The Art of Coming Home
Intercultural Press, 1996, 2001, 203 pp. ISBN 978-1931930147
Craig Storti is founder and director of Communicating Across Cultures. He is the author of several significant books on culture including The Art of Crossing Cultures and Cross-Cultural Dialogues. People tend to expect home to be like it was. But it isn’t. And they aren’t. And therein lie the difficulties. The book considers the key issues and offers suggestions for returnees, their families, friends, and employers.
Most people find readjusting back home (reverse culture shock) more difficult than adjusting overseas. “…you expect changes when going overseas. It was real culture shock during repatriation. I was an alien in my home country.”
For businesses, the most common cause of employees leaving the company upon return is dissatisfaction with their job placement back home.
1. Coming Home (some of the common problems)
Our naïve expectations set up a surprising and confusing return. Home isn’t just a place, it is “the place where you are known and trusted and where you know and trust others; where you are accepted, understood, indulged, and forgiven, a place of rituals and routine interactions, of entirely predictable events and people, and of very few surprises…” (3) And when you get there you find it’s not really ‘home.’ Your neighborhood has changed. People have changed. Some are gone. New people don’t know you. You have changed in your emotional associations and connections and the feelings that are evoked in your community. Your relationships with people, even intimates, have changed. You can’t pick up where you left off. You have to create new routines. For awhile, virtually everything is new and requires conscious attention. And you miss a bunch of cues and reinforcers you had overseas.
“The strangeness of home is bound to be more alarming than the strangeness of overseas.” (16) Four characteristics of American life trouble many people when they return: the shock of material abundance, enormous waste, the frantic pace of life, and the seemingly narrow and provincial attitudes.
To reenter is to be temporarily homeless and homelessness is not pleasant. People have little interest in your story and as long as they don’t know your story, you are a stranger. Their new job is as interesting to them as your four years in China are to you. You’re not a hero. You may have been high on the social ladder overseas, but you’re not now. The loneliness may be the worst.
What family and friends can do: Show interest. Don’t be offended when they criticize. Don’t put them on the defensive. Don’t pressure them for visits. Don’t spring the family problems on them. Be patient?
What you can do: Say goodbye well. Deliberately draw out your assumptions in advance and consider them. Don’t jump to conclusions. Give yourself time and be patient with yourself. Ask questions of the people back home. And listen to them. Find other returnees for a sympathetic ear.
2. The Stages of Reentry
The process of reentry consists of four stages. The first is leave-taking, the disengagement phase. Emotionally it begins several months earlier. You begin sorting out affairs and saying goodbyes. It’s bittersweet with mood swings and some tension.
The honeymoon may last a week or a few weeks as you travel and visit friends and enjoy being a minor celebrity. And you do all the things you’ve missed while overseas. It’s a bit like vacation.
But as you get back to life, reality sets in. You begin reacting to things and making judgments. You feel a vehement rejection of home and a general sense of insecurity and unhappiness. You have shed some of the values, attitudes, and behaviors of your home culture while you were gone and you feel culturally split apart. You don’t quite fit; you are a marginal person. You feel misunderstood, alienated, and alone. You experience sick doubts and feel overwhelmed. You may try to resist, escape, and withdraw.
But eventually you gain a more balanced perspective, readjust, and start feeling at home again. Your routines become more predictable and you begin to relax and take things for granted. It may take up to a year, but six months is a common milestone.
3. The Return of the Employee
Employees also experience unmet expectations and adjustments. The company and your colleagues have changed. You are a different person professionally. Many complain the organization doesn’t value or make use of their international experience. They may offer no formal recognition of your contribution or invite you to share what you learned. Often the new position has much less responsibility than the one you had overseas. You miss the autonomy, independence, and status you enjoyed. You often get stuck in a job where you feel you are not growing. You may have missed opportunities for promotion while you were out of sight and out of mind. You probably feel a profound sense of professional loneliness. If you want help, you will have to take the initiative. There are several steps organizations can take to increase the chances of retaining productive and valuable employees after their overseas experience.
4. The Return of Spouses and Children
Teenagers have the most difficult reentry of any age group and the biggest issue is not fitting in with their peers. They experience their feelings with great intensity. They aren’t wearing the right clothes and they are out of touch with the latest celebrities, sport figures, TV shows, video games, web sites, fast foods, and ‘in’ places. Further they are behind in teen lingo. Ignorance dooms them to being outsiders. At the same time the teens back home seem insular and narrow-minded, materialistic, and characterized by cultural traits that seem obnoxious. They seem appallingly immature, shallow, trivial, and frighteningly obsessed with alcohol, drugs and sex. Teens miss their life and friends abroad. Whereas they may have had tight family relationships, now their parents are busy elsewhere and at the same time they are again, temporarily, so much more dependent on them.
Visits home while overseas probably do more than any other thing to prepare teens for reentry. And a visit back overseas after a few months does a great deal to help with closure.
5. Special Populations
Sections deal with exchange students, international voluntary associations such as the Peace Corps, military personnel and their families, and missionaries and missionary children.
Re international voluntary associations:
“When these people come home, there are some problems, starting usually at the supermarket—actually larger, in some cases than the entire village the volunteer just came from—where their homeland’s great abundance is laid out, aisle after aisle, in all its glory. ‘Going into the supermarket was an embarrassment,’ a volunteer who had served in Ghana remembers, ‘seeing seventy kinds of dog food. I mean they’re just dogs; they’ll eat anything!’ Another returnee recalled that in his village ‘there were times when all we had to eat was millet. Even if you could afford something else, that’s all there was. I tried the [pharmacy] when I first got home, but I only made it down two aisles. I still can’t handle the mall.’” (153)
“Difficult as it is to adjust to the abundance, waste, and excess of material comforts, many volunteers have an even harder time adjusting to the attitude of their compatriots who don’t seem to appreciate what they have. ‘How can Americans be so rich—and so discontented?’ a volunteer who had returned from Malawi asks.” (153)
Returning missionaries face the question of what they accomplished. Some results may be obvious; others may be very indirect or very slow ripening. Those who have supported the ministry may not be able to appreciate the value of your work.
They may react to the dissonance of values between abroad and home, the general permissiveness of the culture, the increasingly violent and sexually explicit entertainment, the availability of drugs, the crime and violence in society, and the loose morals of young people.
“Like most returnees, missionaries react strongly to these phenomena: to the abundance and waste, to the lack of concern for the poor, to the permissiveness and violence, and also to the general provincialism and narrow-mindedness of many of their compatriots. But for missionaries this reaction becomes a serious reentry issue of its own, because they may be unable to reconcile it with their image of themselves as tolerant, caring, nonjudgmental individuals who also happen to be good at crossing cultures. Doubt arises. If I can’t love and get along with my own kind, how can I care for and minister to those I work with overseas? To have their self-image undermined like this is a serious matter….” (174)
“Growing up in one or more foreign countries, the children of career missionaries belong to a unique population sometimes referred to as third culture kids (TCKs) or global nomads.” (175)
“In his book Exile’s Return, Malcolm Cowley has described how people like this feel when they come ‘home.’
‘If you came back, you wanted to leave again; if you went away, you longed to come back. Wherever you were, you could hear the call of the homeland, like the note of the herdsman’s horn far away in the hills.” (176)
“In the end, these individuals create their own home, that so-called third culture, which combines features of all the cultures they have ever identified with. As Cowley suggests, it is not so much a location as a state of mind—a country of the heart….” (176)
“Loneliness and homesickness are probably the most immediate problems the missionary child faces.” (177) They also question their identity and where they belong. As a result they tend to psychologically isolate themselves.
Reentry also has considerable pleasures. In the midst of all the frustrations you will have interludes of great satisfaction and happiness, times you are delighted to be home.
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