Home Again!

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Re-entering home and (campus) life after a summer mission experience. Published in Crossing Cultures (Intervarsity) on August 15th, 2008.

Whether you went on a mission trip this summer or know someone who did, you might want to learn more about “re-entry”—what happens upon returning to a person’s home culture. People experiencing cultural re-entry can be tired, confused or discouraged, and are often critical of their own home culture. Re-entry adjustment can be major, but it’s important to work through in order to function well once back home again.

Re-entry culture adjustment is simply the transition back into one’s home culture after living for a time in another. But it’s not easy, because it includes confrontation with one’s own personal identity and the impact upon that identity of both one’s home and foreign cultures.

What causes this re-entry time to be difficult for some? Generally it’s because the person has changed or is changing in attitudes and values, and is coming back to an environment that has not changed in the same way. (For long-termers, the home culture may have changed drastically since the time they originally left. For short-termers, it’s the person who has changed most over such a short period, while the home culture has changed less dramatically.) For each individual, the deeper these attitude and value changes are, the more likely it is that the transition period will be unsettling. Points of dissonance that a returnee may experience include:

  • Unexpected tiredness, confusion and sometimes discouragement.
  • An awareness of habits or behaviors that were second nature before leaving but seem meaningless or disturbing once home.
  • Adjustment to role changes, either defined or undefined, that lead to an unsettled feeling.
  • A change in responsibilities, a change of pace.
  • An unexpected adjustment period leading to frustration or anxiety.
  • A sense of loneliness and a need for a close friend to listen.
  • An inability to express or share the experience and resulting changes.
  • A reaction to North American affluence.
  • A reaction to values presented in the media.
  • Disillusionment with the abundance in the North American church and seeming lack of concern for the world.

How do people handle this re-entry time? There are three basic reactions or ways of handling this transition time. One may experience a little of each in the process.

The Assimilators seem to slide right back into the home culture with little to no problem and appear almost to have forgotten their short-term. These people seem to have adjusted well, but may have missed out on the greatest growth opportunity, for they don’t seem to integrate the things they saw, learned and questioned into a new view of life and the world.

The Alienators seem to reject the home culture, although for the very short-term traveler this may not last long. They may be very pessimistic and critical of the home culture, realizing that they too were a part of it. They may nitpick about small things, missing the range of possible social structures and their appropriateness for creating personal alternatives for life values. They may finally succumb to the home culture out of a need to belong somewhere. As with Assimilators, this reaction does not afford a growthful re-entry.

Integrators expect the dissonance they are experiencing, although maybe not in each form it appears. They are able to identify the changes they have undergone or are still experiencing and don’t demand immediate closure on them. They desire to see their short-term cross-cultural immersion have a lasting impact on their lives and the lives of others. This means that they will grapple with how to integrate the things they saw, learned and questioned into creative alternative choices.

How can I become an Integrator and experience growthful re-entry?

The first step is realizing what can happen on re-entry. Most people spend all of their time training for the new culture they will enter, but give little time and attention to their return. Expectations play a key role in this transition time. If you are expecting a re-adjustment process, you can create the space and time for it and will be less likely to get discouraged while it is happening. Here are a few other helpful hints:

Upon initial re-entry, get balanced sleep, balanced meals and balanced exercise. These will help combat the jet lag, tiredness and apathy that sets in the first few days upon return.

Spend some time thinking through expectations. Think about the expectations you had going into your experience, how you felt in the midst of it and what you’re thinking and feeling now that you have returned. Notice any dissonance you may feel now as you return and journal. Notice what values and attitudes are changing.

Remember to apply the training you received before leaving. The tools you learned for crossing into a new culture are just as helpful for returning to your home culture.

Debrief with others. Find one other person or a group and ask each other questions like these: Tell me about the faces and lives of people you met. What stories mark your time with some significance? Or even insignificance? What did you learn about God? About yourself? What voices did you hear that also need to be heard here at home? Where do we go from here?

Reflect on these questions as well.

  1. What were the highlights of your cross-cultural experience? The low points?
  2. What did you learn about God? (whether easy of hard lessons)
  3. What did you learn about yourself?
  4. What did you learn about the other culture? About the world? About God’s purposes in the world?
  5. What expectations were met or unmet during your experience? Upon your return?
  6. How does what you’ve experienced and learned affect where you are at now and/or your future?
  7. How will you apply what you’ve learned back home? (Some suggestions: befriend someone from a different culture or get involved with a person or group that is racially or ethnically different than you.)

Reread your journal. Read one entry every day for several weeks and ask God to remind you of the things he was teaching you then.
 
Pray—alone, with others, with a prayer partner. Pray for the people you met, the church, each other, the people you want to tell your story to.

Give yourself a spiritual checkup: Do I feel closer or more distant from God? What will help my love for Christ grow? Do I need to try something new in my devotions? Take a few long walks for my Quiet Time? Spend a day in a personal retreat?

Be disciplined, yet creative. Remember that your spirituality is not limited to a “productive Quiet Time.” God is present with you throughout the day no matter how you feel.

Recall the success and accomplishments of the short-term and develop a list of gifts and strengths that God gave and affirmed. Likewise, make a list of weaknesses and areas where God moved in spite of yourself.

Learn how to answer—not despise!—the question when someone asks, “How was your summer?” Use a few descriptive words and ask if you can spend more time together to share from both of your summers.

Become a storyteller and learn to tell your story well.

Is there life after a short-term cross-cultural experience? There most certainly is! And the ones who have the greatest impact upon others are those who take the time to process and integrate their experience with plans for the future. Have a great re-entry!

—Linda Olson. Reprinted and adapted from the Global Projects Journal Guide from InterVarsity Missions

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