Coming Back From Narnia: What Re-entry Feels Like

by Beth Watkins

It’s been a little more than a year since my husband, a new immigrant, and I relocated back to the U.S. after I’d been away for more than 6 years.

It’s hard being back. They call it re-entry shock – the special kind of culture shock that happens when you’re back in your own culture after significant time away. You feel disoriented in a place and among a people that is and are your own.

It is also hard because I have no idea how to sum up the last few years, even to those who know me well.

It was like I went to Narnia. When Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy stumbled out of Narnia and back into the dusty wardrobe from whence they came, they weren’t the same people who went in. No one could understand what had happened and how their experiences changed them. I’m sounding dramatic, I know, but the extraordinary had happened and they struggled explaining it, being understood, and assimilating, because they no longer fit in the shapes of where they came from and returned to.

The people they returned to hadn’t seen what they had seen. And it was no one’s fault, but it was grievous to them. They’d been profoundly changed – and were distraught that they couldn’t return. They’d loved deeply, experienced loss, felt alive. But they went back through the closet and couldn’t take others back with them to see what they’d seen. So, they tried to explain, but as we know, words can fail when it comes to describing our deep life-altering experiences.

I don’t feel fully American anymore. My cultural glasses have fogged. But I also don’t at all feel Sudanese, South Sudanese, or Egyptian. (And though I’ve picked up lots of British-isms from my husband, I am certainly not at all British, either.) I am a sort of in-between. I’ve been warned by people who lived overseas for many years that I have been changed by my overseas life, and I’ll always be a bit “other.”

The best way I heard it explained was that I was, let’s say, an American square going to live in the triangle culture of North Africa. While in North Africa, my square edges got sanded down a bit. I acclimated to the culture there, I assimilated a bit, while still retaining much of my core American-ness. The longer I was there, the more the subtle sanding continued. Now, in my return, my sharp edges don’t just come back. I’m still squarish, but also a bit triangular now, too.

I don’t fit in the triangle of North Africa, but I don’t fit right back in to my square here.

I’m mostly this, with a little bit of that, a splash of other, and the people I feel “get” me and my husband and what we have gone through the most, are those who have gone through their own bit of sanding down in other places or through other experiences. Diamondish circles, squarish triangles, rectangular diamonds: those are our people.

It is difficult and frustrating sometimes feeling like we don’t actually fit anywhere, that no place feels quite right. But it’s a gift too, I’ve found. It’s sharpened my gaze to those who are a bit other where they are too.

I know in small part the feeling of the refugee kids in the after-school program where I volunteer, trying to speak our language well and figure out how to do life in an overwhelming place. I have a heightened sense and immediate sort of understanding with people I can see are hurting, who have survived or are surviving very difficult circumstances. Our experience has drawn us to go to a very different church than the type of church we would have chosen in a previous life. It’s made me braver about the situations I enter into, about the conversations I’m willing to start, about the kind of life I still want to pursue.

So, while I still feel out of place, sometimes even among my own family, I’m so grateful I was able to walk through that door and enter into a reality other than my own. And now that I’m back, while I will grieve not being able to return to my own Narnia, I am grateful that it’s left me craving diversity, itching to be in proximity to others who are different from me, and sure that these things make our lives richer, our own selves better, and the world a more gracious and empathetic place.

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Beth Watkins spent the last 6 years working in North and Sub-Saharan Africa with street children, refugees, and other vulnerable populations. She is currently settling back in the US with her immigrant husband and writes about living toward the kingdom of God and flailing awkwardly into neighbor-love at iambethwatkins.com. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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