“It was not an average day,” John Somerville, professor of English, said of the South Korean military coup he witnessed while in the backseat of his parents’ Land Rover. “But I wouldn’t trade that world for anything.”
Growing up in South Korea, Somerville is one of several Hillsdale students and professors who spent years of their childhood on long-term mission trips in regions from Latin America to East Asia, experiencing everything from military coups to volcanoes.
Somerville’s grandparents spent 24 years as missionaries in South Korea from 1916 to 1940. His parents decided to follow in their footsteps, moving in 1954, the year Somerville was born. Somerville’s father taught at a seminary school in Seoul while his children grew up in a missionary compound.
“When I was in first grade, there was a student revolution. We lived just a few miles from the capitol building,” he said. “I had a front seat view of the tear gas, the crowds in the streets. At the time I thought, ‘This is not that unusual.’ But thinking back, I realize most kids don’t watch revolutions these days.”
Besides the political instability, Somerville’s said his life was calm and consistent. Since there were many U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, he could access an English radio station, newspaper, and television. “Since the G.I.s were from different backgrounds, they would have a mix of music,” he said. “They’d play country, they’d play soul. On TV, there was a mix of different networks. No commercials, either.” Somerville said his biggest regret was not retaining the Korean language he learned as a child.
According to Somerville, many missionary kids use their childhood experience as a head start in a cultural or language study during college.
Kelly Franklin, professor of English, was a missionary kid who became fascinated with the foreign language he grew up with. He acquired a master’s degree in Spanish after a relatively short mission trip as a child. The Franklins lived in Costa Rica for one year until they were assigned to Guatemala, where his father served as a support missionary, teaching missionary kids at the Christian Academy of Guatemala.
While he was there, Franklin also lived through a military coup in the third grade. “The radio stations were all shut down. They played no news, only mariachi music,” he said. “As a kid, you’re not really aware of what to an adult would be really stressful. I thought, ‘This is fantastic.’”
Franklin said he’s thankful for the opportunity to grow up in beautiful places like Costa Rica and Guatemala where mountains stood tall. “In Guatemala, we lived within sight of an active volcano. In the distance I could see, at night, a legitimate volcano spewing hot, red and orange lava,” he said. “I really loved the color of Latin America. The textiles of the indigenous peoples are utterly beautiful. The markets are very vivid. There are a lot of beautiful sights and sounds that you get exposed to.”
In addition to the natural allure of Latin America, Franklin said he’s lucky to have grown up in a different cultural context that gave him a lot of perspective once he came back to the states.
“I encountered really desperate poverty as a young child, which is just pretty sad,” he said. “I definitely missed out on some American culture stuff, so when I came back as a fifth grader, I was a little out of touch. But that wore off after a year or two.”
Junior Gabe Listro spent three years in Peru as his parents served in a motocross ministry. “My family’s always been into racing motorcycles, and there was this church started by a famous motocross rider in Peru. My family worked with the church and also with a ministry to reach out to spectators and riders,” he said. “It’s actually the third biggest sport in Peru.”
Listro said his parents became Christians in college and felt called to be missionaries. They moved to Michigan, where his father became a missionary pilot, but his family wanted more. “My parents felt that God wanted us to be part of peoples’ lives, not just bus drivers,” Listro said.
In Peru, he attended a Spanish-speaking school and lived in the community where his parents worked. “I just look back at it as my childhood basically,” he said. “If you look back to the early 2010s, you picture Katy Perry, right? I picture being in a mango tree in my backyard.”
Overall, Listro said he was happy to have the experience in Peru, despite the culture shock when he came back for high school. “I remember one time at a high school football game right when I got back, someone extended his hand for a high five,” he said. “In Peru, for men you shake hands and women you give kisses. So I grabbed his hand and shook it, and he said, ‘Yo, where’d you grow up?’ and I said, ‘In the jungle.’”
According to Listro and Franklin, many missionary kids suffer from a phenomenon they called “third culture.” Children often feel like they don’t belong in America nor the country they grew up in.
Freshman Faith Linton, after spending nearly the last 18 years in Taiwan, said she felt this way. Every few years, her family would come back to the states on furlough to help raise money for their mission, but it wasn’t enough to keep her tied down.
“I think the thing about being a missionary kid is that you never really fit into either culture. English is my first language, so in that sense a lot of people would think I’m American, and I think of myself as American too,” she said. “But when I would come back to America, I realized that everything was way different.”
Linton’s parents worked in Taiwan to plant churches and convert a population with virtually no Christian community. They struggled for a long time, but Linton said she’s inspired by her father’s passion and persistence.
On their daily taxi ride, Linton’s father would try and strike up a conversation with the driver. Even though Mandarin is a much easier language, Linton’s father always spoke in Taiwanese, even though he isn’t completely fluent, because the drivers would appreciate it and open up to him more.
“The drivers would begin sharing deeper stories about themselves and talking about their life,” she said. “My dad always found some way to weave Christ into the conversation, telling them about lessons he learned from the bible, and stuff like that.”
Linton’s mother also found interesting ways to bring people to Christ. After receiving a “hate letter,” Linton’s mother invited the couple who sent the letter to church and eventually befriended them.
A year or two later, the woman became a Christian. Several years after that, so did her husband. “They moved to the countryside to live with us. They’re helping us to plan a new church,” she said. “Now, they’re our best friends.”