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 –
What challenges are you facing as you return?
How are you being intentional about seeking healing?