from sharing your story.
You never know who might be listening and needs to know that they’re not alone either. That you get it too. That their struggles and experiences are not invisible.
So keep on bravely sharing your experiences, your perspective, and the stories that make you you with the people around you.
As an ambassador for Christ, learn to embrace your differentness and seek to extend the same kind of understanding to others that you long for.
Crossman, Tonya. 2016. Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century. Summertime Publishing Springtime Books.
Jones, Matthew. 2023. MKs in Focus: Thinking Biblically About the MK Experience.
TCKs for Christ: Staff Writer
is an MK from South Africa and has called Africa her home for the past 15 years. As a writer, she seeks to use her gifts to encourage other TCKs that they are not alone. Besides writing, she enjoys reading voraciously, playing piano and violin, and helping with her family’s ministry. You can connect with her at Whimsical Wanderings or on Instagram, @KristianneHassman_Author.