4 Things You Should Know About Reverse Culture Shock

by Natalie Arauco

You can’t prepare for the culture shock that hits you when visiting your passport country. You go, excited to reconnect with friends and supports, but something feels off. Things are not the same as they used to be.

Has the world changed so much while you’ve been away? Or is it you who has changed?

Whether it’s your first time back in your passport country or your tenth, reverse culture shock may slam into you at any moment. Here are four things you should know about reverse culture shock.

 

1. It doesn’t make sense
It comes as a surprise the first time. You feel anger when you forget the cultural norms and social cues that you have grown up with your entire life. When did home stop feeling feel like home? You may have expected to find so much relief in returning to the country of your birth. But now the foods have lost their flavor, the jokes have lost their translation, and the things that once held so much value are now simply memories of a former life.

Why is it like this? Why did things have to change? Nothing makes sense.

 

2. It can be ugly
The sudden frustration sweeps over you when you forget to buckle your seatbelt or flush the toilet paper. If these things are so simple, why can’t you remember to do them? You feel guilty when people say, “Welcome home!” and you can’t return their joy. The hot anger you feel because of other people’s careless words and offensive assumptions about your life or the people you serve. Lord, forgive them for they know not what they do.

Does no one understand? Anger, guilt, and panic dissolving into tears- reverse culture shock can be ugly.

 

3. It can be beautiful
One minute you may be crying out of pure frustration and the next you’re rejoicing at being reunited with friends. You may be counting down the seconds until your flight back but a few hours later you become engrossed in a deep conversation with someone who wants to learn about your ministry. You may be drowning in anxiety as you do a presentation for a crowd who understands nothing about the foreign culture you’ve grown to love, but then everything makes sense when a girl from that crowd says she wants to become a missionary like you.

Through the hardship that is reverse culture shock, comes the blessings of understanding the beauty to be found in any situation.

 

4. It will pass
Like the culture shock you faced your first year on the field, this too is a roller coaster journey of emotions. Reverse culture shock is hard, unpredictable and can turn ugly. But it passes. And if you can survive and thrive within the jungles of a third world country, you can navigate the jungles of your passport country too. You can learn to use your time there to also love and serve those around you.

Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Say a quick prayer. It will pass.

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Natalie Arauco serves in a small, mountainous village of Guatemala. She teaches English every day at the village school all while sharing the love of Jesus with her 12-17 year old students. Natalie also works alongside the local church with their community outreach and discipleship ministries. Natalie writes about culture, missions, and her adventures in her blog: Natalie in Guatemala.

Cultural Low Bridges

When you go to a new culture and miss the signs . . . or don’t realize how you don’t exactly fit in.

At first I thought I’d just let the above stand on its own . . . but I have more to say.

I’m fascinated by these clips of trucks getting stopped in their tracks, of them having their tops peeled back in shiny silver ribbons, of drivers second guessing themselves and hitting the overpass anyway. Yes, it makes me laugh, but it makes me cringe, too. I have empathy for these drivers, especially the ones in moving trucks, heading to a new place with all their worldly possessions packed up behind, having left the rental company after confidently telling the agent at the counter that they’d waive the insurance. “I won’t be needing that, thank you very much.”

When we moved overseas, we had our share of cultural miscues and language faux pas and just mistakes in general. Then after that, we had some more. And while we laughed at many, some were cringeworthy and some were painful to us or even hurtful to others. That’s what happens when you don’t see the signs or can’t understand what they say. That’s what happens when you think somebody needs to lower the road or raise the bridge, because “It’s not me. My truck is the right size!”

And then when we travelled back to our passport country, somehow the bridges were lower there than when we left. Or had our truck gotten taller? Either way, something didn’t fit anymore.

During one of our furloughs we borrowed a van from some friends for our visits to see supporters. It was a conversion van with a raised roof that the owners had just had repainted. (Spoiler: Yes, this is going where you think it’s going.) During an overly stressful trip to what we thought was a familiar city, we were looking for a place to park and found a parking garage with a seven-foot-something clearance, which sounded close to being OK for our vehicle, which was probably not quite that tall. Sure enough, it was quite that tall and we heard a sickening scraping noise as the ceiling narrowed down above us. I was sure that we were wedged in so tight that we couldn’t go forward or backward, with a line of smug little minivans and their scowling drivers packed in behind us. We weren’t, but it took several seconds of panic before I figured that out.

We backed up, and continued on. And then for the rest of our trip, I dreaded telling our friends what I’d done.

When we returned the van, I took the rip-the-Band-Aid-off approach and told the husband and apologized as quickly as I could. He had his own several seconds of panic as he hurried over to see the damage. The scratches on the roof weren’t as bad as he’d probably feared, and our friends were generously gracious and forgiving. But I feel pangs of anxiety even now as I relive this 13-year-old memory.

I’ve got a lot more embarrassing stories from our time on the other side of the ocean. (None involve driving, since I didn’t do that over there. . . and “over there” is better off for it.) Some of the stories are funny. Some not so much. For both, I’m glad that we were surrounded by so many kind people who recognized our efforts and looked past the mistakes.

I’m thankful for people, regardless of where they live, who express grace and forgiveness. I’m thankful for people who translate the signs. I’m thankful for people who let us borrow their vans. I’m thankful for people who tell us which roads not to take. I’m thankful for people who laugh with us instead of at us. I’m thankful for people who are good at putting trucks back together. And I’m thankful for people who don’t set up cameras at the low bridges.

[photo: “Low Bridge #1,” by David Brodbeck, used under a Creative Commons license]

When It’s Hard to Want to Want to Be Back

Our pictures are on the walls!

It’s been a year since I wrote about the long process I and my family were going through fitting back into life in the States and not yet feeling at home—still not having our pictures hung up. Since then, quite a few things have changed, and I would be remiss if I didn’t pass that on as well. I have a new job and my wife is able to stay at home, and we’ve unpacked our pictures and they’re all hanging in the house we’ve been able to buy.

We are so grateful for the ways God has helped us move forward.

But though it’s been over five years since we came back, we can’t say that the transition is completely behind us. It’s still there, just now in less obvious ways.

This post is about reverse culture stress, but it’s not about the difficulties of fitting back into a home culture or family culture or church culture. It’s about the undercurrent of feelings that flow in the opposite direction of our physical move. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to fit in. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to want to.

What are some of the things that hold returned missionaries back from pouring our whole hearts into settling in? What are the feelings—good or bad, right or wrong—that can keep us from jumping into this new chapter? Here are a few I’ve noticed:

When our inner GPS is “recalibrating”
When we decide to go overseas, our convictions tell us that we’re making progress. No matter what careers or plans we’re giving up, mission work is a promotion. And as we acclimate ourselves to our new home and the depths of our new work, we say things like “I could never go back to my old life.” But what happens when we do go back? We’re faced with the jobs, lifestyles, and habits that we told ourselves were in our past, and we can feel guilty for pointing ourselves in that direction. Forward seems backward and backward seems forward. The way of life we are seeking can be the way of life that we fear.

In The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People, Matt B. Redmond writes about the difficulties of living a run-of-the-mill life when we believe that radical service is what God wants from us. As a pastor, Redmond had often preached this message:

Your days should be blood-earnestly marked by an urgent, nerve-twisting love for people you have never known. And if you truly loved them you would join the mission team’s trip at the expense of your vacation to know them. If you loved God, you would do it. And if you really believed—BELIEVED, you would go and stay. You should want to go. It should be hard to stay where you are in the comfort of where you are.

While understanding the value of the call to “change the world,” Redmond looked over his congregation and realized that he also needed to preach another sermon—that there’s “a God, for instance, for those who are not changing anything but diapers.” There’s a God for construction workers and teachers and the unemployed and cooks and cashiers and bankers. That last one Redmond learned about through experience. After writing his book, he left his church position and took a job—for him an often frustrating job—at a bank. As he writes at Echoes and Stars, living out the mundane can, at times, frustrate the soul, even as it teaches valuable lessons, and practicing it can be harder than preaching it.

When embracing means letting go
The goal for those of us who’ve returned is to find our place and to live out God’s kingdom here, but that means releasing the hopes and dreams and prayers that we’ve held close for so long. Will we go back?  Probably not . . . but maybe? We can’t stay in a holding pattern forever. That’s not realistic nor is it healthy.

As time goes by, we give up our support, we quit mailing out prayer letters, we change our Facebook details, we forget words in our second languages, we take new jobs, we buy houses and couches and lawn mowers, and we hang pictures. With each step we see ourselves moving further away from resuming our cross-cultural lives, and we hear the distant sound of closing doors. Some slam quickly, while others we watch slide closed slowly, over time.

When we lose even more of our Me Toos
We’re no longer missionaries, no longer expats, no longer neighbors to the nationals oceans away. So with whom do we identify? Well, there’s still the group of fellow travelers living through the challenges of repatriation. But even then . . . as our roots grow deeper and we become more a part of the landscape, we find ourselves leaving that group, that identity, too. As our prayers are answered, as our goals are realized, are we walking away from even these brothers and sisters, those who aren’t as far along? What about next year, when we hear of other cross-cultural workers just returned? Will we have forgotten what they’re going through?

With each move, we leave others behind. May we continue forward and yet still remember, and empathize with, all those who continue in the places where we’ve been.

When disappointment becomes a way of life
During a flight across the Pacific, following a time overseas involving several setbacks, my wife and I watched Last Chance Harvey, a movie about a down-on-his-luck American pursuing the affections of a tired-of-being-let-down Brit. In one scene, Harvey (Dustin Hoffman) implores Kate (Emma Thompson) to give their relationship a chance. She replies,

I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it, because it’ll hurt. . . . and I won’t do it. . . .

You see, what I think it is, is . . . is that I think I’m more comfortable with being disappointed. I think I’m angry with you for trying to take that away.

When we’ve faced disappointments, especially disappointments on top of disappointments, we can get to the point where we find comfort in the predictability of our discomfort. So we stop hoping for something better, because we’re afraid “it’ll hurt” more.

Ruth Van Reken, Adult Third Culture Kid and former missionary, discusses something similar in Letters Never Sent. As a TCK, she’s many times had to let go of things she holds dear, and as an adult, she writes the following concerning her engagement to her fiancé, David:

I can’t believe God will let me keep David. It’s like He’s dangling Dave on a rope, letting him come closer and closer. I’m afraid that at the last moment, when I put out my hand to take him, the string will be jerked back and God will laugh.

“Ha ha. Thought you finally had someone you could keep. Don’t count on it. Whatever you depend on, I will surely take that, so that you’ll depend solely on Me.”

A few months later, after her wedding, she writes, “God didn’t yank David away after all!”—though she still needs more time to deal with her continuing fears.

When everything’s “OK”
Last month I wrote that as we chronicle our lives, we need to share epilogues to our stories even when things haven’t gone the way we’d hoped. But it can also be difficult to share the positive updates, too. I know my own tendency, when I hear someone’s slice of good news, to say too quickly, “Glad to hear all is well.” And then I stop asking questions and cross that person off my prayer list. We so much want to get rid of all the loose ends in our lives and in the lives of others. But I distrust tying everything up in a neat bow, because, well . . . life.

When Letters Never Sent came out in 1988, the publishers gave it the subtitle “One Woman’s Journey from Hurt to Wholeness.” In the 2012 edition, Van Reken writes in a new epilogue that when she originally saw the full title, her reaction was a feeling of horror and she immediately called the publishers. “That subtitle isn’t right,” she told them. “I’m not whole yet. My life is still in process.” But they responded, “We need to sell the book,” and the subtitle remained unchanged. (I guess most readers don’t like unresolved issues.)

But the new version has a different publisher and a different title: Letters Never Sent: A Global Nomad’s Journey from Hurt to Healing. For Van Reken, there is hope in the process. Yes, transition brings wounds, but God’s grace brings healing, bit by bit, even if complete wholeness is still out of reach. It may take longer than we’d like, or longer than we’d planned on, but healing does come, because of the one we follow— Jehovah Rapha, the Lord who heals.

So . . . our pictures are on the walls!

Some of our pictures made the trip from the States and back again. Some we added to our collection while we were abroad. We’ve got photos, prints, and a puzzle mounted in a frame. And another one is the painting at the top of this post, by my now 96-year-old mother. It has a prominent place in our entryway, which is appropriate, since we’re working on a new beginning . . . and Mom didn’t take up painting until her 70s.

We’re enjoying this time of being closer to family. We’re enjoying meeting our new neighbors. And we’re also looking for some more pictures to hang, ones that represent this next chapter we’re starting, while we make our new home. It may be hard, but that doesn’t mean it it can’t be good.

As I work on my own epilogue, I’d like to return to Van Reken’s—and close with her description of the healing that is still taking place for her. It is so good to learn from the wisdom of those who have traveled the same paths before.

[T]his is my story—a life hopefully in process and growing, but not completed nor perfected until the Shepherd I love calls me for my last journey home.

(Matt B. Redmond, The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People, Kalos, 2012; Ruth Van Reken, Letters Never Sent: A Global Nomad’s Journey from Hurt to Healing, Summertime, 2012)