Mia gazed at her reflection in the mirror, admiring the winter jacket I brought her. “Do I look American?” she asked.
From the look in her eyes, I could tell her question came from a deep well of uncertainty. Something as simple as a jacket opened the floodgates: “Do you think I’ll make new friends?” “Will I like my school?” “What if America isn’t as good as here?”
As a missionary kid, Uganda was the only home Mia knew. She was born in America but grew up in Africa. After 10 years on the mission field, her family was transitioning back to her “home” country. To prepare, she was trying on her new winter jacket—even though it was a hot day in Uganda. But the jacket wasn’t her biggest concern.
Children like Mia face the recurring struggle of goodbyes and transitions. As those raised in a culture not their own, they’re called third-culture kids (TCK). These TCKs often function like “cultural chameleons.” When their environment changes, they learn to change with it. Yet even as they adapt to the myriad of cultures around them, TCKs often feel like they don’t fit in, either in their host country or their passport country. It leads them to question if they fully belong anywhere. And this makes returning to their “home” country one of the hardest things they do.
Good Questions to Ask Missionary Kids
One TCK recently shared that, when visiting a supporting church, hardly anyone talked with him. If they did, they seemed to struggle with what to ask: “So, how’s Africa?” “Are you glad to be home?” “How many bugs have you eaten?” “Did you have a monkey as a pet?”
Though these questions are well-intentioned, they’re not always easy to answer.
If Christians want to help TCKs who are visiting their church or community, one of the best things to do is to ask good questions. Good questions invite TCKs to share their story, create a friendly connection, and engage on a deep level. Some can be simple icebreakers, while others build a stronger connection.
From my experience working with TCKs, here are some questions they would appreciate being asked:
1. What foods do you miss?
This is a great question to ease into conversations with a TCK of any age. Talking about food helps TCKs share about cultural meals and experiences. Food is a universal topic that children of any age can converse about, and you might learn some new recipes along the way.
2. What’s your best travel advice?
TCKs travel a lot. They know what to pack in a carry-on, the best airports to be stuck in, and how to pass the time on long flights. They’re experts at picking airport bathrooms and know exactly which airline has the best food. You’ll be glad for their travel tips, and they’ll feel seen and find agency in being able to give advice.
3. What’s transportation like in your country?
This question gives TCKs the opportunity to share what daily life looks like for them, such as how they get to school. Kids in the U.K. often travel by public bus or the tube. In other countries, they may walk a dusty road to the local mission school, often sharing the road with a herd of goats. Or maybe they ride a crowded minibus or tuk-tuk. Whatever the case, you’ll be sure to hear an interesting story.
4. What’s something you never leave home without?
This question shows genuine interest to know the details and events in a TCK’s life, such as the items they value and treasure, whether from their home or host country. One TCK shared with me that he brought a small charcoal grill for making tea from his home in Senegal to his college apartment. Though he could easily use a microwave to heat the water, the rhythm of stoking the fire, waiting for water to boil, and steeping the tea brought tremendous comfort and sweet memories of his time overseas.
5. What was it like to learn you were moving?
There are moments in your life that you remember with complete clarity. A TCK (if old enough) can often tell you exactly where they were when their parents sat them down to tell them they were moving overseas or returning to the U.S. This question allows them to explain what that significant moment was like for them.
6. What did you leave behind?
One missionary mother told me that when her children found out they were moving (again) they all ran to hide their favorite toys. They knew they’d soon have to choose what they could take and what they’d need to leave behind. Books are sometimes too heavy for luggage. Cherished family pets—like chameleons, chickens, bunnies, or guinea pigs—typically don’t clear customs and need to be rehomed. This question gives TCKs space to grieve those losses without expecting them to be happy about moving.
Loving Those Constantly Moving
How can we love those who find themselves constantly on the move? We can start by asking questions that show them we care. We can seek to enter their stories as we listen to the highs and lows, the gains and losses, the joys and sorrows. Perhaps the best question we can ask is “How can I pray for you?”
Perhaps the best question we can ask is ‘How can I pray for you?’
But we can also point them to our shared hope in the gospel. God’s word makes it clear where TCKs can find belonging, fit in, and root their identity: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1).
Though TCKs often feel misunderstood and invisible, parents, caregivers, and supporting churches can remind them that God, through his Son, calls them eternally loved and wonderfully made.
So, how did I respond to Mia’s question that day? “Mia, you look like a beloved daughter of the living God—in a really great jacket!”