Tag Archives: reentry shock

I Became a Foreigner

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I totally relate to this blog!  I’d only add that going to Walmart becomes something surreal for us missionaries.  If we aren’t crying about not being able to make a choice in the salad dressing aisle, then we are straining our ears to hear the Spanish being spoken by the shoppers in the next aisle over.  Just a quick run for diapers can require a week of therapy.  It’s such a roller coaster ride!

ReEntry Shock is a real thing for missionaries.  This is a raw, bare bones account of what becomes a universal experience for people who live overseas.  Coming home is never the same again- home changes, people change, and we wonder if you still remember us and love us.  Please read this blog and feel free to comment.

I Became a Foreigner.

“Doctor, heal thyself.”

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Memorial Day in the back yard with family

I was a grown adult squeezed into a child’s school desk.  (You know, those desks with the table part attached to an arm attached to the seat?)  I pretended to examine the names carved into the desk top while I listened uncomfortably to the couple sitting next to me.  We were all there to be “debriefed” upon our reentry into America after serving as missionaries in far off countries.  The couple next to me was serving in China.  As I listened to the husband speak, I felt them shutting down and closing off and retreating into themselves.  His voice crackled with hostility, “I don’t know why we have to reconnect with our friends and family.  We’ve just going to be leaving them again once our budget is raised.  Why go through all that work if it’s just going to be temporary?”  I understood what he was saying- it’s going to hurt to say good bye all over again.  I understood.

In our missions organization, the majority of us are on a 4-year-out-1-year-home cycle.  After a while, it’s easy to forget where your home really is.  That year back in the states is mainly for fund raising for the next 4 years, but nearly everyone comes “home” beaten and battered, worn out and raw emotionally and spiritually.  And no one wants to admit it to anyone outside of our circle of co-workers.  It might look bad to our supporting churches.  We might look weak.  “Doctor, heal thyself,” we fear someone might say to us.

I saw this weakness in me, and I listened to the recommendation of the counselors in the debriefing sessions.  I knew I needed to do the work of reconnecting with my friends and family while I was back home.  But I also knew there was a painful parting up ahead.  I took the plunge anyways.  And I’m glad I did.

Backyard water fight

During our year (and a half thanks to medical issues) home I made several decisions that would guard and heal and refortify my family to let us put down roots again.  First of all, we chose to live close to our relatives (more about that in a minute).  Second of all, we chose to put our kids in the same private school that their cousins went to.  This was an out-of-pocket expense for us, but we felt it was important for our kids to be close to their cousins again.  Frankly, this turned out to be the best decision we could have made for them.  Third of all, I chose not to travel with my husband so much during this fund raising cycle.  In the past, we had traveled as a family all over the Midwest, home schooling along the way.  I decided that we would only travel on the weekends, and only if we could be home for the kids to go to school on Monday mornings. We did not travel midweek at all.  This decision meant that our kids could be involved in age appropriate activities at a home church during the week.  My son got involved in a youth group, my middle daughter joined a Bible Quiz team, and my baby girl made nursery friends at a Mom’s group on Wednesday mornings.  We put down roots, even though we knew they would be pulled up again.

In addition to these roots, I made a concerted effort to “carpe diem” every coffee date and luncheon I could arrange with my old friends.  Knowing the time was short made it all the more urgent and important to get something on the calendar with all the people I love from my past.  Knowing that I was leaving again made it all the more precious to me.  I wanted to listen to their stories of their kids growing up.  I wanted to hear about the changes that have occurred in the last 4 years in my circle of friends.  I wanted to feel a part of a group again.  In turn, they listened to some of my stories, reaffirmed their love towards me, and reconfirmed that I still have a place in their hearts.  Those were some of the healing elements that needed to be applied to my dry, thirsty soul.  My roots could once again draw up life into my soul.

Back yard fun with the cousins

The last rooting measure I took was to fortify my tap root- to reconnect with my family.  I am so glad that we chose to live close by and to get involved in their church because it meant that I saw my parents (and the kids saw their grandparents) weekly.  I remember once my dad mentioned that he was craving baklava.  I went home and whipped up a pan of the heavenly dessert.  I got in the car and drove the 10 minutes to my parents’ house to surprise my dad with a pan of baklava… just because I love him.  It was so worth it to me to live close to them so I could do the little acts of love that we had missed during the last 4 years.  To be able celebrate birthdays and holidays together, to drop in unannounced, and to sit in the back yard together was more soul-nurishing than I would have imagined when we were sitting in those desks back in the reentry debriefing session.  The counselor was right, we ALL needed this.  We all needed to put our roots back into our native soul even though it was just for a season.  We all needed to be healed.

Navigating with a broken rudder- Reverse Culture Shock

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Before we became missionaries I heard lot about culture shock, the emotional roller coaster ride you take when you enter a new culture.  What I didn’t hear much about was reentry shock or reverse culture shock, the emotional roller coaster ride you take when you return to your native culture.  OK, so what I did hear about reentry shock made me roll my eyes.  I heard stories about missionaries having tearful break downs in the grocery store because they couldn’t decide which salad dressing to buy (Good grief, get a grip Woman!).  I heard of missionaries forgetting their English vocabulary (seriously?!).  I heard of missionaries hiding in their houses and not wanting to talk to people (don’t be such a party pooper).  I thought, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.  Why would anyone have shock coming HOME to the culture you grew up in?  That’s ridiculous.”  I mocked.  Until it happened to me.

Coming back home from Mexico for the first time, reentry shock hit me hard.  And I was horrified that I had ever made fun of it before.  It’s real.  Oh, let me tell you, it’s real!  Now I was the missionary having a melt down in the grocery store… only it was over shredded wheat, not dressing… I remember the feeling of panic rising in my heart when I entered the cereal aisle.  Oh my Gosh!  There are 6 different flavors of shredded wheat- and I’ve never tried ANY of them!  How do I know which one I like?  In the end, I couldn’t commit to a new flavor.  I walked out with an ordinary box of mini wheats because it was the safe choice.

I also remember the first 5 times I entered Walmart and walked out again without buying a single thing.  Yes, I said FIVE TIMES.  I could feel my decision making brain cells starting to sizzle.  I felt a migraine coming on.  I was totally incapable of making so many decisions at once.  I was overwhelmed by my options.  Do you remember the first time being a parent and going to buy diapers?  Do you remember standing in the diaper aisle and reading every label, comparing prices, size of package, size of child, special features?  Remember how consuming and overwhelming that was because you didn’t know which was going to be the best bargain?  Then after a while you commit to a brand and it becomes your “go to” brand.  You can tell your husband, Pick up some diapers at the store, and he knows to get the red package or the package with the puppies on it.  You don’t have to think about that decision any more.

Well, coming back into America it was like my computer had crashed and the memory had been erased.  All my “favorites” had been erased, my cache had been emptied.  I had to start from scratch and rebuild my life.  There were a lot of tears in the first few months.  I remember half way through the grocery store putting my head down on my exhausted arms resting on the handle of the cart.  I said, “I just can’t make one more decision!  Why the heck is this store so big?”  I looked at my cart and I thought about unloading everything onto the conveyor belt at the check out, then bagging it all up, then loading it back into my cart, then loading it all into my car, then bringing it all into my house, then putting it all away in my kitchen.  I was seriously tempted to abandon my cart right then and there.  I was in a full fledged reentry shock episode.

Unfortunately it didn’t stop there, and it didn’t consume just me.  My entire household was in a state of emotional upheaval and I was navigating with a broken rudder.  Now I can look back on those first few months and laugh at having to read the instructions on the gas pump or standing too close to the lady in the line in front of me or accidentally kissing my friend’s husband on the check when I greeted him or throwing my toilet paper in the garbage can or whatever loco stuff I did.  I can blame it all on reentry shock… don’t YOU roll your eyes at me!