When we talk about re-entry, we most often mean the process of returning to one’s own country after an extended time away.
A friend, who is about to do just that, asked me to give her some advice, based on my own experience. 6 years ago, I came back to the UK after having lived in Switzerland for 17 years. Just as we are all individuals, so our experiences are individual and personal to us. Nevertheless, in something like re-entry, we do all share many aspects of the experience. I don’t see myself as an expert – but I am willing to share things which helped me and things which didn’t, in the hope that my friend (and anyone else who reads this) might find something useful.
(1) Don’t expect people to be interested in what you experienced abroad. This was probably the one piece of advice we were given before coming home. And it’s true. You may have had the most unforgettable experience of your life, you may be bursting to share it – but don’t. People in your own country have been living their own lives all the time you have been gone – and if you are not asking about theirs, why should they ask about yours? Also – and this was something which someone else shared with me – it may not be that they are not interested; rather, they just don’t know what questions to ask. Your experience is different from theirs. Think about it – would you know what to ask someone who had been to Mars?
(2) Don’t expect things to be the same as they were when you left. People have moved on, many of your friends have moved on, your family members have moved on. Some of those people will no longer physically be around; others may no longer count you in when they invite their friends to do something together. While you’ve been gone, you may have nostalgically imagined a return to old haunts and old friends – but reality hits when you realise that this is not going to happen – not with all of them anyway. Hopefully – as in my experience – you will be able to pick up some old friendships where you left off. You will find that the years you have been apart will have added a richness which you can share together and with these one or two good friends, it’s as if you were never gone.
(3) You will miss the friends you made abroad. Some of my best friends (not all) were made in the years we lived in Switzerland, simply because we were there during a significant period of our lives and we shared life experiences (raising kids) together. Friends made at that stage of your life can never be replaced. So you will feel a sizeable gap in your life and you will need to reach out and make some new friends. If you are struggling with re-entry issues (culture shock in reverse), you may feel you have little emotional energy to do this. But it will reap dividends in the long run. Don’t wait for others to take the initiative. Don’t sit around and feel sorry for yourself. Take the initiative, invite people for a coffee or do whatever you are comfortable doing.
(4) Realise that you have changed. You have experienced things you could not have dreamt of, you have broadened your horizons and widened your interests in all sorts of ways – you are not the same. You probably think that’s a good thing, that you’ve changed for the better – your friends and family may not think so. Just be aware that you have changed – so it is not only you who has to adjust. They have to adjust to you – the new you.
(5) When we go abroad, we expect things to be different. But somehow when we re-enter our own culture, we expect everything to be the same. Re-entry is so painful because we are not prepared for it. When we went abroad, we expected language differences, we knew we would have to try new food, we were ready to see new things. But when we come home, we don’t expect all that. Yet nothing seems familiar any more. And because we have seen new ways to do things, we think the new ways are better and we wonder why people in our own country don’t agree. Try to remember that ‘new’ or ‘different’ is not the same as ‘better’. It’s just different. One trivial example: in Swiss supermarkets, when you go to the checkout, the cashier will look you in the eye and say ‘Bonjour Madame’ before beginning to check out your items. In a British supermarket, there is no such formality – the cashier gets on with her work and may or may not chat to you while she does it. Which is better? They are different.
(6) You will probably initially enjoy a ‘honeymoon period’ on re-entry, when you are really glad to be ‘home’, you embrace all the changes and you look back on some of the aspects of the foreign culture with amusement or even disdain. Another trivial example: the Swiss are very environmentally-conscious and are very careful about recycling – to the extent that on our regular trips to the ‘dechetterie’ with our various recycling bags, I would wait with bated breath for the man in the hut to come out and tell me off for putting something in the wrong place. Coming back to Ireland, you can imagine my surprise on my first trip to the local dump when I was making my way to one of the ‘skips’ (British) or ‘dumpsters’ (American) and the man in the hut came after me, saying cheerfully, ‘Just give me that, love, and I’ll do it for you’. I could have hugged him!
(7) After the honeymoon period, of course, comes the period when you realise that not everything about coming home is good – just as not everything about going abroad was good. Where once you couldn’t wait to taste the familiar Cadbury’s chocolate and Tayto cheese and onion crisps, now you yearn for Lindt chocolate and peach iced tea (or their equivalents). It just goes to show we always think the grass is greener on the other side. The best thing to do is learn to be thankful for where you are and what you’ve got – and be thankful for the experience you had of living abroad with all that that meant. It has shaped you into the person you are today and you are the richer for it.
(8) So get on with living where you are now. Embrace the current possibilities. Pick up with old friends where you can. Make new friends – difficult as that may be. Make an effort to find likeminded people, others who have lived abroad and perhaps have had similar experiences. Sharing an international perspective keeps that part of your experience alive. You may even find areas where you can reach out to others – foreigners who have come to your country and need help from someone who understands what it’s like to settle in a foreign land.
(9) As with most aspects of life, it’s good to learn from others who have trodden the path before you. I recently met a lovely couple – Ken and Polly MacHarg – who have lived in several different countries and moved many times in the course of serving international churches. Ken has written a book called ‘Singing the Lord’s Songs in a Foreign Land’ – Biblical Reflections for Expatriates, available from Amazon.
In the Bible, we have the example of Naomi and Ruth who left Moab and went to Judah together. Naomi was going back home – back home to the country she and her husband had left many years before; back home, having lost her husband and her two sons; back home where she told her old friends and her family not to call her ‘Naomi’ but to call her ‘Mara’ which means ‘bitter’. She had allowed herself to become embittered because of the losses she had suffered. But God met her where she was and the story of the book of Ruth is a wonderful story of redemption and grace, where Naomi and Ruth saw God provide for them in miraculous ways.
Wherever you are on your journey – leaving home for the first time or going back home after a long time away – don’t allow yourself to be embittered. Embrace the changes, learn the lessons and allow God to shape you into someone He can use because of the experiences you have had.