A Letter to the One Returning Home

Seven years ago, with all my earthly belongings bundled into two 50 pound suitcases, I flagged my last taxi to the airport. I dozed on the 13 hour flight arcing over the North Pole to return back to the U.S. after living in China for five years. I was returning home.

If you are preparing to leave or floundering to find your footing back home, then this letter is for you.

To the One Returning Home,

Like a transplanted lilac bush, you are being uprooted. Roots severed, your heart, mind and body are undergoing the silent trauma of displacement. You feel lost, alone and out of sorts. You are a misfit in a place where you should belong. Home is now a wild and unfamiliar landscape.

Like a woman’s body after giving birth, you are forever altered. Even when back to your original weight, your body mass has shifted with the weight of new life, your skin stretched to capacity and back. And yet perhaps only you will notice the difference. Some will never know the life you birthed abroad and how it transformed you. People will want you to wear the same clothes, but they no longer fit. You have changed in a million indescribable ways.

You carry hidden scars and surprising superpowers. You suffered in large and small ways. But you also celebrated. The first time you were able to tell the shopkeeper exactly what color fabric you wanted to buy, the first time you went across town in a taxi alone or the time you finally detected a spark of something you doubted would ever happen cross-culturally—true friendship. You developed competency in a foreign culture. By the end of year three, you dared say it. You were thriving.

But now your gifts are useless. You no longer need to barter for every item you buy. You don’t need to know where to get your umbrella spokes repaired, your socks darned or how to cook without cheese or butter. Your language skills and cultural expertise are wasted. You cry the first time someone asks you, “So are you using the language you learned?” Because you fear you never will again.

You feel guilty. You believed living abroad was the pinnacle of faith for a person completely “sold out and radical” for Jesus. Even on the hard days, knowing your sacrifice brought a smile to God’s face spurred you on. But now you can’t wave The High Calling Banner everywhere you go. You are just ordinary you.

And you have unspoken questions. Will God love you as much? Will the people who know you admire you? Will you keep loving yourself when you are “just” a teacher, mother, accountant, engineer or computer programmer?

Will your faith survive being transplanted from foreign soil to familiar land?

Garden experts advise you not to prune a lilac bush that is being transplanted. But a person going through re-entry experiences the pain of simultaneously being pruned and replanted. You will survive, but your growth may be stunted for a time. In fact, the garden manuals warn it may take up to five years for a lilac bush to bloom again. This rate of new growth will frustrate you.

But you need to grieve. You may cry every day at first. This is normal. You have mourning to do. You’ve left behind stand-in mothers, fathers, grannies, grandpas, aunties, uncles, sisters and brothers. They adopted you and were the fulfillment of God’s promise to you to “put the lonely in families.”

Perhaps you are leaving spiritual children behind. You bumbled and fumbled with language, but trusted God would speak. And He did. You saw lives transformed by God working in spite of you. A transplanted lilac bush inevitably leaves some roots behind. You will need to mourn the parts of you that will stay in your foreign country. Not every piece of you will return.

Transplanting requires “deep watering.” Allow yourself the type of self and soul care that will nourish your spirit. Read a book on re-entry or transitions. Attend a conference. Join a support group. Find a counselor. Write in your journal. Spend time in nature. Read the psalms and stories of the exiles wandering and seeking the welfare of the city where they lived. Exercise. Listen to the experiences of others. Do what you couldn’t do when you lived abroad. Find a new hobby. These are the postpartum days of re-entry where doing too much will not allow you the healing you need. Savor slow. You are re-learning how to use your body, mind and spirit in this new place. Your first days, months and even years may require intentional rehabilitation and taking a posture of receiving after giving for so long.

But seasons, weather, rights of passage, birth, sacred death and simple celebrations will happen. Ordinary life will overlap your past experiences. Eventually you will stretch out into warm soil and take root. One day you will discover you no longer need to insert something about living abroad into every single conversation. You will relax, knowing people will find out eventually. That part of your identity has seeped into your soul, sifting and changing you in ways that don’t necessarily need explanation.

And then one day you will tell yourself something you never dared hope. Perhaps it will escape your consciousness as a whisper:

I am thriving.

Inhaling this sweet hope—as arresting as the scent of lilacs wafting in the window after a long, frigid winter—you breathe in and out.

And you now know some of your roots were always planted securely, in fact. Because your spirit was never rooted in a place, but in a person. And that person—Jesus—is still the same.

Love, a friend just a skip ahead on the long road –

Leslie

~~~

What challenges are you facing as you return?

How are you being intentional about seeking healing?

36 Comments

  1. Deb Smith May 14, 2017

    Fabulous piece! And one I will save and return to in the future.

  2. M'Lynn May 14, 2017

    This is perfect! Thank you, Leslie. The thing about the lilac bush being simultaneously transplanted AND pruned is right on. How funny (but it really wasn’t funny…) that we just had a house maintenance issue which happened to lead to the hacking of a big bush in the backyard (someone told me it’s a lilac bush, but I don’t know)…So now I can understand why I’m so distraught when I see the hacked bush (poor thing looks so ridiculous)…Not only is it a reminder of the unfortunate incident of doing extensive repairs on a place we just bought, but also it’s a reminder of being pruned and transplanted! So good to have this timely post to encourage me to continue to go slow!

    1. Leslie Verner May 15, 2017

      I love when I coincidences like that line up! And yes, take it slow. You’ll acclimate eventually!

  3. sarah May 15, 2017

    Leslie, I loved this post and really appreciate your encouragement to take it slow. And, to be aware that it’s going to take time. This part especially spoke to me:
    “But a person going through re-entry experiences the pain of simultaneously being pruned and replanted. You will survive, but your growth may be stunted for a time. In fact, the garden manuals warn it may take up to five years for a lilac bush to bloom again. This rate of new growth will frustrate you.”
    I’m not in the process of repatriating, but in the last five years, I’ve moved countries 3 times and had a couple intra-country (is that a word?) moves as well. So, you’d think I would remember to give myself time. But, still on this last move I’ve been sooo frustrated with the rate of new growth.
    The Lord, in His kindness, keeps reminding me, “sarah, what’s the rush?” haha if He’s not in a hurry for me to have new growth, then surely I don’t need to be.

    1. Leslie Verner May 15, 2017

      Yeah, I think this applies to transition anywhere at any time. We have also experienced lots of transition even since I came back, so it’s a good reminder to me that relationships take time. I love how God keeps reminding you to not rush and that you are more bothered by growth than He is!

  4. Carolyn May 15, 2017

    Leslie, thanks for sharing from your experience! The image of the lilac bush was quite poignant. Glad that I had the privilege of knowing you on the Asian side of the world.

  5. J May 15, 2017

    Dear Leslie,

    Thank you for your post and encouragement. We have been in an South Asian country for 5 years and it is highly likely that we will return to my home country next year. Although the physical transition has not even started, emotionally I already feel divided in two. We would not be going back to the same area where we used to live (and don’t have a house there anyway) so would be starting over in a new place, making new friends. I have a lot of family in my home country but they would be at least 2 hours drive away. As you say in your post, even with those you knew before, you come back a changed person. I appreciate you advice to take things slow, but it’s not so easy when you have to set up home again from scratch and find school places for 3 kids. I would appreciate prayers for confirmation of the move and for the whole family.

    J.

    1. Leslie Verner May 15, 2017

      So true! I think “taking things slow” in your case doesn’t mean sitting around reflecting on how you feel, but allowing yourself that much more grace when you feel like you “should” have more friends or feel more settled. It’s more about having patience with yourself and believing that you will thrive again. Praying for direction for your family!

  6. Katie Rose May 15, 2017

    Yes! The letter format is perfect for this theme. Thanks for the true words & for the challenge to write our own out this week. As someone leaving the field in just a few days over 2 months–the timing on this is perfect. Thank you.

    1. Leslie Verner May 15, 2017

      I didn’t even realize so many other letters were being written when I wrote this! Be sure to bookmark this, it will make more sense around November!

  7. shelley j merrit May 15, 2017

    Excellent! Thank you for this.

  8. Jessica Spicer May 15, 2017

    Thanks for sharing! I recently moved back to the States after living three years in Albania. During my first return home to the States 2 1/2 years into my time there, I didn’t realize how much re-entry would shake me. I entered into one of the darkest depressions I’ve ever experienced, returning to Albania in the middle of it for another 9 months. It was a sort of “dark night of the soul,” as some of the biggest worldview and identity questions I’ve ever asked God plagued my mind… and He was silent. Or I was just so hardened I couldn’t hear Him, even though I so desperately wanted to. I felt that my life was over, that there was nothing for me in my future, that I was going crazy. I never doubted God’s existence… but I doubted that He was strong enough to reach me in the dark place I’d found myself in. I doubted my salvation. Now back in the States more permanently, in the midst of reintegrating myself into life in the States, I see how that time of darkness and seeming silence has shaped me, pruned me, given me a confidence in God’s ability to protect me that’s firmer than I ever had before. Though I’m still very much in re-entry, I now see evidence of the beauty God was uncovering in me that required that time of pruning. He has answered my question of whether He’s strong enough to keep me from falling too far from Him… He IS strong enough. But I had to experience such a time in order to understand that truth in the depths of my soul.
    Thanks for helping me to continue processing these things!

    1. Leslie Verner May 15, 2017

      Jessica, Thanks so much for sharing part of your story. Jumping in and out of other cultures really shakes our identity to the core–and it has a way of revealing what and who we are actually putting our faith in. For me, so much of my identity was wrapped around my calling to live overseas that I didn’t know who I was apart from that. I’m so glad the transplanting and pruning showed you that God WAS strong enough to handle all of it.

      1. Jessica Spicer May 15, 2017

        Me too!

  9. Lori Ferrell May 15, 2017

    Hi Leslie, I can resonate with this. Three years into our return back to the states…after living in Southeast Asia for 9 years. The first year was the hardest, and at the one year mark I did not feel happy or awesome or settled or anything. At the 2 year mark I began to feel more “normal” in a new normal kind of way. As we hit the 3 year mark I am starting to feel more at home here…but never without missing life overseas. And it still comes up quite often in my thoughts, and conversation around the table with my husband and kids, and we all wish it wasn’t so far away that we can’t just jump on a plane and visit it now and then. I really loved the way you wrote this…a letter to us. And with image of a lilac bush. Helpful. Wish I had come across something similar 3 years ago…

    1. Leslie Verner May 15, 2017

      I’m glad it wasn’t just me. And I didn’t feel truly settled for about five years (though I was also changing jobs, getting married, having three children and moving cross-country, so it’s no wonder I didn’t feel “settled”!) It took so much longer than I expected. But as you are discovering, it DOES happen eventually. Or at least you learn how to fake it;-) And I tracked down an international women’s club at a nearby university, so I’m back speaking Chinese once a week at least!

  10. Debbie Horrocks May 16, 2017

    Thanks for your words here (and for making cry in the library!). We came ‘home’ in December and I’ve since been told off for introducing myself as ‘just’ a stay at home mum. The identity shift is a work in progress, reminding myself that my heart and hands have the same value here.
    I also loved what you said about not having to talk about my previous life in every conversation, but trusting that the experience shapes me.

    1. Leslie Verner May 17, 2017

      I don’t think we’re ever “just” anything;-) Hang in there. It will get easier. But expect it to be in waves like grief. But life will go on–and you won’t be left out of it!

  11. Timonthy May 16, 2017

    another challenging view is the child’s, especially those in the military. I was in the Army & my wife & kids moved 11 times in 13 years; Germany (2x), US, Bangladesh, Latvia, Burma (2x), US (Virginia & Wash, DC), Paraguay & US.

    There is a difference in traveling on vacation (it was an awesome blessing) and being a nomad (living your article, over and over). I am not complaining nor do I believe my kids have yet we’ve experienced what you’ve described – a lot.

    I believe the family that is rooted plays an incredible part in helping others be rooted too. IF they understand what is happening to those going through what you’ve written.

    p.s. my wife is an MK, growing up 17 years in SE Asia and my parents moved over a dozen times before I graduated high school

    1. Leslie Verner May 17, 2017

      That’s such a great perspective. And it helps me to think that my rootedness (now) could help another person or family who is often in transition. I think being a TCK would include many other metaphors I’ve never even thought of! Thanks for sharing!

  12. Ellie May 16, 2017

    Wow Leslie, thanks for posting.

    “Transplanting requires “deep watering.” Allow yourself the type of self and soul care that will nourish your spirit. Read a book on re-entry or transitions. Attend a conference. Join a support group. Find a counselor. Write in your journal. Spend time in nature….. These are the postpartum days of re-entry where doing too much will not allow you the healing you need. Savor slow. You are re-learning how to use your body, mind and spirit in this new place. Your first days, months and even years may require intentional rehabilitation and taking a posture of receiving after giving for so long.”

    Just wow. So right and true and *hard*!!! Also challenging to me as we’re 9 months “back” and our agency said “allow yourself two years to feel settled” which lots of people think sounds long but we have found such a good thing to hang on to when we don’t feel “okay” but I hear you guys that even 5 years in it won’t necessarily feel “fully fully settled”.. eek. Blessings to you friend.

    1. Leslie Verner May 17, 2017

      Yeah, it took much longer than I expected. But I think it was so hard because I wasn’t expecting that it would take so long, so if you’re going into it thinking two years, I think you’re already ahead of the game. And let’s be honest, when you have a heart for overseas work, do you ever really want to feel “settled” anyway? 😉 Blessings on you as you journey on, though!

  13. Clare Richardson May 18, 2017

    6 years there, 2 years back and still wondering where I (we) fit. Your words pulled out unarticulated parts of my heart, yet I feel as if there are volumes left unsaid everyday trapped under my new ordinary live that was once extraordinary. Grateful for this community of durable, yet soft and impressive women I don’t see yet make me long for the eternity had ties us together. Thank you for writing.

    1. Leslie Verner May 18, 2017

      It’s so hard. But I’m realizing that even though I’m in an ordinary place, I’m not as ordinary as I think. I still stick out with my strange ways;-) Time really will help and I do love communities like this that get it. Thanks for sharing some of your journey.

  14. Monica May 19, 2017

    This was…. AMAZING. I cried and cried when I read this, because it was all the words I would have used to write a letter like this too. We left China two years ago after 10 years of living in one of the more remote provinces. It was heartbreaking in every way for me, even though ‘coming home’ was the next step in our life journey as a family. I’m going to share this with our friends, family and church groups… such a good reminder that it takes time!

    1. Leslie Verner June 11, 2017

      Monica, I’m glad this resonated with you. I felt so alone in my grief when I came back from China, so I know it helps to hear you are not the only one (though it certainly doesn’t lessen the pain.) Hang it there. You will thrive again, though it will take lots of time.

  15. Gabi May 21, 2017

    Thank you so much for this. I’ve returned to England from living in Uganda for the past six years, for this season-my first pregnancy. This transition is rough and the tears are abundant. Thank you for these comforting words.
    (www.withateaspoonofgrace.wordpress.com)

    1. Leslie Verner June 11, 2017

      Oh man, pregnancy on top of the already crazy emotions! I feel for you! But God knows what He is doing, even when we feel so out of control. Thanks for sharing–blessings on you through all these wild and beautiful transitions!

  16. Diane Brown July 7, 2017

    Leslie~

    Thank you my dear sister! You spoke to my heart, you voiced what I’ve felt. My husband and I returned in February 2016, and I am still experiencing some of what you’ve written about here. We lived cross culturally for 17 years, and being “just me” in Lincoln, Nebraska feels almost exactly as you have described. Thank you for sharing this. I am grateful to my friends who posted this on Facebook. I am most grateful to Him, who even in our “loneliness”on this side of the planet, has given us others with whom we can know our experiences are not isolated. We are never alone. Thank you for opening your heart. His Spirit within me resonates with the Spirit within you my dear. Bless you!

    Diane Brown

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