By Joanne Beckley
(The following article was researched and written in 1991 when my husband and I returned from living 16 years in South Africa. We would like to encourage everyone, but especially all elders and those responsible in seeding and bringing back men and their families from foreign lands to read these words. There are no exaggerations contained within this writing Please, we are losing too many preachers back into the world from discouragement and burnout for us to treat this subject lightly.)
“Excuse me sir, where do you keep your baking soda? And sir, which of all these choices of coffee should I choose?” My mailbox is always so full! How does anyone ever read it all? Am I automatically supposed to know banking/ telephoning/standing-in-line procedures? I feel angry. I feel helpless. Enough is enough! My husband has gone silent and morose, and my teens . . . Why can’t we rejoice in being “back home”? Moving back to our native country should have been a lark. In America we don’t have to iron the bed sheets and towels or wrestle with lilliputian washing machines, and everyone here speaks English!
What I’ve just attempted to describe is sometimes indescribable these feelings that are caused by the confusion and emotional pain we experience as “returnees.” We came to learn we are were not the only ones who have had this pain, but like ourselves, no one else around us knew how to help us face and deal with “reverse culture shock.”
Since then, I’ve been talking . . . and reading . . . and talking There is something we can do for our fellow returnees and their support groups. We can reduce everyone’s stress to manageable portions by providing information about this kind of change so as to prepare for “that” day. It will give all of us understanding and useful guidelines when yet another preacher and his family attempt reentry to the States. Don’t allow others to return without support and virtually ignorant of their needs.
The following observations and suggestions should be read by any family now in a foreign country. Each congregation involved with overseas work needs to consider the following and be aware of this additional responsibility to-ward their workers. The congregation who invites one of these men to work with them when they do return to the States should also be aware of the familys need to be held, often literally, with both ears available for the next two years. Truly, it will be had for Christians who have worked in foreign lands, spending years keeping personal problems under lock and key, to now learn to open the cupboard now locked with pride. We know, weve been there.
To the Family Returning
When you and your family left the United States you had to relinquish close relationships with your families, your friends, and your sisters and brothers in Christ. You gave up cultural supports that made life comfortable and secure. By leaving you separated, gave up and lost much. This action of leaving has important consequences when one day you return to America. Your long range goals for leaving America will affect your return, and not always happily.
Your family was probably quite young when you left to go overseas. You didn’t find leaving the USA. a particularly difficult hurdle for you were still in the process of setting down roots and open to new adventures. Your new roots grew and developed tenaciously in your adopted foreign soil. You developed certain mannerisms and thought processes. (And these will be recognized by your brethren when you return.) At first, because you had to leave loved ones, you may have tended to limit your love in many ways by making short-term relationships. Yet as the years flew by, you began to trust and to share yourselves again with new dear ones, the native Christians.
Because dad, the evangelist, was often away from home, mom felt the brunt of the new culture and the greater child rearing burden. Strain between husband and wife often developed when the stress of transition was not communicated. The wife may have had a servant to bear the housekeeping/child rearing load and yet she suffered in her adjusting to having another woman/man in the house. There were new languages, new neighborhoods, new friends, new schools, and new laws that all had to be learned and made. And ah, the amusing stories you were able to share in writing to those back home. Or, you may have found it was impossible to settle in overseas and this has bred feelings of defeat and pessimism. Truly, I have discovered, the attitudes you develop overseas will be the tools you will have to work with upon your return.
While overseas, you developed and accumulated special abilities and skills which helped you to adapt to your new situations successfully. You learned to use the available transportation, you became increasingly proficient in working with different peoples, and you developed a wider understanding of the world and her needs. Life gradually became easier with all of this under your belts and it con-tributes to your feelings of being distinctive.
But when you return, despite your determination not to succumb to being special because you were always treated special, there will be a feeling of being let down. Seemingly none of your accomplishments, learned through tears, will be appreciated or be recognized as useful. You have a language you cannot share, empathy for others that no one understands. In your conversations, you cannot truly share what made you, how you lived, whom you met, what you had done and what you are now. Many Christians will ask sincere questions but they will begin to fidget and their eyes will begin to glaze over. Truly. You may grow silent and feel so very alone.
Returning to the States
When we return, we leave a significant part of ourselves behind. We have to say goodbye to cherished friendships that were developed from intense mutual needs. Goodbyes are hard. Yet, to this day I still suffer from those who could not face telling us goodbye. It left us feeling incomplete and it made our new beginnings that much harder. Most of us who have returned manage to adjust on the surface, but gradually we have had to face our feelings of uncertainty, alienation, pride, anger, guilt and disappointment. (These feelings are similar for those “merely” moving to a new city, here in the States only much more serious.) I would even catch myself saying in amazement over some labor-saving device, “Aw, you Americans are wonderful!” Laughter and tears seemed to go hand in hand.
We want to be “Americans” again; we want to fit. Yet our values are now different. What was unacceptable in our adopted country is now acceptable all around us. In our adopted country we could not participate in helping our extended family. Now we can . . . Issues that grip the United States lose their urgency. Religious issues were often not applicable to the foreign country’s situation. We had lost contact with the necessary anchoring points of daily life in the United States.
There are clues to help recognize reentry shock. There are symptoms that can help us view our progress or lack of progress as we gingerly and blindly step out on the road of assimilation. Accept these clues as reality. At first there is euphoria. About six months later feelings of discomfort, restlessness and vague dissatisfaction with life develop. It is hard to pinpoint the source of these feelings. Why now do these feelings surface? In about a year you may become totally dissatisfied with your preaching method, your effectiveness and feel you are on a treadmill of no growth. There will be fear and anger; Christians can adjust, so why aren’t you? Doubts of faith can become long-lasting and heart-breaking if they go unrecognized.
My husband and I have experienced the following problems, not immediately recognized, and found them to be common for others. May they help you.
1. Pride was a heavy companion during our period of adjustment. From feeling fairly confident and competent overseas, we experienced real or imagined judgment from fellow mature preachers and Christian. We began to feel that we just “weren’t in the flow” and resented the renewed exposure to “politicking” among brethren. We didn’t want to fit into the molds of traditional requirements we were expected to fit. We missed being special in the eyes of others. We also found it very difficult to say, “I need help.” Preachers and their wives don’t like to be seen as weak. Or it seemed like we were bothering others with a “hangnail” of a problem. After all, we are Americans, so why are we feeling paralyzed? Bending and adapting accepting proved to be very difficult until we acknowledged that our problems were based on pride and selfishness. “Let love be without hypocrisy . . . be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor .. . contributing to the needs of the saints . . . be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind . . . Do not be wise in your own estimation” (Rom. 12:10-16).
2. Anger expressed toward ourselves, toward each other for making life difficult, and toward “the system” all contributed to feelings of anxiety, depression, self preoccupation, or insomnia. This sense of powerlessness and insecurity where everything seemed to be on top of us brought feelings of fumbling in the dark. Laughter was for-gotten and burdens seemed unfair to bear. “Like a city that is broken into and without walls is a man who has no control over his spirit” (Prov. 25:28).
3. Guilt dogged our footsteps. We were very hard on ourselves for breaking down. We felt guilty for being given so many gifts and becoming in a very short time seemingly just as affluent as others and never as we had been over-seas. We felt guilty that we had left our brethren “in the lurch” overseas. Of course we understood that our thinking was unbalanced but gradually these three problems led us down the path toward depression and contrived alienation from the very ones who now realized we had problems and wanted to help. In view of this, I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men (Acts.24:16).
Only by repenting on our knees (clean the inside of the cup, Matt. 23 :25) and with the help of others could learn to understand and forgive ourselves to spite of our feelings which gradually reduced and are now viewed with fond amazement! We learned to accept that our adapting would be on-going and we can control and over-come through God’s help. We learned that reentry can be as intense as experiencing the death of a loved one with similar stages of grief to challenge us as a part of change.
As we began facing our-selves, we also listed our strengths. By living overseas we now have a deeper under-standing of human nature, developed through working with a variety of cultures. We are richly blessed by knowing and loving many, many brothers and sisters in many countries. We have a wider knowledge of the need to spread the gospel and we’ve developed various teaching methods in doing so. Above all, we have personal satisfaction in playing a small part toward reaching and teaching lost souls through shared sacrifice, our offering to God (2 Sam. 24:24).
Obviously, each one of you will differ in his reentry process, both in duration and degree of difficulty. We each bring to the process our own fears and expectations. And therein lies the rub; our expectations never match reality. We arrive determined to mix a new palette of colors and we want everyone to rejoice in an amazing picture, our very own creation. How subtle Christ’s command to serve again seeps into even this problem and demands that we turn about and serve. The Apostle Paul stated it well, “I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more” (1 Cor. 9:19). If we would only realize we are now a potpourri of the world and not make an issue of it. Americans will not fight us! In fact none of our “foreign” habits would bother any-body if we would just stop reminding people of them. So we must learn to live quietly and realize that judgment by others may be wholly imagined by us. Coming back can truly be another adventure, educational, amusing, confusing, rewarding, “knee scraping” and just plain fun. But remember, it may take weeks, months, or even years to complete the transitional process as we integrate new and old experiences while we serve God and others.
Suggestions and Recommendations
1. Provide three crucial needs: (a) A place to go and a means of support, (b) a strong person (not your spouse) who will constantly reassure you that you are able to resume life as a whole and adequate person, and (c) seek out Christians who will be neither patronizing nor protective.
2. Recognize and grieve over losses involved in moving to a new situation. Seek out information in advance to help you as you begin new routines.
3. Say goodbye so that you can enter as whole-heartedly as possible into your new beginnings. Welcome this as a gift from your loved ones, honor their love and do not cheat them or yourself.
4. Integrate the past with the present. Reflect on the positive. Be patient with yourself.
5. Realize and accept that overseas life will leave a permanent mark on you. Become reserved, soft-spoken, a listener. Let others learn to value the new you. Accept that there is an emotional cost of adjustment. (And be assured, these periods of loneliness and discomfort will alternate with periods of effective coping.)
6. Seek out other Christians who have previously experienced reverse culture shock. Destroy pride. We cannot afford to lose you!
7. Seek contentment. Seek solutions in God’s word, in prayer and in your brother’s help. Learn to truly serve. We go on in
8. Focus on daily tasks (hourly, if necessary) until you begin to cope again. Talk to each other and make sure each knows and recognizes what you are both going through.
9. Return to a learning environment, studying with other preachers, etc. You not only provide yourself with common ground but it will provide you with a chance to admit neediness. As a student you can assist yourself in your battle with pride.
A Special Note to Parents of Returning Teens
Living in another country gives tremendous potential for our young people. To maintain the positive, we need to give them a chance to be prepared for their own return to the United States.
Try to gather information on USA educational requirements and assist your children in their transition. Talk together about yours and their expectations of America. If possible, seek pen-pals among American churches, prefer-ably where you will be locating or where your teen will begin his higher education away from you. They will need to know U.S. dress styles, hair length, and how to use a telephone. They need to understand U. S. currency, how to balance a checkbook, and the dangers of plastic money. They need usable vocational training “all” American teens have jobs.
The skills you can provide will help them over the rough period of feeling like a cultural misfit. Reverse culture shock is shared by all the family. Because their world changes faster than anyone else’s world and peer acceptance is crucial, teenagers are very susceptible to reentry stress. Becoming depressed, they will withdraw, some trying alcohol, drugs and sex as a means of seeking acceptance. They are not adults yet. Help them.
Beware of America’s spread of influence in the community you join. The school system is based on humanism and its satellites of extra-curricular activities can hurt your family life. Research has revealed that children returning from overseas experience an extended adolescence as compared to those raised in the united States even up to the age of 28! There is seemingly a lack of full acceptance of all life’s requirements. Recognize theirs and your frustration.
Above all, reentry will be a time for tremendous spiritual challenges. Your teens will be faced with hypocrisy, unconcern and manipulation among their American Christian friends and their friends’ parents. Help them not to be disheartened. Help them to learn to recognize the world around them as America shouts, “Do, taste, enjoy, read, feel and do it quickly!”
Your teens will resent and refuse to face freedom restrictions (isn’t this the “home of the free”?). Help them to develop an inner security and spiritual wisdom that will carry them through. Communicate while they are young so they will hear you better when they are older. Be supportive when they are young so that they will recognize your sup-port when the time comes to face many problems and grow stronger from their experiences.
How Can Churches Help?
1. Make a plan. A commitment to send a man overseas inherently contains the need to include plans in helping him to return. Plan monetarily and plan a support system. This support must be a continuous process of care, prayer and inquiry on their behalf. Let us not create any more casual-ties (quit preaching, adultery, yo-yo’s of continuous dissatisfaction) but rather keep them whole, able to continue their work in spreading the gospel.
2. Exercise patience and caring love. Your family is re-turning with grief. Encourage them to trust again. Validate them in their struggles. You will indeed be doubly rewarded with their richer experience and love.
3. Be aware. Realize that their reentry holds adjustment problems whether they were gone two years or twenty. Watch for the corresponding “low” after his “high” of the first six months with you. Help him to continue to seek hungry souls.
4. Return your man and his family for a six-week visit/ preaching trip back to the foreign work within two-three years of their return. This will help them to complete their adjustment. If possible, plan for one of your elders to ac-company them. New relationships are forged and mutual appreciation develops. The fear and intense grief of never seeing their loved ones will be relieved. We just recently returned from a seven-week trip back to South Africa. It was filled with teaching/preaching/sharing. Yes, one day may bring about the possibility of returning, but the pressure of grief is gone now. Why? There is hope now!
5. Remove unnecessary pressure. Recognize the pressures that are placed on a returning family. Don’t demand verbally or with body language that they give up his or her strange and unpredictable behavior and expect them to be the comfortably predictable people you may have once known. New relationships are built on the NOW from both sides.
6. Reassure, reassure, reassure your man of a job well done, then and now. And don’t forget his wife and children. Value the valuable.
(Various Christians have shared with us their own experience with reverse culture shock and I have used several outside sources from the military and denominational writings which included some useful suggestions while we were needy.)
Guardian of Truth XL: 7 p. 12-15
April 4, 1996