In Part I we discussed transition from the familiar into a new place. Now let’s talk about a less discussed aspect of transition: coming back “home” after living in and experiencing another culture. This transition is often overlooked and not taken seriously, but I can tell you from experience both personally and in my many conversations, it is one of the hardest.
You’ve spent months or perhaps years in a different culture, and you have finally figured out your new normal in this new place. You can talk to the people around you, navigate the city, and have made wonderful friends. Now you will get back on a plane and go “home. People are anticipating your return. You are excited to see family, eat a hamburger, have unlimited root beer.
What you are not prepared for, is what it looks like when you step off the plane:
1. YOU WILL FEEL ALL SORTS OF EMOTIONS AND IT’S OK
People are so excited you’re back, and you should feel excited too! You’re happy to be back, but also sad. Those opposing emotions war with each other and it can cause us to feel guilty and confused.
I tell people to treat reverse culture shock like grief. It has its stages; it’s unpredictable and every single person experiences it differently. It’s why it’s so hard to prepare for and why it’s difficult to explain to others when you are in the middle of it. And just as with grief, each stage depends on the person. Some are skipped, and others will take a while.
Denial. You bring all things of your new culture with you, making the same foods, going about the same routine. “I’m going to bring it all with me, and pretend I’m not back in America.”
Anger. You see the holes of your home country. You get angry at how much money is spent, how people don’t care, how the food is awful, and no one says the right greetings. Whatever it is, it’s wrong, and frustrating, and it makes you angry.
Bargaining. You start living in the past and want to return to where you came from. You start thinking of what you can do to get back.
Depression. You feel sad. You miss your friends. You miss your other home. You cry at random times. You want to isolate. You just don’t feel happy.
Sometimes these emotions will take a while to surface, and sometimes they never will. Understanding how you normally react in times of grief may help you to understand how you will react in this transition time. But the important thing is to recognize that you have lost something, and it’s important (and okay!) to grieve it.
Acceptance. Just like when you first arrived to your new culture, you had to learn to embrace the new. It’s the same with coming home. Embrace the grief; grieve well, and then move on.
2. YOU WILL BE OVERWHELMED BY THE LITTLEST THINGS
America is full of choices and standing in the toothpaste aisle is proof of that. Coming from countries with smaller stores, limited choices, or none at all, a grocery store can be the breaking point. But it’s not just giant super stores, it’s also new self-checkouts that never existed before. It’s pumping your own gas, after years of not having to do it. Have grace and patience with yourself, recognizing the emotional and physical strain doing these things will have.
In the places we just left, we could always play the foreigner card if we didn’t understand the system. How many times have we stood in the wrong line, or misunderstood what was going on? Now, back in the place we’re from, we stand and stare at screens unsure of what to do, and no one knows the internal struggle happening. Take your time, ask a trusted friend for help, and continue to give yourself grace.
3. YOU ARE NEW WINE IN OLD WINESKIN
It’s an old analogy, but you are in fact a new and different person who is returning to an old container and it feels uncomfortable. The culture you just left has changed you. You’ve learned things about yourself that affect how you behave. You’ve adapted to a different way of thinking, doing things, and dressing. It’s who you are now, but everyone is treating you like the old person you were before you left. They haven’t journeyed with you through these changes, and may be confused by them. You feel unknown and misunderstood. Communicate with them as much as you can, share when you are able, but understand that it will take time.
You may be tempted to go back to old habits and to the person you were. Push forward with the new things God shaped in you and don’t forget the things you learned.
4. PEOPLE DO CARE, IT JUST MAY NOT LOOK LIKE YOU THOUGHT
People in America are busy, all the time. A lot of people are excited you are back, but will not necessarily pursue spending time with you. Many have said they are giving space, so realize that just because they haven’t immediately set up a coffee date with you doesn’t mean they don’t love you and don’t want to hear about your time.
You now carry a different voice. You’ve experienced things that some people never will. You’ve seen the lostness of another culture. You’ve made relationships with people on the other side of the world. It is your job to carry the voices of those people and the realities of that country back home. Sharing these experiences can be healing, though difficult. Find those people that want to hear, who will sit down with you and listen. Be intentional on seeking people out and setting up a time with them. The people who care will respond, and take advantage of this time. And don’t underestimate the power of reconnecting with those that did live life with you overseas, or have experienced life abroad. There’s power in shared experiences.
I’m going to take a moment here and speak to the family, friends and churches of receiving people back. Recognize that those of us returning are in grief and that we just left a home. Do not ask us if “we are excited to be back.” We are, but we hurt too. Pray for us, love us, and have grace for our withdrawal, confusion, and re-adaptation process. It will take some time. Embrace us, learn from us, and have patience. And ask us to coffee or lunch, don’t wait for us to initiate!
The common theme is grace, patience, and letting yourself be ok with the mix of emotions you will feel. Embrace this new identity of carrying another home and culture with you and learn how to mesh the two. Allow the Lord to show you how to do this and take Him your hurts and frustrations. He, after all, was the One who was with you in the other culture. He has journeyed with you throughout the whole thing, so He knows it all the best. Remember, it takes time.
Sarah Schepens currently lives Paris where she is the intern coordinator with Envision . She lived in Ecuador and Thailand before getting her MA in Intercultural Studies. She most recently lived in the Middle East developing interns and working with women in sustainable business. She passionately develops leaders and loves walking with them as they engage in different cultures, passions, and creative expressions. She appreciates all things beauty, fashion, expression, and unique creative outlets. When she's not out drinking [coffee] with friends or exploring new cities, Sarah loves cozy pants, slippers, lots o' blankets, and her favorite show.