I’ve attempted to keep a (mostly) positive tone on the blog since my return to the US several months ago. There’s been a few posts where I’ve given a glimpse into some of the humor and hardship associated with reentry, but I’ve tried not to use this space for processing the wide range of emotions I’ve felt. A few friends & family members have heard more of my thoughts than they bargained for this year, and I’ve subjected even fewer to a number of tearful conversations.
A few weeks ago, a friend shared an article about re-entry & reverse culture shock that referenced a book called, “The Art of Coming Home” by Craig Storti. I couldn’t download it fast enough. I was hopeful that it would give some helpful hints about how I should be dealing with all of these emotions.
[No one is paying me to say this.] For anyone living outside of your home country for more than one year, I HIGHLY recommend reading this BEFORE you return to your home country. There’s a few helpful points about how to cope with re-entry and a lot of discussion about what to expect, but more than anything, I felt like the author validated the wide range of thoughts, emotions, and circumstances I’ve had or faced this year. He articulated what I’ve struggled to put into words, and in a couple of instances, he said things EXACTLY like I’ve expressed them to friends and family. I wish I would’ve read this 7-9 months ago. I probably would have spent less time feeling crazy this year.
The author talks about four stages of reentry:
- Leave-taking and departure
- The honeymoon
- Reverse culture shock
I’ve consistently heard that it can take anywhere from 18-24 months to completely reacclimate to your home country after living abroad for more than one year. I’m seven months in. Another 11-17 more months sounds like an eternity.
There was a whole chapter about “The Return of the Employee,” which I’m not sharing anything about here. Below are several excerpts from the book that particularly resonated with me:
In one study of American returnees, 64 percent reported “significant culture shock” upon repatriation. In another survey, 64 percent of Dutch and 80 percent of Japanese expats said they found coming home more difficult than adjusting overseas.
When you consider the changes that took place at home while you were abroad and throw in the changes that took place in you, it’s no wonder coming home is not exactly the experience you were expecting. Indeed, because of these changes, “coming home” is in fact a practical impossibility and the phrase itself little more than a figure of speech.
None of this would matter very much, by the way, if you still had a home overseas – the precise location of home, after all, being much less important than the happy fact of having one. But there’s the rub: even as you are busy discovering that your former home no longer fills the bill, your overseas home is already receding into memory. To reenter, it turns out, is to be temporarily homeless.
…There’s a lot to catch people up on.
Catching up is probably too simple a phrase to describe what’s going on here. The point of telling your stories, after all, is not because you want to show off or because you crave attention but because you realize that you are now something of a stranger to friends and loved ones back home. You have been changed significantly by your experiences, and unless you can tell people about them, how can they know this new person who has come back to them? And if they can’t know you, then what kind of relationship can you now have with them?
The loneliness of reentry may be the unkindest cut of all. In stark contrast to when you went overseas, where in all likelihood most of the people you met had gone through culture shock (the expatriates, anyway) and could help you through your adjustment, few or none of the people back home have gone through reentry. There is no one who understands what you’re going through, no one to reassure you that the fears, doubts, anger, and pain you feel are perfectly normal, no one to promise you that you aren’t losing your mind.
To make matters worse, chances are the important people in your life are wondering what all the fuss is about. Why aren’t you enjoying being back home? (Don’t you like us anymore?) Why do your moods swing so dramatically? Why are you so testy, depressed, and of all things, homesick? Why don’t you just get on with your life? When you sense some of these sentiments in friends and loved ones, you feel pressure to get a grip on yourself and start being happy.
Worse still, many returnees, not understanding what they’re going through either, wonder what is wrong with them. Why am I feeling like this? They put pressure on themselves to get over their discomfort, or whatever it is, and enjoy what ought to be a pleasant experience. This pressure, from without and within, only adds to their anxiety and self-doubt.
At the culture shock stage of reentry, however, this rather vehement rejection of home is understandable, for it is not really home that is the problem here but your unsettled emotional state.
Being hard on home serves another useful purpose: It allows you to keep home at arm’s length, which is often just where you want it during the early weeks of reentry. After all, you still miss abroad very much during this period and are consequently quite ambivalent about home. So it can be a kind of comfort to keep home at a safe distance until you have sorted out your feelings about it. Until you are ready to embrace home, perhaps it’s better that its charms elude you.
Upon reentry, then, you are something of a cultural hybrid, viewing and responding to the world around you from the perspective of two different realities, partaking of each but not fully belonging to either.
You resist adjusting to your home country because you feel that if you adjust to this place, then you will have to stay here.
It’s almost as if readjusting would mean that your expatriate experience never happened, that you would revert to the person you were before you went abroad.
Readjustment is the final phase of reentry, but it should not be understood as the closing of the book on the overseas experience, for in a larger sense, reentry never truly ends. After all, people don’t actually get over experiences, especially profound ones; instead they incorporate them into their character and personality and respond to all subsequent experience from the perspective of their new self.
Overseas, you were learning something new every day… When you move back, you feel you are not growing anymore.
The ultimate context for understanding and appreciating reentry has to be the overseas experience that precedes it, for this is what gives reentry its meaning. In this regard, we might remind ourselves that the word reentry comes to us from the space program, where next to ignition or blastoff, the reentry phase is the most dangerous and difficult part of a space mission. In between, of course, comes the grand adventure of space exploration. So it is for the sojourner, whose reentry may also be dangerous and difficult but who needs only recall the wonder and richness of the overseas experience to put everything in perspective. Who can imagine astronauts, their space capsule rocking violently at the peak of reentry, wishing they’d never gone to the moon?