For Friends & Family of those Moving Back “Home”

In the midst of moving back to my “home” country, I wasn’t at a place to articulate to my friends and family what was going on inside me or what I needed {probably because I didn’t understand it myself}, but looking back there are things I wish I’d been able to communicate because I know it was a complicated transition for them too.

This week, I thought I’d write some of those thoughts down in hopes of them being helpful to others who have friends or family members moving back “home.”  These are things I would have liked to have written to those closest to me in the first few years after moving back.

Dear Friends & Family,

I know I’m a complicated package right now.  I know you’re not quite sure what to expect from me.  I’m not sure either!  Which is what makes this season challenging.  I’m sorry it’s hard.  Sorry for you {because I know it can be hard to be my friend these days}, and sorry for me {because I don’t always like who I feel like I am right now}.  Maybe some of this will help you understand a little more…

Home is a hard word for me right now!  One day I am excited to be here.  The next day I desperately want to be anywhere but here.  Please don’t take it personally.  I value you even if it seems like I’m frustrated with my home culture some days.  My brain is trying to sort out and mix together all of the cultures I’ve come in contact with and figure out who I am now {they tell me this is a normal part of reverse culture shock}.  I know some days I can seem fickle or critical or confused.  Believe it or not, most days the re-entry season is harder for me then living overseas was.

Moving Back and Moving On!  Oh, how I wish it was that easy!  As much as I want to embrace this next stage wholeheartedly and not look back, I’m finding that mentally, emotionally, and spiritually I just can’t move on that fast.  Re-entry might take a few years longer then we’d like {yes, I said years…I’m not going to be over this in weeks or months most likely}.  Not because I want to be in this place forever, but because I want to give you a realistic picture that this season can last a while.

I’m grieving.  There’s been a lot of change, a lot of saying goodbye.  It feels like I left part of me in a different place, and I’ll never be the same again.  So, if it seems like I’m crying for no reason over little things, it’s because I have to walk through the process of mourning things I’ve lost.  I know I said goodbye in my last country, but I’m finding there is still grieving to do.  Some days I want to pretend away that grief, but it’s still there.  I’m saying goodbye to people, places, foods, routines, careers, and the intangible losses of dreams, innocence, etc.  It helps me grieve when you’re willing to listen…to what I’ve lost, to what I miss, to what is hard.  As I talk about it, I find I’m able to grieve it and move on.  It is such a gift when we go to international stores to find things I miss or make a meal I miss from living overseas.

I’m living in a constant state of awkward these days.  Everything I do feels awkward.  Registering for school, using an ATM, shopping in a large grocery store, knowing what are appropriate topics to talk about at parties. It’s a bit overwhelming.  I feel out of the loop.  If I seem overwhelmed by little things, it’s because my brain feels paralyzed by the myriad of “new” things I’m doing.  Life takes so much more energy.  It’s OK to ask if there are things I have questions about or want to re-learn how to do.  I may be ashamed to ask, but it is such a grace when you’re willing to explain without judgment how things work in this new home.

I wish I had more energy then I do.  When you ask me to do things and I say no, it’s not because I don’t want to hang out.  It may be that I can’t manage one more thing today.  Tomorrow I may be able to say yes.  Please, please keep asking.  I really do want friends in my new home.

I may not be talking about my life overseas, but chances are I’m thinking about it a lot.  I know it’s been a couple years, but I still think about life in my former country.  Some days I wonder if we made the right choice moving home.  Some days I wonder if my life overseas made a difference.  Some days I feel guilty for not being there.  One of the best gifts you can give me is to ask about my life before this.  I am probably not talking about it because it’s hard to talk about or I’m not sure you want to hear about it, but I really do want someone to ask me how it was.

Help me talk about the paradox. My time overseas had amazing moments and tough moments.  I need to talk about both with a healthy balance.  When you ask me questions about what was good and what was hard in equal measure it helps.  It allows me to grieve the hard and celebrate the good.  It protects me from remembering a distorted picture.  Please don’t assume that my life overseas was either wonderful or hard all the time.  Most of the time it was both at the same time.

I know I’m hard to live with right now, and I’m sorry.  I don’t understand all the emotions that are going on inside of me, but sometimes anger, cynicism, and a critical spirit bubble up in me in ways I didn’t know were possible.  They tell me it’s a part of reverse culture shock to feel some of these things.  I’m sorry for the ways this makes living with me challenging.  Please don’t think I’m going crazy when I express some of these feelings.  Believe me, I don’t like this part of me either.  They tell me it won’t last forever.  Thank you for having the grace to let me walk through this process of re-entry…and providing a safe place for me to talk through all the crazy emotions that go with it.

Please remind me that I have value as a person regardless of my current occupation.  Sometimes I can believe the lie that I’m not an important person anymore because I’m not doing a job that people see as “cool” or world changing.  It is such a gift when you affirm that my value is found in who I am, and not what I do.  When you ask things like “what are you doing next?”, I know you are genuinely interested, but if I don’t have a cool answer {or any answer} it can lead me down a road of thinking that my value is tied to my occupation.  You might also be careful of asking “when are you going to move back?”  That can also be a hard question too.  Thank you so much for the ways you affirm how you see me using my gifts in this new place.  That really helps.

My mental and emotional health may be a bit shaky.  I’m not going crazy, it’s a bi-product of having a high stress job overseas and the normal process of reverse culture shock.  It isn’t true for everyone, but they tell me it’s not unusual for people in re-entry to find themselves experiencing some depression, anxiety, PTSD type symptoms.  It’s not necessarily because something happened on the field.  It does not mean I’m doing something wrong in re-entry.  It’s not because you are doing something wrong.  Sometimes it’s just because living overseas is a high stress job, and we can’t escape the toll it can take on our emotional and mental health.

It is such a gift when people genuinely ask me how I’m doing.  If I’m struggling in these areas, please don’t freak out.  Remind me that this is a part of transition for some people {without minimizing what I’m feeling}.  Encourage me to talk to a professional who has experience working with those who’ve lived overseas.  If I’m scared to go by myself, go with me.  Ask me what my triggers are.  Ask how you can help.  Celebrate when I invest my time and energy in things that will strengthen my emotional health {sometimes I feel selfish to be focusing on these things}.  It helps to have other people say it’s important.  Remind me that this is just a season.  Sometimes the scariest part is thinking I will feel this way forever.  What a gift it is to have people in my life who don’t offer the quick fix answers but who are willing to walk with me on this journey.

I just want to be a normal person!  Please don’t assume I’m super spiritual or don’t struggle just because I’ve been employed in full time ministry overseas.  I just want to be me.  I just want to have friends.  I’m not a superstar.  This for me is the hardest season my spiritual life has ever gone through…and some days I need people who are OK with listening to my doubts and questions, and who don’t assume that I’ve got it all together.  It is so life giving when I feel a freedom to be me {with all of the good and complicated parts}.

If it seems like I don’t know what I want…it’s because I don’t!  Living overseas confused my identity in a big way!  There are parts of the old me and parts of the new me that are all mixed up inside.  It’s going to take some time to sort all that out.  I’m not the same person who moved to the field.  I’m also not the same person here as I was overseas.  You may find that I change my mind about what I want from one day to another.  It may take me a while to figure out things like what church I like or what part of town I want to live in.  And just to warn you, it probably won’t be the same decision I made before I moved overseas.    It’s like I’m having to figure out “who do I want to be when I grow up” all over again.  Please be patient with my pursuit of identity.  It really helps when you speak into my life what you feel like my gifts, talents, and aptitudes are.  As you talk about it, I can start to figure out again who I am.   It’s also a gift to me when you invite me to do new things, and encourage me to explore who I am.  Telling me who I should be won’t work.  I have to figure this one out on my own.

You are more important then you know!  I cannot do re-entry without you.  I need caring people in my life for this season as much as I did when I lived internationally.  Thank you for your patience, your concern, your listening ear, your companionship.  I may not have the emotional energy to express how much your friendship means to me right now, but THANK YOU for walking the re-entry journey with me!

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Ruthie

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.

21 CommentsLeave a comment

  • This couldn’t be more on target for me. We moved almost a year ago to the date from New Zealand to the US. We moved in a bit of a hurry and didn’t have a solid “good-bye” session because we have been hoping to return. This past October we realized that moving back to NZ wasn’t in the near future and have had a bit delayed ignition in our reentry. We are so thankful for the people the Lord has surrounded us with. Without them, we would not be standing. Thank you for describing the process so eloquently. You have enabled me to share with those around me what I just couldn’t seem to put into words.

    • Tiffany, aren’t we thankful for the people who walk with us on the reverse culture shock journey. I want to speak courage into your unexpected re-entry…hang in there! So thankful you are finding companions for your journey even as it is a hard one.

  • Oh my goodness, these words could be mine. Thank you so much for sharing them. We’ve been back “home” for three (!) years and I’m still struggling just as much as on the first day, or perhaps even more, because I know we’re here to stay and everything within me doesn’t want to stay but wants to go again. I don’t know how to get over this. It’s so hard and so lonely, as no one (but you! 🙂 ) understands. Thank you!

    • Thirza, Yes…sometimes years two and three and four can be harder then the first. But, hang in there!!! It is a journey that requires courage and patience, but eventually it does get a bit easier. Glad to have you join our community here. You are not alone.

  • When I went into missions, it was with a concept in my mind and heart of how God wanted to use me: I believed it or I wouldn’t have gone. I hoped and prayed in that direction for years. And then, at some point, it was time to go home, expectations unmet — not a whole lot to show for those years invested. And I struggled with a feeling of failure. And I finally shared that with friends who had also been on the mission field and came home, and they agreed — they also felt that sense of failure. And so I have continued to ask folks who return, and it seems to be a common experience.

    • Molly – You are not alone with wrestling with this sense of failure. Not everyone has that experience, but some do feel this way. I am glad to hear that you have found some community to process your feelings with. I hope you are able to keep exploring these questions, and that you find some healing in the midst of your journey. I wrote a bit more about some of these questions here…http://www.rockyreentry.com/unpacking-suitcase-shame/
      I hope it will encourage you.

  • Wow… How many of us “repats” reading this look back and say, “That was me!” I know I do. I wish I had had the clarity to understand myself in this way as I was coming home.

    I was so worried about moving forward into a new life that I didn’t even give a thought tho the life I was closing, and would be grieving the loss of, for months (actually for me it was 8 years) to come. Had I had this insight, I am sure that number of years would have been halved at least.

    Thank you for sharing this. I just put this link -as well as your Part A &B identity posts- as a connection on my Expat Links resource page (http://whattheworldtaughtme.com/expat-links/). I know many will appreciate the help and encouragement!

    • Thanks Jonelle, Yes…I think the grief catches many of us off guard…we weren’t expecting it…at least not that intensely. Thanks for your kind words.

  • 3.5 years later from Great Britain back to Canada I still feel I am on an emotional roller coaster. Very relieved, after reading your article, my journey thus far is not unique. Now I feel more confident to push on and not feel embarrassed with how difficult it has been. Thank you for sharing.

  • Wow.. I’m in full-time missions in Italy right now. Making plans to return to the states in September. I will have been here for 2.5 years. These posts have been great for me to read through. A bit of panic when I read through some of them… But I like being more prepared than not. I especially love this one as a resource to send to friends and family! Thank you for writing your story and for helping others better transition back into “normal” life.

  • I appreciate your articles. We have done quite a few short term trips, all usually 3-6 weeks in length. SInce they are a bit longer than most folks one to two weeks away, I think you start seeing and feeling a lot more and some of what you write applies but not surely to the extent of those long term folks. However, in reading your articles, I am blessed by a few things.

    One, how to continue to serve those coming home from the field be it for furlough or back for extended time. Second, I sort of feel like we have just entered a whole new culture for our family. We moved to the Midwest US from having lived 11 years in the culture of Boulder CO where tolerance is the way and mostly tolerance to all things but Christianity so it felt like a mission field in a lot of ways. Now being in “Bible Belt” life is different here as well. Our life in Colorado was much more about spending time with those who did not know Christians. I am now challenged to find those folks here but enjoy the time of refreshment by being able to surround myself again with many believers.

  • I’m not employed in any kind of ministry overseas, but by a secular organisation based in the UK with operations in China. I’ve been here getting on for 3 years, and I get the impression that it’s around this time that the itch to return home gets difficult to resist. Questions like how long will you stay (because ex-pat turnover can be high), or what’s it like back home… Being a single ex-pat working overseas without speaking the language or being able to cook much is v tough… I’m not part of the community here in that I can’t read the newspaper or chat with local folk and rarely know what’s going on. At the same time, it’s easy to feel detached from the community back home – I can’t get international TV so all I know is what I see and here on CCTV and online.
    I’ve been applying for jobs back home (which I now define as a country, not a city or region) but nothing so far. But it’s familiar and I feel like I should know how to survive. However, just going back for a job interview showed me that things change. I can now use contactless technology to get around on the London underground – I don’t need to have a ticket any more. Driving licences and car tax are all changing… If I come back, things won’t be the same even if they seem the same physically, & I’ll feel like a child again… So, there’s the dilemma… To work out an identity, which is why so much of what’s written here resonates powerfully. Thankfully
    I’m not alone, spiritually or (as these responses show) emotionally. But for those returning home, I’d love to think that agencies (& employers) could put some attention to this area: the reality might well be that limited resources make doing so very hard.
    God bless.

  • Thanks for sharing this! We lived overseas for 13 years and have been back about 3. This was definitely true of me in the beginning, and I feel like it still comes it waves – for months I’ll be doing fine, but then it’s like another wave crashes over, be it of grief or awkwardness or just feeling like I don’t have the energy to keep learning life here. It sort of feels like transition is like running a marathon or two right in a row – takes so much out of you!

  • This was so spot on for me. I found myself nodding along and crying to many parts of this. Thank you so much for being vulnerable, to the point and gracious in your writing. I’m sharing this with friends in hopes that they can get a glimpse of what I’m experiencing. I appreciate you!

  • Thank you for your website. It’s helping me a lot. I’ve been back almost three months now. I barely find a companion here bcos no one seems to understand what I’ve been going through. Not even the church bcos they have lack of knowledge on missions.

    I went overseas voluntarily to learn about missions. I had no training, no community support, but I already had a glimpse and ready to experience both good and bad, and I had mentors and few friends back home who prayed while I was there. I was blessed, I was experiencing a lot with God, experienced hardships as well, but glory to God for helping me. I met many missionaries too who taught me. Then, I thought I was ready to work with them. Then I came home to change my visa status, but I didn’t qualify so I may not be able to go back to the country for quite a while.

    I even thought to bring my church to understand missions and encourage them to look outside church, to truly disciple one another not just care groups and gossip about each other like nothing wrong is going to happen to this world.

    I was even told to change ministry or find a “simple” ministry. They kept bringing me back to the old ministries I joined long time ago but I have not reason to go back to those things. It’s like I don’t want to do what I used to nor be who I used to be.

    I wish I have a different face so people would treat me as a newcomer not a returnee. Sometimes I also wish I have a different name now, like Abram became Abraham or Jacob became Israel. To capture the new me.

    Coming back also. My old fears are back. Worries of this world: future, retirement, need to find a job to survive, etc. Are things hard to accept bcos back in the field, I didn’t worry of these, bcos my future lies in God alone. But now I’m back, what happened? Also God seems to have disappeared. I hate how this world is feeding lies and mask it as part of living. Storing up treasures of the world? And they say we need to save up for the future. I wish others can do these for me right now, going to government offices to update them about blah blahs.

    Coming back is also coming back to problems I left. Verbally abusive family. A sick church. A country/city whose people who ‘know’ God but is not serious about him. Other religions are so active in doing mission work but the Christians are barely doing anything. Better is the country who does not know God. “But I tell you, it will be more bearable for the region of sodom on the day of judgment than for you!” Matt11:24 And it’s also like… It’s harder to be a Christian back home than in the country I went to.

    First. I experienced fighting against the enemy. Becoming critical. Angry. Frustrated. Bored. Hate. Then depression. Fear. Restless. Then directionless.

    I seem to be drawn to not work for awhile because there’s nothing for me here. I don’t want to go back to the cycle of not happy at work because my old work prevents me from being with people. The work I did in the field, I’m not qualified to do it here. So I thought I’ll work out for the license (or build my career) so if I’m to stay here longer or back from the field, I have a backup work.

    But to work now seem exhausting to even look for one (in another city). I can go find overseas work in other countries and be connected with missionaries there too. But it seems really I’m lead to not work, in my heart I’m lead to not work. So I’m just reading theology books. Even going out is quite a task.

    I may be too confusing to my mentors as well. My thoughts are here or there and then another and another. Ideas to open a business. Ideas to leave the city, go places. Etcetera. It’s like sleep has become my best friend too, but I must stay up to read/study.

    Sometimes I’m embarrassed of my behavior because I become less of a Christian. But sometimes too I’m grateful I’m a sinner saved by God’s grace. And not a care of how people/church think I am right now. I may be stubborn to them but I’m grateful I am; if not, I wouldn’t have left and experience more of God overseas and the joy to see how Christians in a non-Christian-friendly country are so strong in their faith, and how much I relied on God.

  • Another thing. People saying, “It’s not just your time!” Uhm. What? I don’t believe that. It’s STILL my time except in a different location. Or how much more if I face this (which no one has said yet), “It’s not God’s will.” How much do they know of God’s will?! It’s STILL God’s will, it’s his will for me to follow his commands. It’s God’s sovereignty that I have to stay (for awhile).

  • I am currently walking through this process. Someone gave me this article on my recent birthday. I never thought returning home would be so difficult to process, difficult to explain…just shockingly challenging.

    I have been around very few people who have experience helping others return home from full time ministry, including at church, which has made it so challenging because I have not known how to articulate all these emotions. It has not been a year yet! However I do have people who love me, so for the sake of relationships & I guess a cry for understanding, I have sent those in my life this article because I could not find better words.

    I realize that I have just as much of a responsibility in providing the people in my life with information to help them help me, as we all walk through this process together. It has not been a year yet since returning home, and I feel completely lost, however I am reminding myself that this is just a right now process NOT a forever process! Thank you for being my voice of reality.

  • Yes, yes, and yes. I’ve been Stateside for almost 7 years and still transitioning in some ways. Although I handle the guilt feelings and feelings of failure “okay”, I still struggle from time to time. But at the time, I KNEW I was supposed to return at the time I did. I do know that I no longer really “fit” into the American culture, and that’s okay. I’d rather be with internationals a church, at work, and elsewhere I think. Parts of my heart were left in Central Asia. Thankfully, I have the privilege of returning from time to time, and it seems that we’ve been given the opportunity to work there at time, too, which is such a Godsend. Blessings to my fellow sojourners.

  • Oh my gosh! Wow, this blog post was exactly what I needed to hear! I was thinking of writing something similar on my own blog, but you took the words right out of my mouth, so I shared this on my facebook and sent the link to my immediate family. I’ve been back in the US for just a week now, but tears ran down my face as I read this, especially the paragraph about feeling awkward. Just this morning, my sister was saying how she wished I wasn’t acting so awkward when she tried to introduce me to her friends. Thanks for writing this! Words cannot express how much I needed to read this today!

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