7 Things I Learned about Transitioning

Today, we have some great re-entry wisdom from Amy Young.  Amy has recently been through her own re-entry transition.  I have gotten to know her through her work with Velvet Ashes {a great online community to encourage and support women working internationally}.  This last year I was a part of a re-entry Velvet Ashes connection group {Skype group for a semester to connect with women of faith who are also living overseas or transitioning} and found it to be a great place to talk with others who are also walking through reverse culture shock!

Amy has spent a lot of time lately thinking about transition {excited to dig into her book…read more below}…and has some great wisdom to share…

Granted, the first leg of my trip back to China had experienced a three-hour delay and I thought I might miss my international plane. But the strong sensation I had as I sank into my seat couldn’t completely be attributed from the adrenaline pulsing through my veins after I’d run through the airport.

I was a hot mess internally. FOMO (Fear of missing out) while I was in China combined with knowing China was no longer my home left me with this clear thought: Metaphorically, I am always on a plane, by myself, stuck between worlds.

When I say it was strong, I mean, a huge bouncer in a bar could not have given me a stronger sucker punch.

looming-transitions_coverI was almost two and a half years in my reentry. Will it ever end?! I have a book coming out this week called Looming Transitions: Starting and finishing well in cross-cultural service. It’s intended for the 4 to 6 months before moving to or from the field. I firmly believe that is a key window that can make your transition easier or harder. Notice, I said “easier,” not easy. You get it.

If I ever write a book about reentry, here’s the basic outline of what I’ve learned so far:

1.      Transitions take a long time. While I knew this, let me say it again, transitions take a long time. I think most people think I’m through mine, and in a way I can’t argue with them. But another part of me cringes, knowing I may never really done with it.

2.      There will be far more surprises in your transition than you expect—both good and bad. I won’t bog us down in mine, but I’m sure you’ve experienced your own surprises.

3.      Identity shifting can be excruciating for your soul. “China” had been the most commonly used adjective for me: Friend from China, Sister in China, Daughter in China, Aunt in China. China, China, China. China will always be a huge piece of my identity, but it’s not longer central in the same way. Parts of this identity shift have probably been healthier for me than I realize. Our identities have to be formed and informed by something, and a land we love isn’t bad. But for me, this has been a season of reinventing my self.

4.      The lesson of how much God loves me is sinking in deeper. God loves me not because of my geographic location, but because of my location in His heart. I can be just as loved by God in a suburb of Denver as in the remotest corner of the world. His love has nothing to do with where I am physically.

5.      Investing in community on both sides of my world was wise. When I lived in China, I loved being part of a team and invested a lot in healthy relationships. But during my 18 years on the field, I also invested in those “back home.” I spent money on calling, writing, and visiting when I could. I can see now that those breadcrumbs while I was in China, maintained a pathway for me to find and maintain community when I returned. It still takes time and investment and it doesn’t look like my team in China, but investing in small ways for years helped me more than I realized it would.

6.      Do what you need to do even if it doesn’t make sense to others. When I got home, I could not stomach American church. But I was (and am) still on full-time support so I needed to find some way to participate in church life that wouldn’t make people think I’d walked away from my faith. Having lived away from easy access to church, I decided to visit every church within a one mile radius. A different church each Sunday. It kept me connected enough, but also allowed me the floating I needed to do for a season.

7.      Feelings come in waves. Just as I was about knocked over on the plane feeling stuck between two worlds, that feeling passed. The plane took off, the food was served, I tried to sleep, and life continued. When those waves hit, it helps to acknowledge them, feel them, and know they are not permanent.

That’s what I’ve learned in the last two years. Transitions aren’t for the faint of heart, are they? We know this! I’d love for you to be able to give a gift of the book Looming Transitions to one of your friends who will either be moving to or from the field. Leave a comment about what you’ve learned in transition OR who you’d give the book to and a winner will be drawn next Sunday, January 17, 2016 {and announced in the comments on this post.}


Amy YoungWhen Amy Young first moved to China she knew three Chinese words: hello, thank you and watermelon. Often the only words needed in life, right?! She is known to jump in without all the facts and blogs regularly at The Messy Middle. The tag is “where grace and truth reside.” People tend to be drawn to grace, grace, grace OR truth, truth, truth. Either side doesn’t require much discipline, do they? Instead they foster auto-pilot living. But real life happens … in the messy middle, with both. She works extensively with Velvet Ashes as content creator and curator, book club host, and connection group coordinator. Her book Looming Transitions: starting and finishing well in cross-cultural service is for the 4 to 6 months prior to moving to or from China.

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Ruthie formerly served cross culturally in Central America. She had her own rocky reentry back to the USA about eight years ago. She currently lives in the Midwest where she enjoys volunteering with refugee families, shopping international grocery stores, and drinking cups of coffee with friends.

58 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I’ve been transitioning for 2 years now, having left Africa after 17 years. During these two years, I got married (in March 2014)for the first time….to a widower with twin 14 year-olds still at home and three grown married children and grandchildren. I moved to a new state where I didn’t know anyone except my husband. Also my mom passed away 6 months ago. Everything is hard and I wonder if it will ever get easier.

    • That definitely sounds like a lot of transition! A lot of change and grief and adjustment. Sounds like what you are feeling is very normal after all that change. Even if it doesn’t feel very fun…hang in there!!!

    • Tammie, Wow, as Ruthie said, that’s a LOT of transition. We have another piece we share—my dad died unexpectedly about 8 months after I came home. So grief of a parent has also been thrown into trying to “figure my life out.” I don’t have any easy words to make it all better, but to say, “I see you. What you are experiencing is real. It is hard. I”m sorry.”

  • i appreciate this post! We’re three years back and just when I feel like I’m adjusting to life here, a wave of emotion hits and I’m sad for what I’ve “lost”…. but often I try to turn that sadness into thankfulness, grateful for the time I had…. rather than be angry for why we had to come home. It helps to hear other folks have the same struggles, that we’re not alone. Thanks again. ps- I’d give the book to a friend that’s been overseas for years and planning to return Stateside this fall….

  • Thank you so much for writing this, Amy. I am 1.5 years into my transition to the USA, after 12ish years on a field. Everything is still changing. But now, the changes are better. I have learned (again) that God is bigger than I had realized. Since He is infinite, that seems kind of silly, and yet that is what he chose to show me. In his bigness, he has shown me that leaving the field and coming “home” was not the lesser path. It was not plan B, and it was not a cop out. It is simply the next season in my life. I have some dear friends and missionary colleagues who left the field about 6 months ago, but for very different reasons. They are having a difficult walk, as I did. But it does get better. I promise.

    • “Not the lesser path” — I love that! I keep also hearing that life is to be lived in seasons and not to rank them. Some days this is so freeing, and some days it just doesn’t feel true. But I know it is 🙂

  • Today marks two years exactly of me returning to the States. I’m definitely still transitioning, and it’s been much harder than I ever imagined it could be. This blog has been a godsend. Thank you for writing.

  • I’ve been transitioning for 10 months and am now in my third state. I’m still trying to decide if I want to stay here. I’m working and staying with family and am attending church. I’m also praying and fasting. I’ve learnt how to make myself happy. It had been a difficult journey, one no one understands. Good had kept me and I’ve drawn closer to him. I’m grateful for his love and the closer relationship I now have with him.

  • What have I learned about transitioning: Good question! Trying to learn how to put what I feel during transitioning back into my home culture into words. I realize that if I have trouble knowing what I am feeling, that it is even harder for others who have never experienced it to understand. Thanks for giving words to part of what I feel.

  • Have no expectations… that’s what I’ve learned through the transition of the last year. If course it’s impossible to have none, but it helps to keep them low. Expectations of yourself, your family, your supporters….

    • Maybe what we all need is help in setting realistic expectations (instead of too high or too low) :). It’s unrealistic that we can move from one world to another and adjust in a few months. It’s more realistic for it to take years. I have to admit, I’d prefer the unrealistic ones be true!!!

  • We are coming off the field this March after 9 years. Fortunately had a 6 month furlough in 2015 that included a debrief and renewal (DAR) with Missionary Training International. That was instrumental in sorting out all the emotions and stresses that had accumulated over the years. We know our mission is completed here but liquidating our stuff and reestablishing a home back in the States is a lot different than when we left for a foreign country. I felt confident and excited then. Now I feel confused and unsettled because I am returning to a secular job and don’t have a sense of purpose.

    • I found the DAR retreat to be very helpful as well. The transition to a secular job can be a big change. I made that transition 9 years ago and some days I still feel like I’m adjusting to the change. So give it lots of time…

    • Dave, I think you have put into words what many, many of us go through. I’m still in a ministry job, but good friends who left the field at the same time I did, transitioned to a secular job and it has been a huge, huge transition. The husband is in his 50’s and it’s his first secular job in decades. All this to say, even with DAR (which was also hugely helpful to me!!), this is still going to be hard (which I know you know, but I’m just babbling!). Prayers and thoughts for you!

  • Thanks for this post! I especially like the one about taking the time you need (even with church!) . We have been back two and a half years. I was born on the mission field and have always struggled with change. I am learning to give myself permission to acknowledge/count and then grieve losses (even the anger part). I took time to write out all the times I had moved in my life and came up with 40 before I turned 40! I also found this process to make things more painful for a while before it got better. It has been a longer process than I thought. As most people don’t understand this kind of grief, I think it is helpful to at least find one friend or counselor that you can process it with. It can often look like people don’t care, but the truth is they often really don’t understand/can’t relate. As I wrestle with the reality that I will always feel somewhat that I don’t “belong” wherever I live, I am (slowly) learning to stop fighting against that reality, and to accept that it is part of what God has for me and look for ways for “how” God is going to use it..instead of questioning “why”. I am learning how much I want to be in control, even of the timetable of grieving. I am learning to surrender that control, be amazed at how God shows grace and strength in my weakness, and learning to trust God in a deeper way. There has been a lot of waiting…a lot of times where God has seemed quiet. I am also finding that out of those times of waiting and “quiet” in the transitions, an even greater beauty can come than I imagine. Is it possible that instead of being my enemy, transition may be a “friend”?

    • I remember at DAR listing all I lost through this transitions and all I had gained. It was both helpful and stunningly depressing to see what I lost far outweighed what I gained. I describe it as my life exploding in a plane crash that I survived. I was okay, but had to rebuild my life almost from scratch.

  • I’m so glad you wrote this blog entry and to read what others commented. Reminds me I’m not the only one. There are few forums for sharing with each other about our transition between serving overseas and living in the U.S. again. This has been nice!

  • I’ve been home from China almost a year now. I have a Sister I left back there and this book would be great for her. Father only knows what her life and mine will look like next. She’s visiting home (and me!) at the end of this month. I’m so excited to see her!

  • Thanks for the post. I wish my wife and I would have had your book and other information during our transitions. I feel our transition to my other home culture went smooth, considering we have 5 kids. We had good friends and good accommodations (bam). It was tough, but we pressed on because we were called.

    Moving back unexpectedly was a disaster. Our whole lives fell apart and it has taken three years to get some peace. Because I am a bam, I still go back to my other home. I am caught between two homes and my heart gets torn more each time I travel between each place. My preference is my other home culture, but my wife and kids have the best life here in my home town in the USA . I see spiritual success both places. God uses me in both places, but my heart is in my other home culture.

    I can identify with my other home culture being the most used adjective and being part of my soul. The soul part hit me hard. This explains why I desire to talk to every Chinese person I see in the USA.

    One thing I have learned through all of my experiences is that new believers experience the the same thing on a smaller scale.. They get their minds renewed and they change thier culture. I now can help with more compassionate love and understanding.

    I will press on and put my faith in Him.

    • James, you and others, have touched on how complex it can be when one or more family members do better in one place more than another. I sometimes don’t understand why in the same family God would place people who love each other so much, but thrive in such almost diametrically opposed environments. It encourages me to know there are people like you who are willing to sacrifice themselves for others in their family. Though I don’t mean to minimize the very real cost to you.

  • I am right smack dab in the middle of my transition from having served in Scotland for 9 years and immediately doing a 3 month mission in Malta. My biggest surprise learning curve was the difference in family relationships I would experience as well as how depression is quite a normal thing upon reentry. My family (parents and siblings, grandparents, cousins and nieces and nephews) have necessarily grown closer through the support between each other during both good and bad times. That physical presence necessitates a stronger bond I can feel a bit left behind from. As for depression, it can hit at weird and not-so-wonderful times and for no apparent reason. I’m learning to let it hit and remain confident God’s walking me through it, He won’t leave me there !.

  • Six months in for me after 20 years overseas and your post was a gift!! Somehow I was feeling “less” because the transition was and continues to be painful. Even went for counselling. I have what I now believe to be grief- grief for the loss not only of a life overseas but of the me that was that person living an overseas loss. So I am working through all of the stages and trying to remember to breathe, to love me, to find gratitude.

    • Bk, one who chapter in my book is related to grief. It’s a huge part of this transitions (really, any, but I think returning home in particular.” I’m so thankful you gave yourself the gift of counseling, breathing, and to love you.

  • I am transitioning. Took an early retirement package after living in Russia 12 years. My mom died unexpectedly in October so came “home” earlier than expected. This is hard.

  • My husband, myself, and our two kids are almost two months back from seven years in West Africa. It has been the toughest on our kids so far since they want to get back to their friends and their familiar life. They both basically grew up in our host country so much of America doesn’t feel like home to them. I am finding myself to be much more brittle and irritated than normally. Moving back to the US has been a bigger transition than I anticipated it would be, and it sounds like from the earlier comments that I read that transitioning is going to last longer than I had thought. I’m thankful that God promises to never leave us or forsake us! I know He will help us through this time of change.

    • Two months. My only piece of advise is this … be gentle with yourselves :). At first I told myself I could play the transition card for a year. And then a year passed and I told myself 18 months :). I’m now giving myself permission for three years (and may up that when that marker comes!).

  • I can’t even begin to express how I feel to have found this site. I am a year and a half in to my extremely rocky re-entry. I am excited to start pouring over more articles. I liked the page a while ago but this is the first time that I have intentionally stopped by to read.

  • Wow! I’ve been home 8 years and the re-entry was really, REALLY hard. It is so encouraging to hear from others who have struggled with the same thing, because at the time I really thought I was just going crazy. Sometimes I still have moments when I just feel like I’m in the wrong place, or like no one understands, but I think building connections with others who have lived and traveled abroad is so important. Thanks for this!

  • Thanks for the list. I’ve shared it with lots of others that I know are going through transitions. I’m realizing that transitions take time, more than I expected in some ways. Part of me does feel like it will be for the rest of my life. That’s probably because I don’t see settling down in one place as any part of the future- at least right now. 😉

    • Anna, thanks for sharing it. In the last few years, I’ve been changing how I think about transitions and trying to see how life really is a series of transitions. Which both helps me feel normal and drives me a bit batty 🙂

  • Just wanted to say thank you for this site, this post and how honest and real the conversation of re-entry is. I’m about five months in to my own re-entry. To be able to read other people’s stories has helped to lift the burden and expectation that I should be more adjusted by now. It’s been so freeing to learn the lesson that grace and healing is found in time…and time could mean a year or two or more…and that’s ok. I assumed that because I had only lived oversees for two and a half years I’d be able to adjust more quickly. But I’m learning that having a life-changing experience oversees means just that–life has changed.
    So thank you Rocky ReEntry friends for talking and sharing your lessons learned…it’s making an impact on my life and revealing to me such grace.

    • Ah, those shoulds :). I’ve learned they can be replaced with “coulds!” And the math of the heart isn’t quite like the math of the calendar, is it? 2.5 years is plenty of time to reorient and confuse a soul. If you can be gentle with yourself and let the transition take as long as it needs to take, I think that would make the Spirit smile. We are contained by time, God isn’t 🙂

  • I would give your book to my sister-in-law. She will need it …..(raised 4 kids in the US; recently moved to Africa as an adult MK; planning a 6 month furlough after 22 months!)

  • Wow. Y’all have me in tears. We have been stateside for 18 months now but are only 13 months past our decision to leave the field to be near my mom who is developing dementia. So our move was hard on two fronts… which I know a lot of people can relate to. The thing I’ve learned and that I’d love to share with people just stepping into ministry (overseas or otherwise) is that God’s leading to missions isn’t necessarily for life. My husband and I were both missionary kids and felt the Lord leading us to overseas missions even before we began dating. We assumed that leading would be a lifelong call. When we left the field, we wrestled with feelings of failure and not being able to hack it. The Lord has patiently shown me that, yes, He did call us overseas… but just for a season. He’s now called us to minister in our small neighborhood, to our family. Our time overseas wasn’t an end in itself. It was a purposeful placement by a Sovereign God in order to use us for His serve there and for that time. But another purpose was to prepare us for the next step of our ministry here in the US. He beautifully weaves our stories. The pain becomes a part of the beauty in the story. I’ve also learned that I’d chose a thousand times to walk the hard road for the intimacy and dependence it creates with Jesus.

  • “Isn’t necessarily for life.” That’s gold! It’s interesting how for many people, it does seem to be the assumption (I’m not sure “assumption” is the best word, but can’t think of a better one now). And then the sense of failure and shame it leads to is so very deep, isn’t it? I’m really sorry to hear about your mom. That’s hard on so many fronts. Blessings to you and your husband.

  • Lori B – Congrats! Through a randomly selected comment…you win the copy of Amy’s book! I will email you more info. Thanks to all for sharing your wisdom about transition.

    • Agreed! I am blessed by all of you offering pieces of yourself. You have inspired me to keep seeking ways to serve cross-cultural workers and your re-entries. With blessing, Amy

  • Our family went to Haiti with one 2 year old and nearly 16 years later came home with 4 bio children and 2 adopted.. well in reality one had already flown the coop to start college. WE had decided to leave in October of 2009, then the big earthquake happened. With a adoption on the line and a quick get out of town ticket on the table, our plans to leave in an orderly fashion dissolved into a puddle. Recognizing God’s blessings of safety (when so many other’s didn’t make it, including missionaries. His blessing of provision of a place to crash into for three months and begin the grieving process. Wasn’t enough, then the overwhelming guilty feelings of I’m a survivor, but I don’t feel like i can claim that because our house didn’t collapse, yet i was inside and covered with dust and glass shards from the shaking. I had PTSD of all things faintly shaking for years… Its just something you have to be patient with. We had to put down our dog, leave with only backpacks. Then I had to deal with the grief of my children, our adopted kids who felt uprooted too quick, the bio kids who felt a mixture of relief and grief (the whole reason for the blog). Mostly I wondered what I was supposed to do with me. My husband went back to work doing what he did there.. Maintenance and fixing things, he just couldn’t fix me. I bounced from job to job, in and out of severe depression, falling physically sicker and sicker.. then one reason or another I simply just got out of bed and said enough is enough. My advice is don’t be afraid to keep looking for what the next new thing God wants you to do. For me.. I’ve worked part time, full time, overtime.. and I’m back to part-time at home. It puts us back on the missionary budget so to speak. It is here I feel at peace. We put our eldest kids into public school and kicked myself for 4 years that I know there was a better way, but I couldn’t do it and work. And our state is not homeschool friendly. Well our county anyway. All this to say… I’ve come full circle 6 years later. I’m going to homeschool our youngest adopted child her last three years, and the state will let her play basketball. Big help on my part to convincing her its what we needed to do. I work parttime from home at weird hours, because its what I want to do. I could do it at 8:00 am, but I don’t want to. On the field I often worked late into the night while the house slept because I had to. Now I find that rhythm of the house sleeping spurs me on, to get my “paid job” out of the way. The Chronic insomnia that came on after we left is still here, so now i just make good use of it! Oh and guess what’s back.. my joy… it’s been missing for so long, I’ve tried everything I knew to find it, grasp it out of thin air, all the Biblical way we are told to Rest in Jesus. What I needed was a missionary schedule, I finally found it, right at home..

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