Re-entry: culture shock in reverse

I wrote this article when we first came home after living in Switzerland for 17 years. Some friends at the Munich International Community Church kindly printed it and have used it among their members.







Coming Back Home

When we talk about re-entry, we most often mean the process of returning to one’s own country after an extended time away.

PBear coming home

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.

Do the British actually like to be uncomfortable?

I have been reading Alexander McCall Smith’s latest novel, ‘Cordoruy Mansions’ on line and was struck on this freezing cold, wet and windy day in N.Ireland, as I read this: ‘The British certainly lived in conditions of great discomfort, with their cold, draughty homes and their admiration for a culture of cold showers. But did they actually like to be uncomfortable, or did they accept discomfort as a constant factor in British life, like bad weather and run-down trains?’ Can anyone answer this for me?

Home is….where the heart is?

I’m still thinking about the whole question of what makes a place feel like ‘home’. We moved from N.Ireland (our home for more than 30 years) to Switzerland, where we lived for 17 years. Now we have come back ‘home’ – but is it home? What makes a place home?

When I asked this question in an earlier blog, I had these responses from some friends:

‘I would say that “officially” home is wherever your mum lives, but unofficially, and at the risk of sounding rather naff, I would say that home is wherever I’ve found love. ‘

‘Home is anywhere where you can get a decent cup of tea.’

‘Home: A place where you want to go back to no matter where you are in the world because that’s where you feel most comfortable.’

These comments all speak of comfort, of love, of feeling …. at home. When we first arrived back here, I realised that I felt grateful to be home because it meant we had more contact with our families – the chance not only to see them more often, but to be there for them and with them in significant moments – like birthdays, anniversaries, and other milestones – the chance to celebrate together, in person, and not just from a distance, the chance to be more involved in one another’s lives. No matter how hard one tries when one lives abroad, it’s just not the same. We don’t have so many conversations and those we do have concentrate on what seem to be the most important things – the less important, day-to-day details of lives are not recounted because they seem too trivial for an international phone call.

Coming home also gives one the chance to meet up with old friends – friends not forgotten, but not seen for years. I was in a local garden centre one day when I spotted an old friend I was at school with – and we hadn’t seen each other for almost 30 years! We have since renewed contact and have been relieved to find we haven’t changed too much – we can still enjoy one another’s company – so much to catch up on…

Coming home is also coming to where you’re understood. On the most basic level, that means the language. We lived in French-speaking Switzerland and although we were both fluent in French – and loved speaking it – it was not our native tongue and therefore we were never ‘at home’ using it. We could understand and be understood – but we were limited. Sometimes we would feel frustrated because we couldn’t find the exact translation of something we wanted to say.

But it’s more than language. It’s understanding the meaning behind what is said, the history, the humour, the culture. Things don’t have to be explained – there is a common, shared understanding of what was and what is. Irish jokes are renowned the world over – but are often misunderstood by the non-Irish. And of course Irish history is a puzzle to most people (sometimes even to the Irish!).

Coming home is also a return to one’s roots. You remember things you had forgotten. Like putting out the rubbish bin each week; like eating potato bread any time you want it (and not just when visitors come from Ireland and bring you some which you then carefully eke out until the next visitors come); like the green, green fields gently undulating as far as the eye can see; like the majestic sea rolling eternally, demonstrating one mood after another; like the weather which constantly changes, not just from one season to the next, but from one day to the next, sometimes from one moment to the next; like hanging out washing and then having to dash out to take it all in again because of the rain; like the phenomenon of the Irish supper – the fourth meal of the day; like enjoying a joke with someone you scarcely know just because there is that common, shared understanding.

I think that, above all, that is what coming home means to me – coming home to a place where I’m understood, where I’m known. But, at the same time, coming ‘home’ has made me aware that there are actually people in Switzerland who know me much better than the new friends I am making here. Which brings me back to an earlier blog and an earlier comment from one of my friends: ‘It’s interesting how much we need to be known – not just by God, but by each other. I think this is why it is possible to feel totally alone in a room full of friendly people.’ There is so much that goes up to make any one of us – over millions of moments over decades of our lives – and we each yearn to share that essential person that is ‘me’, that is ‘you’, with at least one other person.

I was thinking about this yesterday when I came across this interesting concept in an article by Cynthia Bezek and Buddy Westbrook in ‘Discipleship Journal’ (Sept/Oct.2007):

‘Most of us can appreciate how important it is to receive understanding from God. But what about giving understanding? What if God wants to feel understood too? Jeremiah 9:24 says our highest goal should be to know and understand the Lord and what He delights in. Yet Romans 3:11 laments, ‘There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God’.

I (Cynthia) happened onto the idea of giving God understanding when I was reading Luke meditatively during my quiet times….I was surpised that I’d never given much thought to how Jesus felt. I knew God was big and didnp’t need my sympathy. But I also knew that He experiences and displays emotions and it seemed self-centred of me not to acknowledge them….I connected deeply with God that day. Since then, giving the Lord understanding has become the most genuine and natural form of worship I’ve ever engaged in. I experience intimacy with Him – like I’m experiencing the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings (Phil.3:10). In those moments I feel like a friend of God.’

Could it be, after all, that what we all long for is to know God and to be known by Him? There is no doubt that He knows us. He said to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.” (Jeremiah 1:5). He knew us before we were born! The colour of our eyes, the texture of our skin, who our parents would be, who we would (or would not) marry, the choices we would make in our lives – He knew it all! He knows us – deeply and intimately – like no one else. And He longs that we would know Him too.

‘This is what the LORD says: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD.’ Jeremiah 9:23-24.

Sure, we have a need to know and be known by one another – and God Himself acknowledged this when He said ‘It is not good for the man to be alone’ (Genesis 2:18) – He made us for relationship – with one another, but also with Himself. Could it be that we sometimes wrongly expect from others what only God can give us? That we demand of our spouses, our parents, our friends and family what only God can give us? That we yearn to be known by them in an intimate way which is not possible — when all along the God who made us, who knew us before we were born, who numbered the hairs of our heads, is longing that we have that same yearning – to know Him?

‘Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. ‘ John 17:3.