“What’s Mac-and-Cheese?” Finding Belonging as an Expat Family

It was a bright, clear(ish) China morning and I was watching my girls do the morning activities at their preschool. I joined the parents at the gate in watching a few perfectly choreographed dances, some stretches, and then IT happened. I swear, I actually heard the screeching sound effect in movies that cues an unexpected event. Nothing could prepare my heart for what I saw. As the flag-raising ceremony started, I watched my girls innocently mimic those around them and salute THAT flag while the national anthem cheerfully played in the background. I felt the color drain from my face and I caught myself right before I blurted out, “Wait, WHAT?”.

On the walk home, with my spinning head, my conversation with myself went something like this, “It’s okay, they don’t understand. I will explain to them that they are Americans when they get home. It’s okay…oh, man, it is not okay. We are seriously messing up our kids. Do they even know our national anthem?…Does it matter?…But THAT flag. To some it represents persecution of Christians, and mandatory Atheism, and censorship of everything…”

Suddenly, I knew. I knew that this feeling has resided in the heart of every mother of a relocated family. Even ones who bring their family to new shores to escape tyranny feel pain in their hearts when they see their kids willingly accept the country they live in and seemingly abandon the country of their passport.

As much as we try to teach our children who they are in regard to their passport country, every day there are reminders that our kids are destined to be weirdos in both places.

Homeschooling: “So the diamonds (dimes) are the one worth five percents (cents), right, Mom?”

At the store: “My favorite ice cream is the corn flavored one!”

At home: “No, Mom, you have to turn the VPN off to watch a movie.”

In America: “What’s Mac-and-Cheese?”

Everywhere: “They are taking our picture again!”

Then there is the complicated matter of us feeling like we are slowly becoming more and more strange ourselves each time we make it back to the U.S. for the summer. Run-ins with acquaintances are strange. “So…China is like a Thing for you guys now, huh?” Road trips are strange, “Dude, they sell cheese at gas stations!” Outings are strange, “Girls! No! You can’t squat in the park! *sigh*” Even church seems strange, so…clean and shiny.

And yet, somehow, in some miraculous way, we always find ourselves home. In a strange and astounding way, my husband and I are home for our two girls, and HE is home for us. When we are overseas, we find ourselves in an amazing family of believers, both foreign and local, and when we are in the U.S., we can connect even deeper and strengthen bonds with our family members that are friends as well as those blessed friends who feel like family.

In those times that we feel like we belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time, we remember his promises, his calling, and his provisions. Those dew on the fleece moments that remind us in tangible ways that we are doing the things that he has called us to. That no matter what people in our home country are doing, and no matter what other cross-cultural workers in our host county are doing, he has a specific story for us to live out, and our walk with his Spirit and his Word is what will enable us to live it out and to find joy in the process. Because after all, no matter where we are, or whichever country we align with more at the moment, we can always sing, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.”

So, when we sort of phone-in Valentine’s Day and maybe forget St. Patty’s Day altogether, and when our girls don’t EXACTLY know the word for bagel, or any American presidents, we can rest assured in the fact that this adventure of following and obeying will yield in our family a heart for THE kingdom. His kingdom. The one that knows no language and no denominations. It knows no races and no generations. This glorious kingdom that we will belong to forever and ever, Amen.

How has your sense of belonging changed since living overseas? How have you found peace in the process of assimilation?

Photo by Hanson Lu on Unsplash


  1. Ruth Felt June 26, 2018

    I remember talking about the American flag with my oldest and she said, “I know! It’s red with yellow stars and they put it up every morning at kindergarten!” And yes, when we were counting money in her (American) math book she had the hardest time figuring out which one was a kuai. Mostly I just laugh and feel confused about my relationship with America and China too. It is strange to think how different their perception of normal will be.

    1. Jessica Billinger June 28, 2018

      Ruth, it sounds like we are in the same boat! Haha! What are some ways you share your passport culture with your kids? I’m looking for ideas!

  2. Kimberli Tundevold June 26, 2018

    Tears welled up in my eyes when I read this “Because after all, no matter where we are, or whichever country we align with more at the moment, we can always sing, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.”” I could hear us singing it to piano accompanyment in a conference room somewhere in China. But more than that it is a good reminder as we soon leave for our passport country. Soon the ups and downs, confusion and need for more faith than I may be able to muster at any given moment will be upon us, and I may be longing for different shores. So I’m thankful for this reminder that I can easily sing to remember our story both past and present, and thank him and praise him for being faithful in it all. Thank you for this reminder, which I’ll pack away in my heart, as I physically pack the rest of my luggage.

    1. Jessica Billinger June 28, 2018

      Kim, I’m praying right now for peace and excitement in your hearts as you pack and process all the memories from China as well as the steps ahead. Love you, girl!

  3. Kirstin Durfey June 26, 2018

    Beautifully written, Jessica! Thank you for sharing your heart. Your kids are and will continue to be blessed and your family is such a light!

    1. Jessica Billinger June 28, 2018

      Kirstin! Miss you, girl! Thanks for the sweet comment. Praying for you as you begin on the journey of marriage!

  4. Carole Madison June 27, 2018

    It helps to be OLD, now to be able to look back on those years & say, “ It was worth it all. The Lord really DID take care of our kids.”
    Just a few weeks ago we had the immeasurable pleasure & privilege of taking our daughter & next generation 16 year old granddaughter to China with us where we interacted with at least 60 Chinese friends. To see them bond with our fiends & be given God’s ‘heart’ for these dear folks, warmed us beyond degree. We first lived in Hong Kong in 1968 and have had a whole lifetime of watching the Lord build relationships in response to the love He put in our hearts for our Asian brothers and sisters.
    Hang in there folks. It is soooo worth it!

    1. Jessica Billinger June 28, 2018

      Carole, thank you SO much for your words of encouragement! As a young mom (or rather, mom of young kids, haha) it’s easy to panic at times and wonder what the cost will be for our girls. I’ve been reading some resources for parents of TCKs, and the overarching message is grace. Give them grace as they process, give them grace as they transition, and give them grace when they are angry about the path you chose for your family. Any ways you can expand on that? Are there any other resources or advice you can give to us that are just beginning the journey you have walked?

  5. sarah June 27, 2018

    What a great read, all so true!

    1. Jessica Billinger June 28, 2018

      Thank you, Sarah!

  6. Sandy June 28, 2018

    Thank you for your words…beautifully written. I love your transparency. As a grandmother of a tck my heart aches when he’s gone, but I know he’s with family & FAMILY wherever he is.
    btw, his favorite flag is the “party flag” because he likes to party.

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