KneBurn 07-06-050

Burn-Up or Splash Down:

Surviving the Cuture Shock of Re-Entry



Marion Knell

Authentic, 2007, 184 pp., ISBN 978-1-932805-83-3


The author is a family cross-cultural consultant with business, humanitarian and Christian organizations.  She lives in the U.K.  This work deals with the struggle of re-entering one's own country and culture after having been gone.  Although people expect difficulties in moving into a new culture, they often do not anticipate the struggles of returning home.


This book explains what happens and how to deal with it.  One whole section is especially written to help young people survive and thrive.  And the last shorter section provides guidance for the church receiving missionaries coming back home.


People who have been away as little as two years may expect the familiar only to discover that there is nothing familiar.  They are not re-entering the old world but a new one!  Things have changed while they were gone and they have changed by living in another culture.  The gaps they left in other people's lives have been filled in by others. (8-9 )


Culture shock has been defined as "Primarily an emotional reaction that follows from not being able to understand, control and predict another's behavior." (9)  Reverse culture shock refers to the same symptoms on returning.  It is also reinforced by the clash of values between the two locations.  The individual has subconsciously absorbed values from the new culture and feels at odds when confronted anew by the values of his home culture.  They tend to interrogate, judge and condemn them. (10-11)


While they have been gone they have subconsciously idealized the home situation and conjured up expectations it cannot meet.  (11)


David Pollock has described the re-entry stages as leaving, transition, entering, and reengagement.  This takes a minimum of a year. (12) 


Many variables affect a person's ability to cope, such as the timing of the leave, reasons for the leave, degree of change of economic standards, and the support systems.  Six months of preparation for leaving is ideal.  (15-17)


Re-entry feelings typically include loss, grief, bereavement, depression and loneliness. (19)  It's not simply that everything is different but that you feel like a stranger or alien.  People are characterized by values, goals, and perspectives that are totally different from yours.  (23) 


Leaving people with whom your life is totally entwined is bereavement and grief is the predominant feeling.  (24)  The change in status and identity is a loss.  (26)  Materialism may enrage you. (27)  Disappointed expectations cause stress. (28) 


"The first step in coping with the stress of re-entry is to acknowledge it is normal and accept it is a phase of life you have to go through.  It is a process, and it will pass. There will be pain and this needs to be anticipated and managed.  Acceptance leads to a healthy resolution of the re-entry experience." (31)


"It is important to find someone you can talk to frankly and who has the time to listen and the ability to empathize with your feelings." (32)


Some advice from those who have been through it (44)

·       Take time to prepare

·       Plan a proper departure with good endings

·       Prepare those who are awaiting your return

·       Avoid being negative in front of your children.

·       Ensure you have a support network.

·       Take a halfway break on your way home.

·       Rebuild relationships.

·       Remember your first time overseas.  This will be a lot like it.


What has been most helpful to many is "finding someone who would listen to them, accept them as they were without making judgments on how they were feeling, and give them time and space to work things through." (60)


Some more advice: (61)

·        Plan as much as you can for the differences.  Recognize people at home won't understand.

·        Make up your mind to turn the page and enjoy the new stage of life.

·        Be slow to add new activities to your life.  Wait.

·        Try to settle where you know people.

·        Be patient with yourself.  Avoid immediate major decisions.

·        Give yourself time.


Debriefing is important.  "Debriefing is an opportunity for returnees to tell their stories, to express their feelings about assignments and their performances, to evaluate their experience, and to address grievances.  It is a chance for them to analyze the stages of re-entry through which they are passing and the associated problems." (64) 


The debriefer needs a sound knowledge of the issues involved and how to make it a positive encounter. (67)


"People who do not relieve their stress are often accident prone." (70)


Children returning from overseas are often very angry.  They need the opportunity to talk about how they feel as much as adults do. (70)


Third Culture Kids (TCKs) refers to young people who share a "third culture" influenced by both their parents' home culture and the culture where they live. They develop a sense of relationship to both the cultures while not having full ownership of either.  Two recommended references are Third Culture Kids by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken and Families on the Move by Marion Knell. (82)


There are struggles but also tremendous benefits.  TCKs often say they would rather never say hello than to have to say goodbye. (85)  Coming home seems like putting a round peg in a square hole. (91)


The emotion that dominates the returning TCK is grief.  "Moving back is just one more loss added to all those that have gone before…." (95)  And you may not have time to grieve and process what you're going through. (96) 


"Apart from the danger of postponing grief recovery until the future, there is also the real possibility of serious depression setting in." (96)


Often TCKs feel like victims.  This often leads to bitterness. (98)  There can be a real loss of self-esteem if you've been moved a lot and people didn't seem to care how you feel. (100) 


Processing emotions involves a) permission to feel pain, b) permission to express feelings, c) pathways to saying goodbye, and d) people to share experiences. (102) 


"Saying goodbye is painful, but pain is often good for us." (102)


You might relieve your emotions in a journal, poetry, writing friends, etc. (104) 


The place you are 'returning' to may not be home but it can become home. (109)


One TCK said, "You feel like a real nerd!"  "One of the problems is that you know so much more than they do about all sorts of things, but you don't know anything about the things that matter to them." (111) 


"What you need is a culture guide--someone who knows his or her way around and is prepared to steer you through the maze.  That person needs to be someone you trust; someone who will be sensitive to your feelings and needs, who won't degrade you for asking dumb questions, and who has patience and time for you." (111-12)


"Most TCKs would say that the biggest stumbling block to getting accepted is language, because language is a key to so much else." (120)


"Generally, people only understand what they have experienced, and most people you meet will not have a clue what it was like going to school elsewhere.  They will presume you had an inferior education…." (125)


Helpful TCK websites:  (132)


"Find someone to talk to before it gets serous.  The longer you stay cooped up in your room, the less likely you are to seek help, and the worse it will get." (134)  Find other TCKs.  Be prepared to take the initiative and make friends.  Try to avoid being critical of the culture and its shallowness.  Try to accept that this culture is different, not worse or better.  (136)  Take an interest in other people's lives and stories.  (137) 


"You cannot rewrite the past, but you can influence what it does to you.  You can become a victim or an agent of change." (139)  "Discovering who you are involves revisiting the past, accepting it, and working through its consequences.  But there then needs to be a willingness to move on." (140)


Those receiving the returnee need to understand what is involved a practical and emotional levels and the ability to empathize with the issues being faced.  (147)


If the experience of being overseas did not turn out as the expected their may be spiritual questions about guidance and God's sovereignty and obedience and right choices, etc. (148)


One of the most vital ingredients of successful re-entry is the support you receive. (149)


It is nice to be met at the airport "by people who understand that you are tired, sad, confused, and wishing you were somewhere else." (150)


Allow the returnees some personal space.  Expect some silences and expressions of grief as they process powerful emotions.  Give them time to regroup as a family.  They especially need friends who will listen to them.  (150-51)


The reception group may help with the crucial things they need in the first few weeks.  Some practical issues may be taxes and driver's licenses and newer technology.  They need a safe place to express their reservations and criticisms.  They may need housing, furnishings, a wardrobe, transportation, a doctor, health insurance.  You can help them through the paperwork and the contacts.  (154-58)


They need time to grapple with the emotional issues and spiritual questions and to gain a proper perspective on their lives.  (163) 





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