Do You Hear What They Hear? Babies Are Listening Bilingually Even before They Can Speak

I remember having a conversation with an American raising his children in Taiwan. The father was fluent in Mandarin, and he’d started teaching that language to his son at a young age. He told me that it hadn’t worked for him and that he’d read that parents who speak more than one language to their small children only confuse them, as they aren’t able to tell one language from another.

It seemed like sound reasoning to me.

42052685_df923ad167So it surprised me to see new research showing that infants are better at becoming bilingual than I’d thought. As it turns out, by the age of seven months, babies can distinguish between languages by recognizing their different grammar structures.

The study, published in Nature Communications, focused on languages with opposite grammar patterns—such as English, which most often has the verb before the object, and Turkish, which follows the object-then-verb arrangement. Infants in bilingual environments pick up on these patterns and can distinguish between the languages, by listening to differences in pitch, duration, and word frequency.

Janet F. Werker, of the University of British Columbia, is co-author of the study, along with Judit Gervain, of the Université Paris Descartes. Werker reassures parents in bilingual households. “If you speak two languages at home, don’t be afraid, it’s not a zero-sum game,” she says. “Your baby is very equipped to keep these languages separate and they do so in remarkable ways.”

Mental Cartography

Werker and Gervain’s research is one more step forward in what we know about infants and language learning. In 2001, Patricia Kuhl, the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Mind, Brain, and Learning, told the Smithsonian magazine that six-to-eight-month olds can already distinguish between different vowel and consonant sounds in the languages they hear everyday and in languages “foreign” to them. But by their first birthday, they can no longer differentiate between sounds that are not part of a language that they’ve been exposed to. This is because they have developed a focus on familiar sounds, while “tuning out” unfamiliar ones. Then, later on in life, when the familiar competes against the unfamiliar, say, when learning a new language, the old sounds will usually win out. The result is a non-native accent.

To register what sounds infants can differentiate, Kuhl used a “head-turn” study (similar to that used by Werker and Gervain). In one example, two-thirds of both American and Japanese six-month olds could hear the difference between “la” and “ra.” But by the one-year mark, 80% of American children responded to the difference, while only 59% of the Japanese children did. Since the latter rate is only 9 percentage points above chance, this showed that the Japanese children had joined their parents in no longer being able to distinguish between the two sounds.

According to Kuhl,

The baby early begins to draw a kind of map of the sounds he hears. That map continues to develop and strengthen as the sounds are repeated. The sounds not heard, the synapses not used, are bypassed and pruned from the brain’s network. Eventually the sounds and accent of the language become automatic. You don’t think about it, like walking. [Familiar sounds] become more and more embedded into the map, until eventually they are almost ineradicable.

This accent map gets harder and harder to change as time goes by. On the other hand, if a child is exposed to multiple languages early enough—while the map is being drawn—the child can create more than one map at once.

Kuhl also has found (as shown in the TED Talk below) that if this exposure to languages is to have an effect on an infant, it must come from a live person. Listening to audio, even with an accompanying video of the speaker, does no good.

It’s Never Too Early to Learn

According to DNAinfo New York, some parents in the Big Apple are even learning a new language themselves in order to make sure that exposure to multiple languages happens for their children at an early age.

Take, for instance, Rhonda Ross, of Harlem, who went to a boarding school in a French-speaking area of Switzerland when she was a student. Later, when her son, Raif, turned one, she began speaking to him only in French. “I started with a French babysitter,” she said, “but a friend convinced me I would have to speak French to my son myself if I really wanted him to be fluent.”

Not being fluent herself, that means that Ross has to keep learning as she teaches her son. But she feels that the effort is worth it. In fact, she is so pleased with the outcome, that she’s introduced Raif to Mandarin and Spanish, as well.

Linguist Jennifer Wilkin, of Brooklyn, is another advocate of early bilingual education. In 2001, she founded Science, Language & Arts, where parents and children can learn French and Mandarin. “There is certainly a trend among New Yorkers to give a language to their children,” said Wiklin, who “knows several parents who are learning, and speaking, Spanish, Japanese, French and German to their children.”

While Wilkin’s school has students from preschool through fifth grade, Lyndsey St. John started Baby French in a Brooklyn ice-cream parlor and candy shop named The Candy Rush. The class caters to children who haven’t even learned to talk yet. “It’s really good to start those [language] pathways forming at a very early age,” said Wilkins. “Anywhere from 8 months to 3 years is when children are really sponges. They’re picking up everything.”

(Judit Gervain and Janet F. Werker, “Prosody Cues Word Order in 7-Month-Old Bilingual Infants,” Nature Communications, February 14, 2013; “Bilingual Babies Know Their Grammar by Seven Months,” The University of British Columbia Public Affairs, February 14, 2013; Edwin Kiester, Jr., “Accents Are Forever,” Smithsonian, January 2001; Julie Norwell, “New York Parents Learn Foreign Languages to Help Kids Become Fluent,” DNAinfo New York, March 6, 2013; “Even before They Utter First Words, Brooklyn Babies Take French Lessons,” DNAinfo New York, August 22, 2012)

[photo: “Mommy Tells a Story,” by Dan LaVange, used under a Creative Commons license]



The Psychological Health of Missionaries—Adding to the Research

6903821997_e0a95ce498_nHere’s a quick question:

What percentage of returned missionaries and aid workers report psychological disorders during their time overseas or shortly after their return? What do you think? About a quarter, a third, half, two thirds, three quarters?

According to a 1997 study conducted by Debbie Lovell-Hawker of Oxford University, the answer is “about half.” More precisely, Lovell-Hawker’s findings show that among the returned missionaries and aid workers she studied,

46% reported that they had experienced a clinically diagnosed psychological disorder either while working overseas or shortly after returning to the United Kingdom.

Before I went overseas, I would have guessed much lower than half, but after I first heard this statistic referenced in a debriefing I attended, in my mind, the number began to grow much higher than 46%. Statistics have a way of doing that.

Lovell-Hawker’s research included 145 aid and development workers and missionaries from 62 organizations. Though not definitive, the findings are significant as a wake-up call to cross-cultural workers, sending agencies, NGOs, churches, and member-care givers. And they also can assure those repats who are struggling that they are not alone.

Other  findings include

• 18% reported that their problems developed while they were overseas—82% said they began after returning to their home country
• Depression was the most frequently reported problem, occuring in 87% of the cases
• Those who reported having psychological problems had spent significantly longer time overseas than those who reported having none

(Debbie Lovell-Hawker, “Specialist Care: Psychological Input,” Global Connections Member Care Conference, February 18, 2002)

Moving forward from this study, there are some things I’d still like to know: Has anything changed in the 26 years since the findings were published? What would the numbers be for all missionaries and aid workers, not just those who’ve returned? What would the breakdown be among those working in relief and development vs other settings, such as teaching or church planting in developed areas? Are the numbers consistent for workers returning to countries other than the UK? And what about TCKs?

The good news is that there are researchers who are working on these and similar questions.

The Research Continues

One of those researchers is Lynette H. Bikos. Lynette served as a guest editor (along with M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall) of a special issue of Mental Health, Religion & Culture in 2009, titled “Missionaries.” Lynette is director of research and professor of clinical psychology in the School of Psychology, Family, and Community at Seattle Pacific University—and she also happens to be a friend who lived next to me, on an adjoining farm, as we grew up in northeast Missouri. We’ve kept in touch over the years, and she corresponded with my family and me as she worked on her research.

The special issue includes 10 articles dealing with several aspects of cross-cultural adjustment among those whom the editors call “religiously motivated sojourners.” I’d like to highlight four of those articles:

“Social Support, Organisational Support, and Religious Support in Relation to Burnout in Expatriate Humanitarian Aid Workers”
(Cynthia B. Eriksson et al., Mental Health, Religion, & Culture, November 2009)

This assessment found that 40% of expat middle managers in an international faith-based agency were at “high risk” of burnout in one of three areas—lack of personal accomplishment, emotional exhaustion, and disconnection or distance from those being cared for—but less than 4% reported high levels of burnout in all three.

According to the authors of the study, “This suggests that despite intense work and chaotic environments a majority of workers find ways to identify accomplishments, stay connected to others in their work, and rejuvenate. Team relationships, friendships, and positive organisational support may contribute to the resilience for these workers.”

The findings also indicate that younger workers are at a greater risk of burnout, as they register greater negatives in all three burnout areas. But while age was a factor, the number of years serving with the agency was not.

“Resilience in Re-Entering Missionaries: Why Do Some Do Well?”
(Susan P. Selby et al., Mental Health, Religion, & Culture, November 2009)

The authors posed the question ‘‘Why do some re-entering missionaries do well while others do not?’’ and interviewed 15 Australian cross-cultural missionary workers to help find the answer.

All the participants were over 25 years old and had spent at least 2 out of the previous 3 years in a non-Western country. Based on their responses, the researchers divided the missionaries into two categories: “resilient” and “fragile.”

In the interviews, the eight resilient missionaries described having

• flexibility
• higher expectancy and self-determination
• denial in the form of minimization to deal with their distress
• good mental health
• more social support
• a positive reintegration
• a personal spiritual connection to God

In contrast, the seven who were considered fragile described

• less flexibility
• lower expectancy and self-determination
• less use of denial with minimization
• poorer mental health
• less social support
• difficulty reintegrating
• a decreased or fluctuating personal spiritual connection to God

It is interesting that while the results of a questionnaire measuring depression, anxiety, and stress (DASS 21) showed higher levels for the fragile group, the scale showed that only one out of the entire group (including resilient and fragile) had an actual perception of being “personally stressed.”

“Psychological Well-Being and Sociocultural Adaptation in College-Aged, Repatriated, Missionary Kids”
(Michael J. Klemens and Lynette H. Bikos, Mental Health, Religion, & Culture, November 2009)

When the researchers compared a group of MKs to non-MKs at a Christian university, they found that while both groups scored in the healthy range of psychological well-being (PWB),  the missionary kids’ scores were significantly lower.

The missionary kids’ MK status accounted for only 4% of the variance in psychological well-being but was responsible for nearly a quarter (23%) of the difference in sociocultural adaptation (SCA). In this latter area, the MKs reported the most difficulty in “taking a US’ perspective on the culture; seeing things from an American’s point of view; understanding the US’ worldview; understanding the US’ value system; and making yourself understood.”

“Curiously,” report Klemens and Bikos, “neither the age of the participant, nor the number of years abroad, nor the number of years since repatriation was related to PWB or SCA for the MKs.”

“Reduction in Burnout May Be a Benefit for Short-Term Medical Mission Volunteers”
(Clark Campbell et al., Mental Health, Religion, & Culture, November 2009)

This assessment looked at how international short-term mission trips affect burnout among volunteers.

The participants in the study, most of whom were physicians and nurses, travelled to South America for two weeks to provide medical care in a non-disaster-relief setting. Prior to their departure, the group members’ responses to questionnaires showed that they were experiencing moderate burnout. Their burnout levels were again assessed one month and six months after the trip.

“The major finding of this study,” report the researches, “is counter-intuitive: that medical personnel who are emotionally exhausted, have an impersonal response towards their patients, and lack a sense of [personal accomplishments] (moderately burned out) benefit by working hard with numerous patients in an international context.”

They found that levels of emotional exhaustion and perceived personal accomplishments showed significant improvements following the short-term trip and continued in a positive direction in the 6-month followup.


All good research builds about what has been learned before and leads to questions for new studies in the future. I join with Lynette and her co-editor in hoping that the information in their special issue of Mental Health, Religion & Culture encourages others to join in the “exploration” of the psychological health of missionaries. There is so much more to be discovered.

(Lynette H. Bikos and M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall, “Psychological Functioning of International Missionaries: Introduction to the Special Issue,” Mental Health, Religion, & Culture, November 2009)

This special journal issue also includes several articles specific to the experiences of female missionaries. I hope to discuss these in a future post.

[photo: “Confused,” by Mary T Moore, used under a Creative Commons license]

Four Ways to Leverage Multi-Cultural Experiences to Raise Successful Kids

7778827430_2098f27ba3_nIn an increasingly globalized world, there are several ways to use multi-cultural experiences to help your children get a leg up as they move toward adulthood and future careers. Here are four of them.

None are easy, but the first may be the most difficult.

1. Be an Immigrant to the US

Sociologists at Johns Hopkins University, Lingxin Hao and Han S. Woo, found that children of immigrants in America achieve more academically and have better transitions into adulthood than their peers with native-born parents. The advantage is highest for foreign-born children whose parents move to the States, followed closely by American-born children of immigrants. Hao and Woo’s findings appear in the September/October 2012 issue of Child Development (“Distinct Trajectories in the Transition to Adulthood: Are Children of Immigrants Advantaged?“)

Explaining the difference,

Hao suggests that there is a greater sense of community among immigrants out of necessity—newcomers often need a lot of assistance when they first arrive in the United States. But Hao, who is from China, thinks there is also a great deal of inspiration to be found among the immigrant community: Parents might be working multiple low-level jobs and encourage their children to seek a better life for themselves. The success stories of immigrants who have “made it” are also held up as role models for immigrant children, something other native-born groups might be lacking, Hao said.

(“Children of Immigrants Are Coming Out Ahead of Their Peers, U.S. Study Finds,” ScienceDaily, September 13, 2012)

2. Don’t be a tiger parent

This one might go under the category of cultural lessons on what not to do.

Regardless of what Amy Chua writes in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, “Chinese-style” tiger parenting is not the best model for raising children. This is according to researchers Su Yeong Kim, Yijie Wang, Diana Orozco-Lapray, Yishan Shen, and Mohammed Murtuza. They compared the developmental outcomes of children from 444 Chinese-American families in northern California, using eight parenting dimensions—”parental warmth,” “democratic parenting,” “parental monitoring,” “inductive reasoning,” “parental hostility,” “psychological control,” “punitive parenting,” and “shaming”—to categorize four parenting styles. In order, from the style that produces the best developmental outcomes to the least, they are “supporting,” “easygoing,” “tiger,” and “harsh.”

From the abstract of “Does ‘Tiger parenting’ Exist? Parenting Profiles of Chinese Americans and Adolescent Developmental Outcomes” (published in Asian American Journal of Psychology, March 2013):

Compared with the supportive parenting profile, a tiger parenting profile was associated with lower GPA and educational attainment, as well as less of a sense of family obligation; it was also associated with more academic pressure, more depressive symptoms, and a greater sense of alienation. The current study suggests that, contrary to the common perception, tiger parenting is not the most typical parenting profile in Chinese American families, nor does it lead to optimal adjustment among Chinese American adolescents.

(Nate Kornell “Does Tiger Parenting Work?Psychology Today, December 14, 2012)

3. Make sure your children learn a foreign language

Bronwyn Fryer, a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review, trumpets the need for “soft skills,” things like “emotional intelligence,” “listening,” and “authenticity,” for global leaders. But, he writes, the top soft skill for executives in global organizations is “sensitivity to culture,” also known as “cultural empathy.” According to Frye,

True cultural empathy springs from personality, early nurturing, curiosity, and appreciation of diversity. But, very importantly, it also springs from deep exposure to more than one language. And this is where American executives fall short.

Learning another language, he says, not only helps in communication, but opens up one’s thinking:

As anyone who has ever learned to speak a foreign language fluently notices how each language shifts one’s consciousness. One day, you wake up and you realize you have been dreaming in the new language. Eventually you realize you are thinking in that language. And when you shift back and forth between, say, your native tongue and the acquired language, you feel like you are driving a car with a stick-shift; you are more involved and engaged in the experience. You take in more; you hear more. And you literally feel different; you are “more than yourself.”

(Bronwyn Fryer, “Why America Lacks Global Leaders,” Harvard Business Review, August 23, 2012)

4. Encourage your children to add overseas work experience to their educations

This one comes a little later in their lives, but they’re always your kids, right?

In 2010, Susan Adams, of Forbes, gathered the views of several hiring experts on the value of work experience overseas. She writes that foreign postings, including the Peace Corps, internships, and other types of jobs, give an advantage to people looking for work. One of the reasons is that living and working overseas exposes people to differing leadership styles.

And some who move overseas find opportunities for long-term employment there. Adams talked with Mary Anne Walsh, a global-leaders coach based in New York, and learned that Walsh’s clients “who moved overseas shortly after college and graduate school . . . advanced much more quickly than if they had tried to climb the career ladder in the U.S.”

Others had this to say:

Dan Black, Americas director of recruiting for Ernst & Young—

We definitely see overseas experience as an advantage. Our clients are demanding more of us these days. They want diversity of thought and diversity of values, and many of our clients are multinationals.

Gary Baker, U.S. global mobility leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers—

[Being part of a minority group in another country]  gives you a greater respect for other cultures, and you learn to be better at managing teams that are diverse.

Not only does working overseas build character, writes Adams, but being successful in a foreign country also increases one’s confidence. “If you can make your way in Mexico City, Abuja or Sao Paulo, then traditional U.S. organizational issues will be a snap for you.”

(Susan Adams, “How a Job Abroad Can Give Your Career a Big Boost,” Forbes, November 4, 2010)

[photo: “Awaiting Riders,” by dolanh, used under a Creative Commons license]

Member Care: Learning from Each Other


Blogger Maria Foley, at I Was an Expat Wife, writes that her husband’s employer did a great job of easing her family’s transition to life overseas. In fact, she calls the help they got in their move to Singapore “wonderful.” But the return trip was a different story. When they came back to Canada, she says, “the silence was deafening.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. In “What the Missionary Sector Can Teach Us about Handling Re-Entry” (May 6, 2013), Maria applauds the work of the Assemblies of God in meeting the needs of their cross-cultural workers. She tells about her friend, Heather, who is a youth coordinator in the International Society of Missionary Kids‘ reentry program, part of the AG’s efforts to help missionaries and MKs adjust to the comings and goings of their cross-cultural lives. Part of Heather’s motivation to help MKs comes from her own experiences as a child in a missionary family. “I wish I’d been able to go through a program like this. It would have been helpful to have those tools,” she says. “That’s why I think it means so much to me to work with these kids, because I had such a difficult re-entry.” (You can read more from Heather at her blog, Adventures in Transition.)

This is a common sentiment among those who work in member care: wanting to serve current cross-cultural workers and their families by providing the kind of help that wasn’t available when they faced similar difficulties in their own lives.

That’s what happened with Lauren and Jo Ann Helveston, who started The Mission Society‘s pastoral-care department in 2007. When the couple were missionaries in Ghana, they weren’t part of “an agency like The Mission Society,” says Jo Ann. “So debriefing, or even training, was not part of our experience.” Now they debrief missionaries who are back in the States.

Jo Ann’s comments come from The Mission Society’s spring 2013 issue of Unfinishedan edition devoted entirely to member care. The article “What Missionaries Don’t Tell You” describes the issue in this way:

The pages of Unfinished typically tell the stories of what God is doing through our missionaries. This issue, however, is more about what God is doing in them, particularly during those difficult seasons that aren’t typically chronicled in their newsletters or blogs. It’s about how missionaries themselves need to be cared for and ministered to.

Other articles include

  • When Hope Begins to Stir
    Missionary care can happen through listening (the source of Jo Ann Helveston’s comments above)
  • How Can We find Our Way?
    What happens to missionaries when disillusionment becomes their constant companion?
  • Top 10 Ways to Care for Your Missionaries
  • Top 10 Items to Include in a Care Package
  • A Different World
    Third culture kids speak about a life only a select population can relate to.

I stumbled upon Unfinished as I was collecting information for my post on African-American missionaries. What a find. Not only does it include great information and insights, it is an encouragement to see that when we participate in member care, we are joining a growing group that has common goals, lives out common experiences, and speaks a common language. It is a group that grows in understanding as we share with and learn from each other.

And the world is our classroom.

[photo: “Geography Lesson in a Grammar Class,” by Boston Public Library, used under a Creative Commons license]

Preschooler Lessons in Taiwan


Last week’s post on adoption got me rethinking some of my family’s experiences. Here’s a story we put in a newsletter three years ago. One of our sons is Taiwanese and had been in our Taipei home for a couple years, long enough to become a part of the culture within our walls.

Our youngest son has recently started preschool in the mornings. The main goal is to help him understand and speak more Chinese. After his first day, the teacher told my wife that he was hugging the other children—and they didn’t know how to respond. The teacher said that she explained to them, “It’s OK, he’s a foreigner. They hug a lot at his house.”

As he learns more about himself and the world around him, we have more opportunities to talk with him about “who he is.” While we were out one day last month, he saw a sign showing Chinese chess pieces. He asked why they had letters on them. I told him that they weren’t letters, they were Chinese characters. Seeing an opportunity, I asked him, “Are you Chinese?”

He said, “No.”

“Are you American?”

“No,” again.

“What are you?” I asked.

“I’m normal,” he said.

[photo: “Parachute Fun,” by Chris Pawluk, used under a Creative Commons license]

10 Lessons for Cross-Cultural Conversations from That Mila Kunis Interview

Have you seen the viral video of actress Mila Kunis and BBC Radio 1’s Chris Stark? Kunis was on the interview circuit for Oz the Great and Powerful, in which she plays the witch Theodora, and sat down with Stark for a segment on the Scott Mills show.

Stark told The Daily Beast‘s Kevin Fallon that Mills, as “a bit of a joke,” didn’t let him know he’d be interviewing Kunis until only around half an hour before they were to meet. Sounding somewhat starstruck, Stark begins the interview with “Seriously, I’m petrified” and “I’ve never done this before,” leading to an informal chat on a range of subjects, including his “boys” at the bar, the local football team, and Nando’s chicken. Kunis calls it “the best interview I’ve had today.”

It strikes me that we can learn a lot from these two about how to have a good cross-cultural conversation. So here’s the “interview”—between a Third-Culture Kid who moved from Ukraine to Los Angeles at the age of 7 and a lad from England—followed by 10 lessons that they can teach us:

  1. Be yourself and don’t put on airs. Talking to someone from another culture can be daunting, but if you admit your limitations, you stand a better chance of having a meaningful and heartfelt conversation. Genuine curiosity trumps preparation. Just jump “in the trenches.”
  2. A conversation, where both people talk and learn is much better than an interrogation (where one person simply rattles off a series of questions) or a speech (where one person simply rattles off a series of facts).
  3. Boilerplate questions and answers can give some useful information, but after you get them out of the way (Where are you from? What’s your job/major? What do you miss most from your home?) It’s obvious that the reason this video is popular isn’t because we learn that Kunis “loved working with James Franco.” Actually, the biggest scoop probably is finding out that she used to be a bartender.
  4. Asking questions that build upon what someone just said is much better than working through a list. It shows you’re interested and that you’re paying attention. And it’s “way more fun.”
  5. You may need to listen to the voice inside your head (or off camera) to get you back on track if you start talking too much about yourself, but it’s even better just to listen to the voice across from you.
  6. Showing an interest in someone else’s story is a great way to put that person at ease, so is finding something you have in common, which is probably easier than you might think.
  7. Realize that words may need defining. Football isn’t always football. And a pie isn’t always a pie.
  8. It’s one thing to invite people into talking about your world. It’s even better to invite them to experience it themselves. Too bad Kunis has that silly movie she’s working on in June.
  9. Understand that there are cultures within cultures, and not everyone represents an entire country or continent. I really don’t think that “dropping trou” at wedding parties is common with all people all across the UK (though I’m open to learning otherwise).
  10. Have gifts on hand. Imagine how much it would have impressed Kunis if Stark had been able to pull out a Watford jersey—even a yellow one.


(Kevin Fallon, “Chris Stark, Man behind BBC’s Hilarious Mila Kunis Interview, Speaks,” The Daily Beast, March 5, 2013)

[photo: “A Watford Football Shirt under the Beavers Uniform,” by Steve Bowbrick, used under a Creative Commons license]

These Newsletters Aren’t Sent Either

3742918775_f3b2aee5be_mRuth E. Van Reken’s honest revelations in Letter’s Never Sent has me thinking about all the missionary newsletters I’ve written and read. Missionaries are a good group for emphasizing the positives and putting a good spin on the negatives. Newsletters just aren’t a safe place to share deep struggles, especially when many of the readers are current or potential donors.

I’m not saying that every newsletter should be filled with pain. I’m not even saying that every missionary has enough pain to fill a newsletter. What I am saying is that if the only things you know about missionaries come from newsletters, presentations, and answer-the-routine-questions conversations, then you don’t know the whole story. And what I am saying is that if you are a missionary who is hurting, you are not alone in what you’re going through.

In fact, if you’re any kind of cross-cultural worker or a Third Culture Kid or a trailing spouse or an expat or a repat or a soldier overseas or a family member left behind, and if, at one time or another, any of the following could serve as a heading for your next newsletter or blog or prayer update . . . believe me, you are not alone.

Nobody cares.
God has been silent for a long time.
This was a mistake.
I’ve changed, and I don’t like who I’ve become.
I feel betrayed.
I’m overwhelmed.
I don’t care anymore.
I think I’m going crazy.
Where is my joy?
I wish I could die.
I feel like a failure.
I’m afraid.
I’m lonely.
I’m angry.
I’m disappointed in myself, and I think God is, too.
I don’t belong.

Let me say it one more time: If this is where you’re at or where you’ve been, You are not alone.

And I hope you’re never, ever left to feel as if you are.

[photo: “Creativity,” by Mark van Laere, used under a Creative Commons license]

“Letters Never Sent” but, Thankfully, Published Instead

It’s been 25 years since Ruth E. Van Reken125933835_e355fbcad2_m first published Letters Never Sent, but I hope it doesn’t ever become a book rarely read.

Following her experiences as a Third Culture Kid, born to missionary parents in Nigeria, and later as a missionary to Africa herself, Van Reken wrote a series of “letters,” to her mother and father, and to God, expressing feelings that earlier she wasn’t able to fully share.

While it would be easy to assume that the details of Van Reken’s story are dated—the book begins with her trip to boarding school in 1951—her expressions of honest emotions cut through the years and show the wonderings and pleadings of a heart that beats in many missionaries and their children today. But it is a heart that is all too often hidden and quieted.

One of the feelings voiced by the young Ruth Ellen is guilt . . . guilt that her inner thoughts are a betrayal of her parents’ calling. During her high-school years, she and her sister stayed in the States, while their parents returned to their work in Nigeria. As her mother and father’s departure nears, Ruth Ellen fights with her emotions, writing in a “never sent” letter:

If I throw myself into your arms and sob my heart out, it might keep you from going. And even though that’s what I want, how could I ever bear the guilt of being the one who kept you from doing God’s work? I’ve always vowed I wouldn’t be one of “those kids,” the kind that other missionaries talk about in whispers, with a sad shake of their heads. “So-and-so couldn’t come back to the field because of their children.” They must be pretty bad kids, I’ve always figured. I don’t want anyone to say that about me or our family.

And I can’t very well come to God with this because, in a way I feel like it’s all His fault.

Years later, as Ruth Ellen ponders her approaching wedding to David Van Reken, she expresses a distrust of God, developed from many years of having, as a TCK, to let go of what is dear to her:

I can’t believe God will let me keep David. It’s like He’s dangling Dave on a rope, letting him come closer and closer. I’m afraid that at the last moment, when I put out my hand to take him, the string will be jerked back and God will laugh.

“Ha ha. Thought you finally had someone you could keep. Don’t count on it. Whatever you depend on, I will surely take that, so that you’ll depend solely on Me.”

Ruth does get to keep David, and the two are soon joined by a baby daughter. But depression comes to Ruth, seeming to be at odds with the spirituality that she longs to possess. “How many hundreds of testimonies have I heard about the joy that Jesus gives?” she writes. “He surely isn’t giving it to me right now—or maybe I just don’t know how to receive it.”

Her depression becomes deep enough that she thinks about suicide:

I’ve actually wondered what it would be like to take pills and never wake up. But in my heart I know that wouldn’t solve anything. I have a child I’m responsible for, and I want to see her grow up. And I want to live, if I can be the person that I’ve always thought I had the potential to be. But right now that seems like a hopeless dream.

Then, using words that are reminiscent of those penned by the Psalmist in Psalm 13, she writes,

The thread I’m hanging on to is an intellectual belief that God still has a purpose for my life. I can’t imagine how He can ever put all the pieces back together and make me whole, but it’s my only hope. I told Him today that He could forget helping me to do better—there’s nothing left of me to help. If He doesn’t do something new, I’m finished.

But there is hope. There is help for her to do better. And it comes in the form of a new friend, Linda, who opens a path for Ruth by sharing her own personal struggles in a Sunday school class. This is something that Ruth hasn’t experienced before, and it gives her courage. This leads to many conversations with Linda, in which Ruth shares her pain, and Linda listens without judgment.

Within a few years, the Van Rekens are preparing for their own missionary work in Africa, and Ruth continues to learn how to function without hiding behind masks. Sometimes the masks come off gently, as with Linda, but at other times, they are pulled off forcefully, as when a pastor shares from the pulpit about some of her struggles. But to her amazement, she writes, when “[t]he awful, naked ugliness of my soul was exposed, . . . I was still accepted!”

Healing also comes through forgiveness: forgiving her parents for her many separations from them and forgiving “all those who locked me up with pat answers or quick words of encouragement, when what I needed was understanding and a hug.” Following the death of her uncle, Ruth gets a different kind of response from Jesus: “He held me and understood. He acknowledge my pain. He didn’t try to talk me out of my hurt. . . . I’m learning about God as the Comforter and binder of broken hearts.”

But in letters dated less than two years later, as she and David are serving in Liberia, Ruth writes that the depression has returned. She tells God, barring a change in the next month, to let her die. In her conversations with God that follow, she learns that she has not addressed all of the anger that is leading to her depressed feelings. She still needs to “forgive” God.

“Why don’t you leave me alone?” she hears herself say. “Ever since I came to Liberia to serve you, You’ve done nothing but bad things to me. I’m sick and tired of it.” And she hears God say to her that he isn’t at all shocked by her anger. He can handle it. “You can love someone and still be angry at him,” God tells her. Acknowledging this anger is an important step for Ruth, a step that leads to more healing.

One of the final letters penned by Ruth is dated 1984. That’s 24 years after Ruth Ellen had voiced her struggle with guilt because she wasn’t the perfect missionary child. In it, she says, after reading through all of her previous letters, that there still was one more person to forgive:

I can forgive the little girl I was, for not being all she thought she was supposed to be. The greatest joy has been to understand for the first time in my life that God is the “God of all Comfort.” I could not understand that until I recognized how much I needed His comfort.

Ruth’s story is one of faith and anger and hope and fear and sadness and peace, all flowing one into another. It is a story beautifully and sincerely told. It is a story that can speak to generations of TCKs and cross-cultural workers and to those who want to understand them. And it’s a story that continues. Last year, Van Reken published a newly revised edition of Letters Never Sent, containing 30 additional pages, with photos and an epilogue addressing her later life, including a bout with cancer.

It’s been 25 years since Ruth E. Van Reken first published Letters Never Sent, but I hope it doesn’t ever become a book rarely read.

The above quotations are taken from the 1988 edition of Letters Never Sent. The book was first printed in the US in 1987 under the title Letters I Never Wrote.

[photo: “unreachable,” by Daniel Zimmel, used under a Creative Commons license]