When the Familiar is Frightening
“I can’t decide!” That was my cry every time I tried to buy cold cereal after returning to the States. In our African posting, there were seldom any cereals available at our small grocery. Early years in Asia were not much better, but at least we could get a couple different kinds. With few choices for several years, this dazzling array was overwhelming: sweetened, unsweetened, oats, rice, corn, or wheat, in a box or bag, plain, with or without fruit or nuts. “It’s too much!” I lamented. The cereal section was a whole aisle long, top to bottom.
One friend we visited on furlough asked me to help her make spaghetti. “Takes about 30 minutes,” she said. “Not where I came from,” I thought. It couldn’t be done. I envisioned thawing the meat as I cooked it, while cutting garlic, onions, and tomatoes to be sauteed. It would take almost half an hour to get the noodles cooked and we’d still have salad and garlic bread to make. She asked me to prepare the salad while she popped the meat in the microwave to thaw and cook, opened a can of sauce to warm in a pot, and buttered the bread with garlic butter from the refrigerator! We only had to set the table while the noodles cooked. No meal could be made that quickly with ingredients available overseas. I encountered these differences again and again. This was my home country, for crying out loud. Why did I feel so uneasy with the ease?
I sat in a ladies’ meeting, sheepishly quiet while those wonderful sisters talked about fashion. Fashion, PW! When was the last time you had tea and talked about fashion? You’re more likely to have tea and discuss the latest case of diarrhea. I was uncomfortable, like a waif at the Ritz. Sitting in a ladies meeting and listening to conversations about what was the “in” color for the year and what style clothes to buy made me very uncomfortable. I was just thankful for the pretty “new-to-me” clothes that I had received when I returned, and the sales at Walmart. I just couldn’t relate to my friends’ wish lists. Not that I envied them. I just could not relate.
Although many people in her home congregation knew the recently returned PW, no one approached her. Week after week she felt alone. Then she tried an experiment. She went early one Sunday and stood in the foyer smiling at every person as they entered the building. Surprisingly, most seemed embarrassed and turned away from her. A few smiled back, but not one spoke to her. Extreme, I am sure, but perhaps not as uncommon as we might think. Many returned PWs feel it is very hard to become a part of a congregation at home, even when they take the lead.
The Kids Feel It Too
Children who have been born and raised overseas suffer culture shock when they return to their passport country. The only culture they have known is about 10 million miles away from what they are supposed to call home.
We feel excited to return to our home country, but they know nothing of what they will face “back home.” Suddenly they must wear shoes and heavy clothes and the very air bites their noses with cold. They see the frowns and snickers when they eat peas with their fingers or slurp soup loudly or want rice at every meal. They know they aren’t pleasing the same relatives that they have been told could hardly wait to meet them. It is not uncommon for these children to either throw temper tantrums or withdraw into a sullen, silent shell.
Older children who remember their home culture may be very excited as they look forward to meeting their friends again. However, they will feel reverse culture shock when they don’t know the current slang or understand the references to TV shows or movies they missed while overseas. Today, with all the means of communication available to us (Can I hear a loud Amen! for Skype and Google and Vonage?)it is better, thank God. But the place that is supposed to feel like home can still feel pretty weird.
Good Transitions Begin Before the Plane Takes Off
There are some things you can do as a family to prepare yourself and your children for returning to your passport country. Here are some ideas:
- Make a scrapbook or photo album of the area you will return to. Include pictures of relatives the children will meet, people you may stay with, and, if possible, the house or apartment you will live in. Add pictures of animals they will see and other familiar sights from your home country. Take time to pore over the book and explain things that work differently from their overseas home.
- Practice eating the way they do at home, wherever that is. Our youngest son was absolutely clueless about how to hold a knife and fork the American way. Now he’s 31 and still doesn’t get it, but doesn’t really care, either. Now there is no one to please; no one who could decide to withdraw their support. We could have helped more. I hope you do.
- Prepare your friends and family about jet lag, climate changes, and foods that will be unfamiliar to your children. Ask them to let the children warm up to them gradually instead of grabbing and hugging them right away. If some of the folks back home know what to expect from your children, they can help others understand and give them time to adjust.
- When back home, make a game of discovering differences and similarities to life overseas. Recognizing the differences and similarities validates your feelings about this strange life PWs and their children lead.
- Asking questions instead of assuming you know is a good way to save embarrassment as you adjust to life back home.
- “A merry heart does good like a medicine.” Let your sense of humor soothe frayed nerves, and don’t forget to laugh.
- Finally, remember that the One who sent you out is the One who is bringing you home. Knowing that is a great comfort, and may save your sanity. God is watching over every part of our journey.
Reverse Culture Shock can be an opportunity to share your world view with others. Not everyone back home wants to know about your life overseas, but some do. Sharing culture shock experiences provides a chance to impart some of your enthusiasm about your “other” life. My friends know I live two lives and ask about how the changes affect me. They use what I say to be more accurate in their requests of our Father. Don’t let reverse culture shock get you down, share your experiences.