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Coming back to the United States wasn’t easy. In a way, I never came back.
At least, if by the “I” I’m talking about is the me who got on a plane in Chicago in August 2008. That person didn’t come back to the United States. No, on the island of Ebeye, she was transformed into the person who got off the plane in Chicago in May 2009.
And that affected everything.
Twelve days after I came home to what felt like the coldest summer on record (it wasn’t), I headed to my summer job: camp. Now, I had worked at camp the three previous summers, so what would be different?
I had been warned about reverse culture shock and so I expected to happen, but it was mostly easy to ignore it or not recognize it. Why? I was surrounded by people who knew I had spent the last ten months out as an SM (and who kept commenting on my tan and weight loss). The girls’ director had also just returned from the islands as well. (We commiserated about how cold it was.)
Still, little things ended up bugging me. Once, I irrationally snapped at another staff member while we were cleaning the girls’ bathroom. Why? She’d removed a toilet paper roll that still had paper on it. Halfway through me saying, “Why are you wasting that?” I realized that I’d been thinking that we needed to use all we could of the toilet paper because, on Ebeye, it was super expensive. I ended up explaining and apologizing.
Despite the experience of the three previous summers, it felt like I was starting all over again. All my friendships had changed, mostly because I had. But it was a lot of work. I had spent ten months on Ebeye with the same group of fifteen to twenty people, all working toward the same goal of running the school and reaching out to the community. Now I was in the middle of a staff of forty-five, still united with the end goal of reaching campers. My world had basically doubled in twelve days. I had to re-learn how I fit into the staff, and how I related to the other staff members, especially those who had known the previous me. But I worked through the difficulties and made it through those first weeks and months back.
Five years later, I am still adjusting because, like I said, I never really came back from Ebeye. Part of my heart is still there, and I returned as a different and better version of myself. I am not a former student missionary, I am a returned student missionary.
When I returned to Southern Adventist University, I ended up making the friends who are now my closest friends. The experiences I had overseas ended up paying off when I was unexpectedly promoted to director of the crafts and ceramics department in the middle of that first summer back. A few years later, my camp director and his wife told me that the best decision I ever made was being a student missionary.
I couldn’t agree more.
A few years ago, this article was published from Adventist News Network. It highlights the very real and common challenges of re-entry through some personal experiences of a few returned student missionaries.
As I have talked with former SMs–who served from the 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond–many of the symptoms of re-entry are the same, no matter the decade or century. I’ve also found that some return SMs don’t like to be labeled in a category of “reverse culture shock,” and tend to think it only has to do with getting used to shopping malls and traffic. But I think the process of re-entry and adjusting back to life at home often has a lot more to do with relationships–feeling lonely, displaced, misunderstood, and a bit left-behind. You could experience some of the same feelings if you’d just dropped out of school for a year and returned, but it can often be intensified by your mission experience because it ran so deep and few are willing or able to take the time to try to understand that. And similarly, you might have a lower appreciation of the changes that happened at home because you were off having your adventures. Eventually, you find your middle ground with new shared experiences, and even a few people who enjoy your mission stories.
Until then, you can know you’re not immune, and you’re not the only one. Whether it’s easy or hard, fast or slow, everyone gets to go through some adjustments. But the same God who brought you through your mission experience will not leave you now.
What was the most helpful thing(s) others did to help you adjust to being back home? Or what do you think would have made it easier? Here are a few answers from some returned missionary Facebook friends (who will remain anonymous):..................................................................................................
“Having people to talk to or not talk to about the experience. Without the pressure of having the ‘right’ answer. It is especially hard after leaving the college scene.”
“Finding people to relate to. Another is keeping your life active. Spiritual, outdoors, and other areas should have a challenge and purpose. Having God reveal His purpose helped my mind adjust to the change.”
“It is a tremendous help to be able to talk openly about things that may have bothered you, doubly so if you went to a place with tremendous political upheaval. It is not uncommon to have our sense of justice and fairness assailed in other cultures since our values systems may be different, or even things that both cultures deplore must be accepted because of the circumstances. Sometimes, the work can seem so overwhelming, especially when one leaves and can see there is still so much to do…”
“Just letting me talk about my SM experience.”
“My biggest struggle was feeling like I was shoved from a very adult, independent life back into the land between adulthood and childhood. I felt like my life as a student was painfully trivial. I really needed a meaningful and challenging job to distract me and build on the skills I depended on rather than abandon them. I eventually made that for myself, but I think the transition would have been much easier if I have been given that much earlier.”
“Keeping connected with God and staying busy. It was hard getting home and everyone went to work and I had nothing to do all day.”
“It was hard to go from a small--by the end of the year--closely knitted group to being back at university where I didn’t know where and when friends would be around. Also, to go back from living off cash to having to use my ID card again and living in the dorm with an RA when I had lived in an apartment for the previous ten months. I’m not sure what would have helped, but I did enjoy getting to talk about my experiences.”
“Ohh man….still adjusting. LOL. I’ll get back to you when I’ve adjusted. :)"
It doesn’t take long to realize you’re on your way back to “normal” when you find yourself complaining about first-world problems. The shower won’t get hot fast enough. The internet is downloading too slow (this one should really take a LOT longer to complain about). Your cell phone battery keeps dying. The line at Walmart is too slow. Taco Bell got your order wrong.
But maybe it’s not that YOU are complaining so much (at least not as much as you used to), but that you hear everyone else around you complaining. They probably have done it all along, but suddenly it’s like the volume got cranked up 100 times louder. Sometimes you can ignore it, but sometimes it’s really frustrating to listen to. It just feels so…wrong. How do people in North America NOT know how blessed they are? And yet, just as you start to feel good and self-righteous, you hear yourself complaining about traffic, and how you wish someone would turn down the air conditioner…and then you realize, you’re not too far from “them.” And it scares you. Yes, it’s good to be home, and it’s good to start feeling somewhat normal, but were all those life-changing lessons not really life-changing? Will they all just fade away with time?
Actually, those lessons can fade away, but they don’t have to. You always have a choice. Here are a few ideas to remind you of the lessons you’ve learned, so you can start figuring out how they fit into your current worldview:
You just got settled into your classes, and that far-away land and experience that once was home is starting to fade as time marches on. Some try to keep it alive as long as possible, but as they say, time stops for no one. Then an email shows up, or your cell phone rings, and someone is asking you to help with missions week at your school. You take a break from test-cramming, and start digging through your stuff, looking for all those must-have souvenirs or gifts you were supposed to give away. You pull a few of your favorite (or random) pictures together in a slideshow, and try to get the wrinkles out of your “native costume.” Depending on your SM experience, this all can be traumatic or exciting. It either allows you to finally re-live your most incredible life experience, with permission to open your mouth about it, or forces you to relive some extremely tough times that made you grow, but which you’ve avoided remembering or sharing.
But either way, it sometimes doesn’t hit you until you’re there, behind the table, at your booth with all of your stuff that represents an entirely different world and a huge chapter in your life. It sometimes doesn’t hit you until a few people wander by and half-heartedly pick up a carving, or comment on a picture. Maybe it’s not until you are in the middle of an excited conversation with someone who is genuinely interested in your experience. But somewhere along the line, it usually does hit you. A) What am I doing here? And/or B) What am I supposed to say?
I remember coming back from my SM year in college, putting together the most awesome New Zealand booth ever in the Student Center, complete with a fake tree, a hammock, and some climbing ropes (not that you could lay down or climb, but it looked cool). But my experience had been hard, and I really didn’t know how to “recruit” SMs to go to my place. I could recommend Student Missions as a way to grow and didn’t regret going myself, but I could not recommend my experience. I could also recommend New Zealand, but not as an SM. There were still a lot of emotional tsunamis washing over my brain whenever I talked about my experience. Even when I later returned from a different experience that I completely loved and recommended, I found it difficult to explain to others. I learned–as everyone does–how to say things that people like to hear: to tell about the beautiful scenery and friendly people. But there was something in me that wanted to be 100% accurate and honest, but I didn’t know how to do that. And I realized later that it is not really possible. Because your Student Missions experience–well, you kind of just had to be there. It’s ok for people not to completely understand–because they haven’t been there yet. It’s ok that you don’t know how to explain it all–even if you did, they still might not get it. It’s ok if you are not totally enthusiastic about persuading others to go out right now.
Because ultimately, most potential SMs go because they see a long-term difference in you, not because of the worship talk you gave. They go because they hear the stories tumbling out randomly throughout the day, not because of one high-pressured afternoon, or a busy week. These times of special missions awareness are helpful to get people thinking, maybe even to make some good connections to follow up on, but it’s the faithful, honest, and open you that makes people want to go.
And one final word. It’s not all up to you. God uses a thousand ways to call hearts to service. You might be an important part of that, but relax and know that as you pursue authenticity in your relationship with God and others, He will use your story–the good, the bad, and even the ugly–to continue the story of missions in someone else’s life.
Remember those times when you were a missionary and life was terrible? Those times you would sigh and close your eyes and let your mind take you where the living was easy…your couch at home, Taco Bell, sitting in vespers at college…
Remember those times when you came back to your homeland and life was terrible? Those times you would sigh and close your eyes and let your mind take you where the living was easy…the hammock by the beach, snowboarding, the laughter of native kids…
Maybe the living is always easier somewhere else. But may God give you the wisdom to choose to live today, wherever you are, even when it’s not easy.
When you return from being a missionary, it takes awhile to transition from your “missionary world” to your “home world.” (Yes, perhaps the greatest under-statement of the year.) Besides the social and environmental adjustments, there are often a lot of emotions to endure as well–some good, some bad, but all of them pretty distracting. You quickly discover that living in two worlds at once is difficult–so you end up picking one and leaving the other one behind–at least for awhile. Sometimes you might move from one to the other or even go back and forth between worlds for awhile.
Sometimes you pick the old world. Usually this happens when your mission experience was mostly positive. The world you’ve returned to is a blur, too much to deal with, or maybe not as fun or meaningful as your mission experience. So you escape through pictures, songs, native food and clothing–anything that makes you feel like you’re still in that world. You miss everything–even the stuff you used to hate. Nothing around you right now can measure up to that experience and those emotional highs. You are constantly trying to communicate with others at your mission site or those who you once served with–through facebook, email, Skype–or maybe even making lots of trips to the Post Office. Though others might think you really need to just move on, and the sooner the better, you will be sure to use the deep lessons of your past to help you face your present and future.
Sometimes you pick the new world. Maybe you had a more difficult experience, or you don’t have the energy or time to deal with the emotions–good or bad–that come with thinking about your mission experience. You avoid looking at pictures for awhile, and for some reason it’s really hard to stay in contact with those you served with or who are still at your mission site. You kind of hope people won’t ask you about your experience, and if they do, you try to pacify them with short, acceptable answers. You might dive into your new world with exhilaration–new friends, new clothes, new classes, new job, new identity. Underneath, you may not feel like you totally fit in this new world yet, but you’re going to try. This can be helpful for awhile, so you can establish yourself firmly in the present, and later go back and try to incorporate the past.
Whichever world you choose will have it’s benefits and draw-backs. Either way, you will probably often feel restless and frustrated. You will misunderstand others and feel misunderstood. You will draw on comfort from the past or hope in the future to help you keep going until one day things feel more normal. Until then, here are a few suggestions for whichever world you are in:
1. Make your relationship with God a priority. Your spiritual life can feel like its in shambles as you transition, but God understands. He wants to journey with you, so keep talking to Him. And He actually has a lot to say in His Word if you’re willing to go there. Ask others to pray for you too.
2. Do your best to communicate to others -- in both worlds -- what you’re going through, and maybe which world you are camped in for awhile. This can help prevent a lot of misunderstandings, and can actually make you feel more supported.
3. Live in healthy community. The temptation to hide can be super strong, whether that’s isolating or over-socializing. It’s ok to have your season of withdrawing or extroverting for awhile, but healthy community–at least a few good friends who you can be honest with–will keep you on track as you transition.
4. Be patient but keep growing. Take your time in whatever world you’re in for awhile, but eventually you’ll be ready to move on. If you feel like you’re stuck and need help with that–whether it’s facing the past or the present–make it a priority to find it. Counseling is not a four-letter word.
5. This too shall pass. Keep in mind you will feel normal again one day, and you will be able to face both worlds without too much distress. It might be two months from now or two years, but the time itself doesn’t matter as much as the growing and learning through it.
“I have called you back from the ends of the earth so you can serve me. For I have chosen you and will not throw you away.”
When I returned from my SM year in New Zealand to jump back into college, I was ready to be home, and there was no looking back. It had been a tough year, and I didn’t know if I’d ever return to the place that caused so much stress, even though it had also caused much growth. But when I returned from a few months in Yap a few years ago, the story was completely different. It had been one of the best experiences of my life, and the last thing I wanted to do was shove it all away and start back into “normal” American life. But I tried hard. I cried a lot and prayed a lot, but it was always there–the longing to go back. I missed my fellow missionaries, students, the simple life, and even the heat. But even though I often fantasized about returning, I could never be sure if I truly wanted to go back to YAP or back in TIME. Was God calling me back, or was it just my memories?
I prayed and wrestled with this question throughout the year. I tried to separate my longing to go back from my frustrations with certain aspects of American culture and my own difficulties with readjusting and re-entering life at “home.” But I’m not sure that I was ever completely able to do that. After several months of praying and swinging back and forth about the possibility of returning, I surrendered it to God. Since I was in a temporary job, I had to make some decisions about my future in the next few months. I asked Him to lead me, and if He wanted me back in Yap, I was ready to go, but if He wanted me to stay, I knew He could help me be ok with that too. Since it was still on my heart, however, I decided to check into the possibility of Yap first, and if that didn’t work out, I would go on to other job prospects closer to home. I had certain things that needed to happen for it to work, though, especially financially, which I made clear in my inquiring emails and to God. To my surprise, the doors swung wide open more quickly than I thought. I was extremely excited, but had to wait another six months before leaving, which left a lot of time for more thought.
Even the financial hurdles of going back were quickly taken care of, thanks to amazing friends who donated yet again to my Yap cause. But even after all that, a few months after I’d made the decision, I began to question again. How did I know I was really following God? What if I was just making this happen because I wanted it so much? What if I got back to Yap and everything was so different, and then it tainted my beautiful memories from before? I had weird dreams about going back and everything being dark and lonely. Once again I wrestled and prayed and asked God to confirm that this was the path He was opening for me. It took another job opportunity, which dragged out for a couple months, before finally realizing that God truly had placed Yap on my heart–more than financial security, more than my desire to be “normal” for my age, even more than my desire to be close to my family and friends. I felt sure that this was where God was calling me for this season, and committed the next two years to serving Him again in Yap.
But the questions weren’t over. I still had a few months of waiting at home between jobs that challenged me again with the desire to be a “normal” independent young adult. As I sold my car–the first car I’d made my own payments on–and gave away my cell phone with its contract, and said goodbye to friends and family again…it affected me more deeply than I expected. What was I doing? Was I just procrastinating the inevitable process of joining the American world? Was I just afraid that I didn’t fit here? Why couldn’t I just “get over it” and move on after my mission experience? Why did it seem God had placed this in my heart so deeply that I couldn’t resist? Though God didn’t precisely answer each of these questions, He did give me the assurance I needed to get on that plane. He helped me realize that wherever HE calls, I am privileged to serve. My life doesn’t have to look like the lives of others. And I learned that there is something that feels inherently good and right about letting go of possessions and “selfish ambition” for the purpose of following God with all of my heart, even to the unknown.
Looking back, I am so glad I went through all of those questions and doubts, and felt God’s assurance. My second experience in Yap turned out to be a lot different and a lot more difficult than my first time, but I had that anchor point that reminded me that I had returned because God had shown me this path, and not just because I was being sentimental. Even though part of my reasons for returning were sentimental, it was not long before I saw that my return to Yap was for other reasons, far more important and enduring than good memories. I had a different role and a different path. I was challenged to my core–physically and spiritually–in ways I couldn’t have imagined, and even had to return home a year earlier than I had planned. But I could leave knowing I did my best to follow God’s plan, and that was enough. It didn’t “ruin” my first experience, but it did add a much deeper, richer context from which to view it.
Coming back this time, I have had more closure, and felt more peace with knowing that it is God who is calling me to my homeland. Often I still look back and miss Yap very much, and yes, even wish to go back at times. Sometimes I wonder why things had to happen the way they did so that I couldn’t fulfill my two-year commitment, but there are some things we probably won’t completely understand until Heaven. The point is, that no matter where I am, no matter what decision I am faced with, or what lays heavy on my heart…I take it all to Jesus and I ask Him to direct my steps. And as I seek His will–through His Word, through the advice of others, through circumstances, and through the waiting time–He will direct my paths. Whether He asks me to let go of my American home or my “other home”, His path is always best, and I can always trust Him to show me the way, one step at a time.