When I’m overseas, I dream about Target. Everything I need, all in one place, at reasonable prices! So when our furlough started a month ago, I visited Target the day after I arrived.
We’ve been missionaries for 13 years, so I should know better by now. Target’s awesomeness can be a little too much to take in just 48 hours after leaving East Africa. I was instantly bombarded with hordes of conflicting emotions. Wow, it’s all so amazing! Look at all this stuff! Yeah, what’s wrong with Americans? Why are they so materialistic? That one pair of shoes could feed a family for a week in Tanzania. And in just a couple of years, all these clothes will be cast off and end up in some market in Africa. So why should I even bother shopping for them now? Oooohhh….but I really like that blouse.
Emotional whiplash. I couldn’t keep up.
And then when I finally did finish shopping, I felt like an idiot as the clerk tried to help me use the chip card machine. Shoot, I thought I was doing well by just remembering how to use a credit card, and then they go and change all the rules on me! “Sorry,” I mumbled to her. “I’ve been living overseas a really long time.”
Ah, going home. We dream about it. We long for it. We count the days until take off. But when it finally arrives, the reality just doesn’t match up. And we find ourselves in the midst of adjusting, all over again, to a place that we thought would feel like home. We find ourselves struggling with disillusionment and discouragement.
So why can visiting home feel so hard? Here are some thoughts.
People move on. When you leave home for a just a few weeks or months, it’s easy to slip back into the same routines of life. Friends, social events, and jobs all come back together just as they were before—just with more stories to tell. But when you leave for years, life goes on without you. In your mind, time stood still back at home, but in reality, your friends have gone through hard stuff and happy stuff, and you were not there to experience with them. And all those people who sent you overseas with much fanfare? They are a lot busier now, and might forget to roll out that red carpet you expected.
You are a different person. Spending years in a different country changes you. You’ve adapted to new ways of speaking, interacting, shopping, sleeping, and raising kids. There are literally new pathways in your brain. It’s not so easy to just drop all of that on a 14 hour flight and expect to become the same person you once were when you get back home. You are not going to see the world the same way ever again.
Which leads to the next point: You won’t be treated the same way you were before. You’re in a different category, and even close friends might not know how to relate to you. People often won’t be able to understand your life overseas, they don’t know what questions to ask, and you’ve entered a spiritual plane that is intimidating.
Your home country will not look the same. You might go out to dinner, and find yourself feeling guilty about how differently that money could be used in your host country. The people around you might appear more fickle than they did before you left, and you might feel a lot more critical of your home culture. The barrage of new emotions can be disconcerting and disorienting.
And to top it off, Furlough never looks like real life. During all those years overseas, you day-dreamed about your life back at home. You imagined yourself back in your happiest of memories: Christmases by the fire, family movie nights, Sunday lunches with grandma. And though you may get to re-experience a lot of those things on your furloughs back home, you quickly come to realize that furlough life is nothing like your old life. You are living in strange places out of suitcases, you travel constantly, you have to be an extrovert even if you aren’t one. You get glimpses of your old life, but it’s never really the same.
But. Before you despair, let me encourage you with this:
There truly are a lot of wonderful things about visiting home. Absolutely. You will certainly find an abundance of joy in reuniting with the people, the churches, and the food you have missed for so long. And even Target, of course. But adjust your expectations. Don’t get your feelings hurt by people who have moved on. Don’t expect the red carpet rolled out for you. Don’t be surprised by bombarding emotions and know that not all of them will be happy feelings. And do expect that the feelings of estrangement and isolation will increase with every progressive furlough. Enjoy the wonderful parts of visiting home, but don’t be surprised when it’s not everything you hoped it would be.
Also, learn be content with where you are. Don’t spend your entire time in your host country dreaming about life back at home. Work hard to be all there, to fully immerse your mind and your heart completely in your new country. Remind yourself that as much as you miss life back at home, that it was never perfect, and you’ll find that it’s even less perfect than you remember.