RICHMOND, Va. (BP)—At age 15, “Janene Tepper” already has seen more of the world than many of us ever will.
Janene, a Southern Baptist “missionary kid” in South Asia, has traveled to exotic places and tasted exotic cuisine. She’s an old hand at riding nearly any mode of transportation, from rickshaw to jet. She knows how to avoid anti-American demonstrations. She attends school in one country while her missionary parents work in another.
She even understands the security precautions many missionary families must now take to avoid unnecessary public identification in a threatening world. Janene isn’t her real name.
But as she prepares to spend a year back “home” in America with her family, Janene is moving into unknown territory: the world of American teenagers. And she’s a little anxious. She says so in an “open letter to teens” she composed recently with some help from her mother.
“I’ll be coming to the United States next year, and to be honest, I’m kind of nervous about it,” Janene writes. “You see, I’m very much like you; yet, I’m very much not like you at the same time. And those two factors make things sort of complicated for me.”
She lists ways she differs from many American teens, including:
— “I’ve lived lots more of my life outside the United States than in it.”
— “I’m comfortable traveling by plane, train, bus, subway, car, river taxi, ferry, auto rickshaw, bicycle rickshaw, bicycle and foot. Either side of the road and any place in between is OK, too. I have ridden an elephant (and) gone down a river on a bamboo raft….”
— “I’ve had tea with people in their mud houses, and I’ve had a blast playing with their kids — the human ones and the goat ones.”
— “I’ve used regular toilets, port-a-potties, ‘squatty potties,’ holes in the floor of a train and a ferry and outhouses — oh, and the side of the road, too.”
— “I’ve tried eating ox-tail soup (I do not recommend it).”
— “I get restless if I don’t travel to another country every six months or so.”
Janene isn’t bragging about her globetrotting experiences, however. In fact, she worries that American teens will see her as strange.
“If I talk about what my life is like, you might either think I’m showing off or that I’m just plain weird,” she says. “I don’t know what music groups are popular, and I haven’t seen the latest TV shows or commercials. I’ve never been to public school, to Six Flags, or taken a driver’s test. I don’t have a clue about some of the newest sports stars or the newest teenage vocabulary. So I’ll probably just stand there with a silly smile on my face, feeling uncomfortable while you guys talk about all those things in terms that don’t make any sense to me.”
Janene isn’t weird. She has the same hopes and dreams, fears and anxieties as other teens.
“Like you, I want to fit in and to have friends,” she explains. “I don’t want to be expected to live up to unrealistic expectations. Nor do I want to be the butt of jokes or cruel remarks if you find me too different or if I don’t get your humor or political views. I want you to be willing to risk being my friend, even if you don’t quite understand me, and even knowing that I’ll be leaving again in a year.
“Like you, I’m trying to figure out who I am, who God is, what He wants from me, and what I want to be ‘when I grow up.’ Sometimes my parents and siblings drive me crazy and embarrass me in public, but I love them anyway. Sometimes I’m frustrated and confused with life and don’t understand why things happen the way they do. Sometimes I just wish life weren’t so hard. I struggle with ups and downs with my emotions, and I don’t always know why I do or say things.
“So you see, down deep where it counts, we probably aren’t so different after all. I’ll try hard to understand you, be patient with you and learn from you next year. Will you do the same for me?”
There are about 3,800 children (age 21 and under) of active Southern Baptist missionaries under appointment by the International Mission Board. As school starts this fall, hundreds of them will be in the United States for a semester or longer. They are thinking the same thoughts and feeling the same emotions as Janene. They’ll walk into U.S. classrooms, neighborhoods and churches wondering if anyone will welcome them.
Here are a few tips on how you — and especially your kids — can make them feel at home:
1. Take the initiative. Walk up and say hello. Don’t wait for a missionary kid, who’s almost always the “new kid” somewhere, to do it.
2. Show an interest in their “home” culture. “People need to understand that even though missionary kids look American, they may not always feel American,” explains IMB staff member Sharron Hawk, who counsels missionary families. “They often identify more closely with the culture where they were raised. If you really want to connect with them, find out something about what is home to them.”
3. Be patient. Missionary kids, Hawk says, “sometimes might be a little judgmental” about America and its shortcomings — as well as the spiritual superficiality they see at times among U.S. church kids and youth.
4. Most of all, just be a friend. Some missionary kids eventually follow in their parents’ footsteps and take the Gospel to lost and needy people. Often, they need only a bit of encouragement and a nudge in the right direction from the right person at the right moment.
You might be that person.
Erich Bridges is senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice each month in Baptist Press.