Jet lag, sweet terrible jet lag. It leads to entire chocolate bars consumed at three in the morning or entire novels devoured in the first three days after an international flight. Might lead to sickness, crabbiness, headaches, complaints, arguments. Every expatriate knows about jet lag.
But do you know about heart lag?
Every time I come back to Djibouti or go back to Minnesota, I feel shock. And then I feel shock that I feel shock. It has been twelve years; I should be used to the coming and going by now. I thought after a decade the transition would get easier, but I find my heart lagging more and more behind my body.
In some ways it does get easier. I know our routine and our stores and our friends and the languages. But in some ways I find the return more jarring than ever, increasingly so. Why?
Expectations. I expect not to be jarred, not to be shocked. I expect both sides of the ocean to feel normal, and they do. But when those two normals are so far from each other, when one is green and leafy and one is brown and dusty, when one sounds like robins and one sounds like the call to prayer, the normality of such variance is shocking.
Deeper Cultural Knowledge. Now I am aware of the deeper differences. I see beyond the tourist-culture-shock things like garbage and the driving and the heat and the clothes. I see the values, the fundamental differences in worldview, the different political structures and family functions and religious practices. And these differences both rub against the deeper things of my soul and resonate with those deeper things. This means that a much more profound part of my identity is experiencing the shock.
Personal Change. I have been changed now precisely because of interacting for so many years with this deeper cultural knowledge. Those changes affect the way I act on both sides of the ocean, so the transition requires digging deeper to uproot and replant. It involves more struggle.
Home. Coming home instead of going on a trip or returning to a relatively new place changes the way I see it, changes the way I respond to the inundation of the changes. Small developments happen while I’m gone, and as a long-term expat, I notice them. A corner store turns into a restaurant, the newspaper is under new management, the mosque has a new voice. Home changed in my absence, and I have to catch up.
These things could all easily be considered culture shock. But I recently started thinking of them in terms of jet lag. I decided that they are the result of heart lag. The shock factor is there, but I know I will move beyond it quickly, and I know what resides on the other side – settling, ease, comfortable familiarity. My heart just needs some time to catch up.
We give our bodies time to adjust, and people tend to be sympathetic to the traveler who falls asleep in the middle of a sentence at 7 p.m. after flying for thirty-eight hours. Let’s give our hearts time to adjust too. Be sympathetic to the traveler (even when it is yourself) who needs a few days for their heart to catch up to their body.
Originally published on February 2, 2015.