COMING HOME: Understanding the Challenge

When I ask whether going on an international mission or returning home is more challenging, most people say that coming back is harder.   That has been true for me.  I have had some tough re-entries. It has sometimes taken me a long time to feel “normal” again and to decide how to move forward with my life.  Even now, after decades of experience, I find that coming home from intense assignments requires time to adjust.

In this, the first in a two-part series, we’ll consider why coming home (or transitioning to a third place) is difficult.  In the next, we’ll look at strategies for processing what happened while we were away and for moving on.  We will also provide links to more resources.

Why should coming home be difficult (and what good will come of it?)

When we stepped into the unknowns of a mission in a new cultural environment, we carried a stock of conscious knowledge – skills such as reading maps and making work plans and solving problems.  In addition, we took a large supply of unconscious knowledge – the values, beliefs and perspectives that made us who we were, both personally and culturally.

While away we dealt successfully with challenges at a conscious level, coping with new language, new bargaining and driving and food protocols and new work environments. We grew intellectually and in our skill sets.  Newcomers came to look on us as ‘old timers’ with awe and envy.  We became comfortable and knew how to make things happen.

Some changes also happened at an unconscious level.  We not only bargain now, but we feel that bargaining is normal and right.  We not only manage the theater of time-consuming greetings with every colleague, every morning in the workplace but we now understand that investing in personal connection can pay off in improved productivity.  The knowledge and skill growth was visible.  Values and perspectives changed less visibly and less consciously.

Our discomfort – our ‘culture shock’ – in the early months of a new activity or place arises from the growth that is taking place at both the conscious and unconscious levels.  By the time we are half way through the mission, we have accepted the re-programming that is underway.  By the time we leave we scarcely think about how we’ve changed.  Things that seemed inefficient or awkward or even wrong when we first arrived now seem both normal and right.

The idea of “right” – the right way to do things or the correct meaning to assign to an object or an experience – is subjective.  “Right” is whatever a group of people agree it is.  In one culture pigs are delicious and nutritious. In another they are filthy and forbidden.  In one culture men and women acquaintances kiss on both cheeks.  In another they don’t touch or even shake hands.  In one culture we work and then, maybe, we socialize.  In another we must party together – and then we can work effectively.

Any and all of these choices are “right”.  Culture shock – the discomfort of developing new skills and internalizing another culture’s perspectives on the world is about discovering someone else’s “right”.  We were born into a culture which gifted us with one perspective on what the world is and means.  Our growing understanding of a different  culture’s view of the world and its meaning is like having the chance to be born again, into another part of human existence and potential.

And so we return home.  We went overseas with one perspective on life, distilled from all of our experiences to that point.  We return as different people, with new skills, attitudes, joys, sorrows, tastes, habits and desires, all mixed up with the ones that we held before we left.   The new “me” now experiences home as a new place.

Because we are different people from the ones who left Canada we can’t help but experience Canada in a different way. And that is uncomfortable.  While we were away we remembered Canada fondly and looked forward to relaxing in its embrace once again.    But we find we don’t fit in the same way any more.  Some things we don’t like – consumerism, ignorance, the feeling of being insignificant fish in a large and unexciting pond.  Some things we find ourselves loving with new appreciation.  Canada is here to be discovered again just as we had the chance to discover the country and culture of our mission abroad.

As different people we also experience our friends and families in a new way.  They don’t know the new me and may not know how to connect with me.  At the same time, because I am my own constant it appears that they are the ones who have changed.   Those who are most important to us need to be re-discovered and understood from a new place.  And they need to rediscover us.  This can be a wonderful process and can strengthen bonds and relationships.  And it can be uncomfortable and a lot of work for a while.  It helps if everyone understands that no one is bad or broken, but that a normal process of change has taken place.  When we are together the transitions in our lives are gradual and almost invisible.  When we are apart for a while they may seem dramatic.

When we return we will revert to many of our ‘old’ Canadian behaviours.  We’ll shake hands instead of bowing.  We’ll drive on the right instead of the left. We’ll come to meetings early instead of late.  We’ll stand patiently in line at the bank again.  But in other ways we’ll choose to remain different.  We’ll keep our love of spicy food.  Perhaps we’ll remain more respectful of the elderly, or more determined to work for economic or social justice.  We may decide to cancel the cable TV contract (or add another channel so that we can follow our new passion for cricket.)

From the outside, to some of those who know us, these changes will seem strange.  Within us, however, we are sorting and consolidating.  We are recognizing that there is a broader range of possibilities than we knew before we went away, and embracing what most fully allows us to be who we want to be.

As the culture shock away was uncomfortable – and a gift, so this re-entry culture shock is uncomfortable – and a gift.  We need to treat our return much like we treated our moving abroad – as a an opportunity in which we may feel lost or confused or in adequate for a while and from which we will emerge stronger and richer.

What can you do?

  1. Draw three pictures of yourself.  (Don’t worry about not being an artist.  Use stick figures and symbols or swirls of colour – anything that will capture your reflections.)
  • The first will be how you saw yourself before you went away.

The second will be how you see yourself now.

The third will be how you think others see you now.

What changed between the first and second images?  Make a list of everything you can think of to celebrate in the second picture, the you who emerged from this experience.   Is there a gap between the second and third?  It may not be important to have everyone you know see the second image of you more clearly.  And it may be important for some of those who are closest to you to accept or understand how you have changed.  It may take conversations or just time. – What changes would you most like them to understand?

  1. Indulge in the exercise of contemplating what you like and don’t like.
  • Make two lists.  In the first, in two columns, write down the things you are missing about the place you were working in abroad, and then the things that, frankly, you are thrilled not to be dealing with on a daily basis any more.

In the second, in two columns, write down the things that you are rejoicing in having or experiencing now that you are home, and the things that you really hate.

Find someone who has also been on an international mission to share your lists with and invite them to share what they would have written.  It is reassuring to know that we aren’t the only ones with these kinds of reactions.

My favorite resources

1.      www.headington-institute.org .The Headington Institute develops material to support people who do, and return from, challenging international work.  On the subject of re-entry, go to their site, find “Resources Online”, then “Online Training” and look at their module “On the Road Again.”

www.workingoverseas.com . The Big Guide to Living and Working Overseas contains a wealth of reference material for finding work abroad or when you come back home and excellent guidance on making sense of it all.

What do you think?

Share your thoughts, experiences, questions and resources.  Send them to thediscussiontable@CANADEM.ca, and contribute to the conversation.

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