Themes from a Mini Re-entry

The last two weeks I’ve been in the midst of a mini re-entry after spending a couple weeks in South America traveling/volunteering.  I’m noticing them again, those themes from reverse culture shock that seem to be the same no matter how long or short my time overseas has been.

Today in an effort to remind myself that these themes are “normal” for these seasons of transitioning back {and won’t last forever} I thought I’d list the ones I’ve been noticing.

Themes I’ve noticed in seasons of re-entry {and the truth I tell myself about them}:

I am exhausted.  Mentally, physically, psychologically.  I am worn out.  I like to pretend I’m not, but the reality is I’m really tired.   The introvert part of me is tired from a couple of weeks of constant social interaction.  The adventure prone part of me is tired.  The analytical side of me is tired.  The thinking in another language part of me is tired.  No amount of pretending it away makes me feel rested any faster.  I’ve slept a lot…and wake up still feeling tired.  Keep reminding myself:  I must give myself permission and time to recover.

Escapism.  Maybe it comes with the exhaustion, but this tendency to want to distract myself with mindless things. Reading fiction, watching TV, taking walks, just sitting.  Keep reminding myself:  It’s OK to read a good book…to let yourself take time…there will come a season when you have more energy again to be productive.

“I should be over this by now.”  It is amazing that I’ve done this reentry thing several times now…and each time I think I should be beyond it.  I think because I have experienced it before it won’t affect me the same way.  I buy into the lie that I’m a seasoned traveler and should be able to snap back to my other life no problem.  I find myself saying…it wasn’t that long or that hard…so why am I not over this by now.  Keep reminding myself:  Give yourself permission to be human.  You are not less of a person because you experience reverse culture shock.

“This will last forever.”  Not really sure how I can go from “I should be over this by now” to “this will last forever” in a five-minute period, but I can.  I believe the lie that because I can’t snap out of it this minute that I am going to feel this way for the rest of my life.  Keep reminding myself:  Everything in life is for a season.  This too will pass.

“That feels like another life far away.”  It’s amazing how we can jump from radically different worlds in the span of an international plane flight and a walk through passport control.  Random moments from my time overseas come to mind through my day, and yet it feels like that was a distant dream.  Keep reminding myself:  It’s OK to honor the two different parts of your life…the international experiences and your life in the US.

“Maybe I should…”  Re-entry launches me back into contemplating the big questions in life and wondering if I should change things.  I think in this past week I’ve had thoughts of moving, changing my career, going back to school, etc.  Not because there’s a need to do any of the above.  Just because I’m in reentry, and I find myself turning a small question into thinking about making life altering decisions.  Keep reminding myself:  Stay the course.  Don’t make any radical decisions in this season.  You are not thinking from an emotional stable place.

“Am I sick?”  I seem to always find myself second guessing my health in re-entry.  Did I get a parasite?  Do I feel slightly off?  Is there something going on, or am I just imagining it?  Why am I so tired?  Maybe I’ve got XYZ…? Sometimes it’s good to ask those questions.  Sometimes there is something going on, but sometimes I just feel a little off because of re-entry and there’s not another reason.  Keep reminding myself:  What choices can I make today to pursue health?

Normal life feels so unexciting.  Going back to stocking shelves in a retail store just doesn’t give the same adrenaline rush as trying to navigate a crowded market in another language to find some random item.  My adventure meter is over calibrated, and now I look at the rest of my life and think….this is kinda boring.  The funny thing is I’m not sure I have any energy to do anything more exciting.  Keep reminding myself:  Just keep getting up and going to work.  Tomorrow it will feel a bit more normal to be back.

Triggered memories leave me re-processing the past.  Being back in a Spanish-speaking countries reminded me of my former time living internationally.  It triggered some of my past experiences…the good ones and the hard ones.  It brings them back to the surface along with the confusion, grief, and hard questions.   It takes new emotional energy to process again.  Maybe that’s a clue of why I’m a bit tired.  Keep reminding myself: It is a gift to process again from this new place in your life.  Don’t be afraid to revisit, reprocess, remember, and then move forward.

I want to tell stories…and have no energy to do so.  I found myself my first days back summarizing.  “How was your trip? was met with “Good.”  Part of me wants to say a lot more {but then the lack of energy kicks in}.  As the days go on I have more energy to tell the longer story…people have stopped asking.  This time I also see my tendency to use vague terms to describe what happened in my travels instead of taking time to tell the details of one particular moment or story.  Keep reminding myself:  Be intentional about telling the important stories in detail to a few people.   

For me…writing is good therapy.  I debrief while writing.  It helps me decompress even when no one reads it.  Keep reminding myself:  Take time to write.

“I’ll never be able to do this again.”  I am so prone to over dramatization in re-entry.  One night I was tired and triggered and before long I was thinking if it’s this hard to transition back maybe I shouldn’t travel internationally again.  I think I may have overreacted.  Maybe there were small truths in those thoughts {perhaps be wise about how I travel}, but I was over-dramatizing in a big way. It’s so easy to let little things become a big deal when we’re in the unstable emotional ground of re-entry.  Keep reminding myself:  Don’t take yourself too seriously right now.

I can be a bit more needy.  I sense this subtle shift for a while in re-entry where relationships focus more on  what I need then what the other person needs.  When I notice that all my text messages to close friends are of the long, processing, me-focused nature, I am reminded that reverse culture shock can make me more self-focused. Of course all relationships have seasons where one person is more needy than the other, but I do notice it’s harder for me to look at life from the other people’s perspective during this season.  I have to proactively counteract that tendency.  Keep reminding myself:  Some days it’s OK to be needy, but how can I be intentional about focusing on the other person?

It is hard on friendship.  For all the reasons I’ve named above, I find re-entry to take a toll on friendship.  The introverted part of me does not have the energy.  The exhausted part of me is not up for the adventure.  The needy part of me has to make an extra effort to care about others.  The processing part of me is focused internally…trying to make sense of all this.  I’m so thankful to have friends who’ve been through this with me before…and I know will still be there after I feel a bit more settled, but to those friends I say…I’m sorry.  I know this season is hard for you.  Keep reminding myself:  Thank your friends!  They are a gift you don’t deserve.  

These are the themes I’ve noticed.  It’s amazing how I can look back and see these repeated patterns in big and little ways in the longer re-entry seasons of my life.  That is reassuring because I know that I have made it through this to the other side before, and I will do it again.

How about for you?  What themes do you see in your season of re-entry?  What truths do you keep telling yourself in those seasons?

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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.

8 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Ruthie, I so enjoy your comments about reentry, because they are so true and so similar to what I experience after trips abroad. The thing I struggle with the most is the guilt of reentry. I GET to come back. I GET to enjoy our culture. I GET to go to Walmart and have unlimited options. I GET to have a warm shower and drink clean water! The people I left behind don’t have what I have, and that always hurts and always takes time for adjustment. I guess this too is just part of the process. Does that make sense?

    • Mike, yes what you are describing is something I have heard from others too. There is always a part of us that still thinks about life from the perspective of those we left behind.

  • Amen. We’re about to return to the US in two weeks to help my parents move out of their home of 46 years. Anticipating this transition (which to me will be a re-entry to home country) has made me experience many of the things you mentioned. Thanks for these timely reminders.

  • Thank you! I have a sneaking suspicion you were reading my mind while writing this post. I have been in mini-reentry for the past 6 weeks. Exhaustion…yes…beyond the norm with an infant and toddler. Escapism…really, when was the last time I read 6 books in the span of one month? Triggered memories, no energy to tell stories, being more needy… This post was a sweet reminder from God to once again be GENTLE with myself…reentry is a journey!

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