Preparing to Reenter your OLD world with the NEW you
And just like that, my oldest has finished her first year at university back in the United States. Like most people when they’ve made a huge cultural transition, she’s feeling a bit emotionally fragile and is relieved to have the summer to regroup and process all that happened.
While my daughter may be grateful to get a break from school, many of her peers were anxious about going back home. Their worlds have seen an explosion of new ideas, people, and experiences… and they are NOT the same kids they were when they left home. And they are not quite sure how they are going to navigate the return to their family systems.
The return from college isn’t the only time when we feel the clash of a NEW you facing an OLD world. For those of us who are living cross-culturally, we face the shock of reentering our old culture every time we come back to visit or like my daughter, when we transition back permanently. The longer we’ve been away, the more significant the internal changes; we may look the same, but inwardly we feel completely different. And navigating the transition between two worlds is not an easy process.
In cross-cultural language, we call this REENTRY.
Think of the astronauts after they’ve been in space for an extended period of time. Their bodies have undergone significant changes to adapt to space: their hearts become smaller, their blood volume decreases, and their muscles atrophy without the resistance of gravity. When they reenter the earth’s atmosphere, their bodies take a while to readjust. They often struggle with low blood pressure and something as simple as turning their head too quickly can strain their neck.
Experiencing REENTRY from one culture to another has its own set of adjustments as well. Here are some things to remember as you transition:
Be prepared for a bumpy ride. How many times have you stumbled into an argument shortly after a long awaited reunion has taken place? Even if you have been terribly homesick — expect that your internal image of home/family/friends will have been glamorized a bit in your absence. We can easily forget the flaws of our loved ones or our home culture until we are facing it full-time again. No one is perfect. No place is perfect.
The astronauts PLAN for the turbulence. They PLAN for a few days of dizziness, fatigue, and weakness. You, too need to PLAN for a rocky reentry. You may find yourself completely overwhelmed by your old life… whether it’s the high pace of American life, the dysfunction of your family system, or your new awareness of a twisted family/cultural value; being away means your tolerance is lower.
Put on your seatbelt, prepare yourself and others that you may not be yourself.
You won’t be able to easily articulate HOW you have changed. When we have been soaking in a different culture or system for an extended period of time, new values, experiences, and perspectives have seeped into our thinking in ways we may not yet realize.
Just like the astronauts find themselves viewing the earth from a completely different perspective, so we will view our old lives with new eyes. We may find ourselves critical, disappointed, irritated, or embarrassed with how we used to live.
Expect to feel all over the map— rigid in certain places where feel strong changes have occurred inside, mushy in the places you feel confused, lonely as you try to figure it out, and anxious that you might lose all the beautiful changes you’ve experienced in the expansion of your rich experiences.
Take time to NAME some of the changes and emotions. Unfortunately, we often have to discover the internal changes by bumping into them (hence, the rocky reentry). As much as you can, articulate what is changing inside you. Have you had a change in values? In theology? In political views? In realization of the brokenness of your family system or home country? In how you see life/God/others/yourself? It will help you and others to understand what is going on in your transition.
And if you can’t name the exact change, you can at least name the emotions. Are you feeling sadness? Critical? Anxious? Relief? Follow your emotions— they are pointing to the shifts underneath. Especially look for grief. Often there are disappointments in changed relationships, missed milestones, and questions about whether we really want to keep living abroad. (See my post on grieving your losses.)
You will need a safe place to process and vent. Sometimes our closest friends and family are NOT the best people to walk the emotional nitty gritty of reentry. Let’s face it, some of the criticisms are directed at them!
Use wisdom in who you choose to process your messiest parts of your reentry. Not because you don’t want to be genuine with others, but because you may be both fragile and sensitive AND overly critical and harsh. There will some real pearls emerging in your processing, but they are going to be mixed in with a lot of junk. You need someone who isn’t afraid of negative emotions, who doesn’t hold too tightly to their own world view, and who won’t take your criticisms personally.
But this doesn’t mean your family and friends cannot be a source of support. There are plenty of things you CAN share with them. Look for what you can celebrate together in your return. Release those who you know will not understand from being your primary emotional support for this season. Some people are truly limited in their capacity either because they don’t know the questions to ask, are threatened by your expanding world, or frankly, may not be that interested.
Expect a gradual INTEGRATION over time. The more different your old/new worlds, the longer you’ve been away, and the greater your internal transition, the more time you will need to adjust. Astronauts being in space 2 weeks adjust back in a fraction of time compared to those who have been in space for a year.
In early stages of reentry, you haven’t quite figured out how to hold both worlds internally. Right now things might feel more black and white, right and wrong, good and bad. This is a phase until you learn how to integrate these experiences into your life. But you don’t want to get stuck in this phase forever. No culture/family system is 100% good or 100% bad. Beware of dichotomous thinking.
Healthy adaptation will involve a season of sorting through what you want to keep and toss from both worlds. For our young adults reentering their family of origin, this involves a painful process of differentiating from their parents. This is necessary and healthy. (Read more about it here.) For those of us living long-term in other nations, we will have a season of learning how to graciously express and live out new values.
But there is nothing to FEAR in returning to your old system/culture. You have been profoundly shaped by BOTH places. These unique experiences will be woven into your story and calling. (More about this in another post.) Just like the astronauts exploded our understanding of the galaxies through their travels, your perspective is designed to bring richness to your life and others. Reentry is just one of the messy parts of your calling, and rest assured, it’s a phase. You’ll get your land legs back eventually.
A Blessing for those in Reentry
I bless each person today who moves between two worlds.
May you experience JOY and GRATITUDE in the beauty of each place.
May you have DISCERNMENT to see how each culture’s values differ from Kingdom values, and find the COURAGE to resist being conformed to the world.
May you have GRACE to accept those whose world has not yet been expanded and who have no interest in learning about your experiences.
May you experience the COMFORT of God as you grieve the indifference of others to hear about the suffering around the world.
May the Spirit EMPOWER the sharing of your discoveries that others may awaken to a new way of living and being.
May God PROTECT what He has entrusted to you until it has fully integrated and transformed your being.