Oops, I went home for Christmas — How to readjust to life abroad after a quick trip “home”

This post is specifically for the masses who have been transitioning to a new life abroad and thought that a quick trip home for the holidays might be exactly what they needed to crush their culture shock and get rid of that pesky homesickness.

You know who you are.

Fetal position?

More homesick than ever?

Pricing airfare again?

I used to say don’t do it — EVER — don’t go home in the first year.  Give yourself a chance to work through the mess and the bumbling of learning how to be a foreigner before you run back to everything familiar.

I stopped saying that for two reasons:

ONE: No one listened.  A bit of advice (no matter how spot on) always loses miserably to Nana’s pumpkin pie.  Hands down.  I get it.

TWO: Some people do it really well.  They go.  They come back.  They re-engage and it’s good.  I won’t argue with that.

However, it is a harsh reality that a quick trip home in the middle of a cultural transition CAN be more painful than you expected.

 

Maybe you’ve seen something similar to the diagram below.

It’s the standard culture shock continuum that charts how we process things that are “DIFFERENT” (namely everything) when we move abroad.  It happens to most of us although it takes on a million different forms since . . . you know . . . we’re all different.

Point is . . . transition is a process.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-59-20-am

So it makes sense right?  If you’re at the bottom of the curve and everything is stupid, you need a break.

A fast infusion of familiarity would do the trick.

A hug from mom.

A night out with old friends.

A Ribeye.  Medium Well.  With a loaded baked potato.

What were we talking about?

Oh yeah . . . a quick trip home.

That’ll fix it.

In our heads it looks like this.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-8-54-32-am

It will be a nice little taste of the well known in the middle of the dip so I can recharge and come back refreshed . . .  ready to move forward.

But home doesn’t live in the dip.

Going home (especially for the holidays) can be more of a super spike of hyper-charged emotions . . . on crack . . . and steroids . . . and Red Bull . . . and Nana’s pumpkin pie.

It actually looks more like this.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-30-29-am

Think about it.

Detaching from all of the sources of your greatest frustration and plugging in to all of the sources of your greatest joy ONLY to reverse that moments after you get over jet lag is not a sustainable solution to the frustration.

Au contraire (pardon my French).

 

Here’s the thing — this scenario doesn’t apply to everyone but the principal probably does:

  • For some people going home IS the pain.
  • For other people the holidays are the pain.
  • Some people don’t go home but they go somewhere warmer, or nicer, or more exciting or just less frustrating.
  • Some people do this in May or September.
  • Some people don’t even leave but they still detach.

The point is that you can’t FIX transition by stepping away from it.  It’s a process.  You’ve got to go through it.

That said — don’t despair if you’ve already made that choice.  It doesn’t need to be a bad thing.

 

Here are some quick thoughts on moving forward:

 

ONE:  Don’t blame your host country for not being your home

That’s not fair and all of the facts aren’t in yet.  You knew it would be different when you came.  Now you know “how” it is different.  Keep learning.

 

TWO:  Don’t compare the end of THAT with the beginning of THIS

It took you years to build the great relationships that you are mourning as you adjust.  It makes sense if you don’t have deep roots yet.  Give it time.  Give it a chance.

 

THREE:  Focus on how far you’ve come

Especially if this is your first year abroad . . . think about it . . . the last time you took that flight you had NO IDEA what to expect.  You didn’t know the people, the places, the customs, anything.  You’ve actually come a long way in a short time.  Keep moving forward.

 

FOUR:  Compartmentalize

It’s ok for your trip home to be wonderful.  It’s supposed to be.  It’s also ok for your time abroad to be tough.  It’s supposed to be.  You don’t have to feel guilty for either one of those and they can actually exist perfectly in tandem.  Trust me, in time they can do a complete 180.

 

FIVE:  Engage even if you don’t feel like it

You can’t kick your roller coaster emotions out of the car . . . but you don’t have to let them drive.  Do something, eat something, learn something you don’t necessarily want to right now.

 

SIX:  You are not alone

Really.  You are not.  I’ve had this conversation at least 30 times this year.  You are not the only one who feels like this right now and there have been millions before you.  Myself included.

 

SEVEN:  Accept the truth and move ahead

If you went home for Christmas (or otherwise detached) it COULD do something like this to your transition.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-8-46-22-am

Detaching momentarily doesn’t come without a price.  There is a good chance it’s going to take you a little longer to work through the transition process and feel at home in your new normal.

Ok.

But you had a great Christmas.

You made some great memories.

If you’re in this for the long haul then accept the penalty and move on.

 

There is nothing like the experience of living abroad.  There are great things waiting of the other side of the dip.  In fact, there are probably some pretty great things all along the way.

Don’t miss them just because they’re not as good as Nana’s pumpkin pie.

Nothing is.

 

What’s your experience?  Did you leave and come back?  How did it hit you?  Easy?  Hard?  Share your story below.  

 

 

 

26 Comments

  1. The more I read here, the more I love the clarity of explanation – not just for me as a goer, but for the many, many senders who have no experience to support understanding the various impacts of choices I make in all areas of the long process of going, transitioning, staying, visiting, boundaries, etc.

    My first experience returning to my passport country and then returning overseas (11 months into a 4 year term) felt like I’d plugged myself into a divine socket of encouragement and love so that I returned to my host country smiling, rested, and READY to engage and stay. I was very careful about making serious boundaries for the trip. I didn’t tell Facebook (aka – the whole world). No one who saw or spent time with me was allowed to post on FB (aka – tell the whole world) before or after the fact. Also, I did not go for the holidays, I went for a few weeks in April when nothing in particular was happening (Christmastime is way too wildly busy to recharge!!). And I refused to work. I refused the opportunity to speak at any gatherings of any kind. I didn’t fund-raise (I did give my wholehearted thanks in person to supporters if/when I interacted with them). The difficult effort to keep the trip low-key, under-the-radar, and truly restful filled my bucket in so many ways!

    Reply
    • Jeni, thanks for sharing how you took care of yourself so that you time could truly be that of rest for you. I like that you kept everything of facebook…and requested that of others as well. Privacy and simply being in the moment to truly BE with people is really great. I’m praying about the possibility of a short trip to the States…for ministry than pleasure…and need to evaluate how to do this well. Thanks for the ideas, balance, and boundaries.

      Reply
  2. Great insights Jeni. Sounds like you’ve got a solid group of friends who get it. That makes a huge difference doesn’t it?

    Reply
  3. Still feel raw- don’t know what to say even 7 years later. Got tears in my eyes. However, feel so enriched and blessed to have had all the experiences and to have met all the people that we did. Looking forward to a visit to China in 2017. Look forward to seeing you (Jones family).

    Reply
    • Likewise Therese. Always look forward to seeing you up north. Hope to someday see you in the south as well.

      Reply
  4. I’m on my second stink overseas, after a 10-year lapse (where the Lord broke me and put me back together again in a new form), and people are amazed that I don’t want to go ‘home’, that I am not ‘homesick’, that this here is now ‘home’ to me in all the ways I need it to be. With that said, it is only that way after 20 months because I deeply invested in relationships 15 years ago (and honestly…long before social media became the norm). If I was homesick, especially during holidays, the Lord would turn my eyes to students I was serving who probably felt the same way. He told me to go visit them and bring them home…to my home. Our hearts would then connect as we were all homesick…my homesickness was over 1000s of miles, theirs was over 100s of miles or less. It didn’t matter. What could have taken me out turned out to be what drove me to people because I needed them as much as they needed me. Years later now, I am more home in my new old ‘home’ overseas than in the craziness and hurriedness of the American culture, especially during holiday time. Again, it all depends on the depths of my relationships. The challenge now is not to compare where I’m at with what is happening ‘at home’, creating comparisons and often a homesickness and want of otherness that keeps me from being present where the Lord has set my feet. A missions colleague once said (oh, about 10 years ago) that the internet is the biggest hindrance to enculturation. I believe that to be true. It is hard to let the neighbor next door become a ‘grandma’ to your children, letting them love you into their hearts, home and culture, if you are skyping your parents as often as we do. I’m so grateful for the time overseas before internet became to much the fabric of our relationships. With that said…Now, just to work on making social media a small percentage of my time ‘connecting’ again, and to get more into peoples’ homes and develop deeper heart relationships in order to thrive in this new season. Thanks for sharing, Jerry! (Written as I pray about taking a short trip to the States for an important ministry conference and visits…the craziness, the busyness, the planning, the airports, the staying in homes…is it really worth it?! Not sure yet…as I set my roots where I am. Whew, never easy to know whether to stay or go…there are always sacrifices…and blessings…either way. Any advice here on how you make these decisions is welcome…)

    Reply
    • Hey Renee — Thanks for commenting and for being vulnerable. It’s crazy, the amounts of paradox, that this cross-cultural life brings huh? I think you’re hitting the nail on the head in that relationships are what make a place home. Digging in, connecting, investing and opening up at a level beyond the surface are what drive your roots deep anywhere. But that’s also what makes it hard to stay or go. Not sure if this is relevant for the decision you’re trying to make but here are some thought on processing those things http://www.thecultureblend.com/should-i-stay-or-should-i-go/. Blessings.

      Reply
  5. Having just returned from a Christmas in the sunshine (yes – I come from the southern hemisphere, well that was home once) to a bleak smoggy North China was hard except that there was a sense of coming home to our space and it was wonderful to see various local friends again as they’re the reason we are really here! So I whole-heartedly agree with Renee Flory that it is vital to be investing in building friendships with the local people round about you wherever you may be. So often, in the inevitable ebb and flow of expats, these people can be a constant, and a means of connecting in a way that helps you belong. I am so immensely thankful to those special people who have made overtures and drawn my family into their lives and/or accepted our attempts to reach out.

    Reply
    • Well said Andrea. Thanks!

      Reply
  6. We came “home” from China after one year for various reasons–a kid whose reading wasn’t improving and needed evaluation, adding twins to homeschooling, and unbeknownst to me, upon our return, I began feeling sick and was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and also had a surgery. My stress level in china was off the charts and there was no margin for any of these things. Since we’ve returned, we see His plan in bringing us here for my health and our daughter’s learning disabilities, but we’re basically wrecked. We don’t fit in, no one wants to hear about our lives. The people who were supposed to be our safe haven moved away suddenly a week after we returned. We want to go back to China next fall, but we sense the Lord is telling us not to rush. It’s pretty miserable to be stuck between two places and kind of be unclear about who you are anymore. But…He is faithful and I see Him working on that entitlement sin in us, and on patience and grace. It’s times like these that Romans 8:28 is a lifeline.

    Reply
    • That’s hard Amanda. We’ve felt that same feeling of being stuck between places. For me it helped to acknowledge that in between is also a place. It’s transition, so you’re never functioning at your full capacity, there are always questions about what is next and it’s hard to really dig into anything because your heart is somewhere else . . . BUT . . . that is an ongoing reality for people like us. If we lose that time and just chuck out as a limbo period it adds up. Call it Destination Limbo (I feel a new blog post coming on) and don’t miss the life that comes during those times. Easier said than done — I’m just now realizing how much of my life has been missed because of “transition”. Thanks for commenting.

      Reply
  7. My husband Pedro Manuel left his country (the Dominican Republic) in December 2015 to start a new life with me in my hometown in Western New York. If anything, he adjusted to the cold weather better than I did and I was born during a blizzard! He had been here an entire year when he visited his family for Christmas while I stayed to work. From the point of view of the spouse of an expatriate, I wasn’t a very good cross-cultural coach and this is what I profess to be! I can deal with the culture shock of strangers because I am not emotionally involved with them. With my husband, it was tears, threats, and the constant whine of “Pedro Manuel doesn’t love me anymore!” I happen to be good at being myself in other languages, such as Spanish, but he was confronted with the blur of sound that was English. Once he confessed to me that he wanted to run and hide because he couldn’t understand people when they were speaking to him. Instead of helping him, I accused him of every one of the Seven Deadly Sins, when he was in the dip (as Jerry put it) and needed me to try to ease him out. I think I pushed him further into the dip as I compared him with other husbands (mind you, who had been married 20+ years) who showered their wives with affection. At one point he had a friend block me on Facebook so I couldn’t see their activities. Pedro Manuel didn’t post anything on Facebook during the trip,as Jeni wisely suggested above, but he did share some photos after he got home.

    Pedro Manuel returned on January 4 and told me how much he enjoyed seeing his family at Christmas, but that he had felt “strange” in his hometown. I think he is in the “Different but OK” stage right now, and I promised him I would be more helpful. His sister told me a secret, that he had broke down crying on New Year’s Eve because he missed me. From now on I will be the wife he can count on for support, not the one he runs from, and next Christmas we will travel together.

    Reply
    • Lori — wow. Thanks for this. Don’t you hate it when this stuff actually applies to us. I can resonate. It is much easier to coach someone else through cultural stresses than it is to deal with my own stuff. Appreciate your willingness to share. I can see good things coming for you and Pedro Manuel.

      Reply
    • Lori, do you blog as well? If so, I’d like to read it.

      Reply
  8. Very interesting article Jerry and helpful to for each of us to make an informed decision as to when and how to return to our home country, as “serial expats”. Particularly appreciated the labelling of “Destination Limbo”, I am right in the middle of it (again) and it is so important to also make the best of that time, otherwise you waste/ lose 1 year every 3 years. Giving it a humorous name helps!

    Reply
    • Thanks Anon. Can I call you Anon? I feel like we’re that close. Still processing the idea of “destination limbo”. I think there is something to it.

      Reply
  9. I’m not sure I will ever transition from the heartache of missing the kids I leave behind every time I go home…it’s the hardest part for me. Twenty-somethings are adults but boy oh boy is it tough to say goodbye.

    Reply
    • So true Judy. I don’t know that goodbyes ever get easier even if you get better at them. Thanks for reading.

      Reply
  10. We didn’t return “home” for 2 years and I have always believed that was a good thing. It gave us time to feel like Manila was our home and we were going to visit our “old home” in Calif. What we found very difficult was when friends and church friends/teams visited in the first year. That first year everything is new and there are so many adjustments and new relationships just beginning to form, then some “old friends” come and it’s wonderful fellowship, laughter and ministry…….but it was gut wrenching to say “good bye.” Or family (we had 3 elementary age kids at the time) cried and went through a grieving of “good bye” all over again.
    As for visiting at Christmas time; we have done it 2 or 3 times in our 30 years on the mission field, and we find everyone is so incredibly busy. We now have 10 grandchildren and find it fits us better to visit during a non holiday season. Now that we are serving in the UK, where the winters are grey and dire, we prefer to visit in Jan. or Feb. and leave some of the cold weather to visit sunny Calif. Saying all that, everyone is different and our emotional and family needs are different. I hope that missions will understand that and give their missionaries the freedom to make these choices. It’s good to get feedback and advice from others and then go with what we feel is best for us and our family.

    Reply
    • Great insights G&T. 30 years brings a lot of wisdom.

      Reply
  11. Great article, it helps put a picture to what I experienced during my two years in a remote area of Sudan. After five months, I returned to the States for my brother’s wedding. I prepared myself as best I could for ‘reverse culture shock’ and the lack of interest I would find from the people back home, but an article like this would have been helpful because I didn’t have a clue of what a trip like this would do to me. The reverse culture shock wasn’t a problem at all, but rather the high as described here. To the credit of my church and family, people were actually very interested to hear my stories. What blindsided me was the sheer will that got me back on the plane to return again after my time in Sudan. It was one thing to count the cost and go the first time when it was unknown and exciting, a romanticized sacrifice for the gospel. Returning however, when I knew exactly what I was getting myself in to AGAIN was another thing all together. I almost turned back at the airport in Chicago, and again when I landed in London, and spent a good few months deeply questioning my decision to come at all. It took a long time to get over the drop I experienced as I came off the high of a happy event with people I love in a familiar place to the low stage of cultural adjustment. Perhaps reading something like this would have helped me to see that such a low was normal in my situation and not an indicator of having made a poor decision to go in the first place.

    Reply
    • Thanks Loriann. Lori Ann? Lori? This is a great example of the challenges that come with quick trips. Maybe worth it in the end but really hard. Definitely has the potential to mess with the transition. Appreciate you sharing your story.

      Reply
  12. Wonderful article, I could relate.

    Reply
    • Thanks Bella.

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  13. Hi Jerry,
    We did not only return for Christmas but for real (at least for two years) and it is very strange to have to explain to people that “well I never really lived in the US before” – I had but just a few months at a time (e.g. not looking for a job or to integrate) so I don’t know how to do things that are taken for granted by regular residents … I started a blog (Culture Shock at travelingcat22.wordpress.com) to talk about countries we were visiting/living in but I think I will more and more incorporate articles on the culture shock I experience in the US. I started with food. I’ll continue about strange habits – like wearing flip flops by freezing temperature in Clarendon?!
    I like your graphics. What did you use to create them?
    Catherine

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading travelingcat. All the best with the blog. These graphics were just made on Pages (like Word for mac). I’m definitely no designer but I think in pictures. Helps me process.

      Reply

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