I wasn’t there—yet—but I love to hear the stories of my family waiting for me to deplane after my first year in China. They were able to wait at the gate and had arrived in plenty of time. I didn’t know it, but my sister Laura had flown in from Minnesota so the entire family was waiting for me. As they waited with helium balloons for me to exit, my family entertained themselves by tying the balloons to Laura’s nose ring, a small hoop, cracking themselves up.
I exited to shrieks of joy on both sides. Hugs, hugs, and more hugs!
I was back!
I had gone and now I was back for the summer.
I would return to China in two short months, but I was back!
Over the years, this scene has played out many times. My family waiting for me at the airport. And over the years it changed and morphed as we did. Laura’s nose ring hole closed over, Elizabeth started having babies who grew into girls excited to see Aunt Amy, and 9-11 meant no one waiting at the gate. But the craning of necks to see the first glance, the anticipated hugs, the joy of seeing each other never changed.
Returning to your passport country is often exciting, but there is something special about the first time. That summer was wonderful. Bread! Hello, how I’ve missed you! Movies without the fear of mice climbing on the walls? Wonderful. Walking barefoot in the grass? I think that’s how Jesus will let me enter heaven.
It was also stressful. Here is what I wish I had known coming back to the U.S., my home, that first time. Here is what I wish I could have told my family too.
Assume she has changed
This may seem a ridiculous place to start. Of course she has changed. I knew I had changed. What I couldn’t know was exactly how I had changed until I came back. I did not know that after living with so little, parts of life that I used to enjoy would now cause me stress. Fun, little stores with knick-knacks that I used to love to visit, made me feel . . . what? I couldn’t at that time even have fully expressed it because I didn’t want to hurt my friends and family who were trying to treat me. On the inside I thought, “People spend money on this crap when there were others in the world without adequate medical care?!”
Assume you have changed
Whether a year, 18 months, or four years, though you have been “home,” you’ve changed too. You might not realize how much you, oh loving friends and family, have changed until you see her. Because I rotated out of “normal” (ha!) American life in 1995, much of my understanding of American culture stopped evolving after that. Even today with so many ways to connect, there is no substitute for being in person. Sure, you may have shared pictures, Facetimed with her, and texted almost daily. And while you may not have changed as much as she did. You’ve changed too.
Because she has changed and you have changed, there is room for each side to miss each other. The first few days, even weeks or months, allow for space for who you are to emerge. I’ve heard that the soul travels at the speed of a ship, but in the modern world our bodies travel at the speed of an airplane. We often feel disjointed. Even if you are the one welcoming her back, you will experience this disjointed feeling. A young friend who recently returned from her first term shared that her mother wondered when Jane, my friend, would “Get back to normal.” She won’t. And neither will you. All of your “normals” have shifted. Space won’t make the misunderstandings go away completely, but it will help you to notice them, process them, and hopefully not make them bigger.
Ask each other lots of questions. Ask about all parts of life, not just the “weird” or extreme parts. What does she miss? Who does she miss while back “home?” What was the story behind the photo?
Understand she may not even be able to express all that is going on. Maintain a curious spirit towards her. She will notice and appreciate it.
This is related to maintaining a curious posture. My first summer, I was not yet able to put words to what I was feeling. I knew I was resistant to opening Christmas presents my family had saved for me. The presents had been wrapped with love and excitement and stored in a drawer. I knew it was confusing and hurtful to some when weeks passed and I still couldn’t bring myself to unwrap them. We had all underestimated the seismic changes. We could identify the surface stuff — different food, different teaching environment, different weather. It was harder to identify (and thus name or discuss) the deeper changes. How having so few people from my own culture over a prolonged period was shaping me; how students casually mentioning aborting babies with disabilities haunted me; how so much space that was beautiful fed my soul in ways I didn’t know it had needed it. How my views of myself, my culture, and God were in a bit of flux. Over time, the words came, but that summer? I didn’t know how much I had changed until I spent that time in the U.S.
Be okay if she doesn’t love everything
Some people come back for a furlough and find that the idealized version of “home” is, um, less than ideal. Suddenly, her new home is AMAZING. And the local people? So KIND and PURE and GENUINE. The food? CHEAP and HEATHLY and ABUNDANT. Her teammates? GODLY and DEEP and NOT LIKE ANY OF YOU SHALLOW SUCKERS.
Understand that LOUD emotional reactions are a part of the gig.
Be okay if she loves everyone too much
Take the opposite of everything above. Her new home? TERRIBLE. The local people? RUDE and PUSHY and CHEATING LYING SNAKES. The food? DISGUSTING. She’s never been so hungry in her whole life. Her teammates? NARCISSISTS and SLIME BUCKETS and she wonders ARE THEY EVEN CHRISTIAN?!
Understand that LOUD emotional reactions are a part of the gig. Create space, be curious, be okay with the roller coaster.
You only get your first time once. This is a wonderful opportunity to see your home, city, even country through her eyes. What does she comment on over and over? What does she seem taken with? What brings her joy? For me, I could not get over how blue the sky was. Could. Not. Get. Over. It. When we would arrive back at the house after an outing, I HAD TO walk through the house, open the back door and step outside to see the sky I had just seen. The blueness people. The blue. The openness. The way it fed my soul. To this day, I love the sky and I tied it back to that first summer.
You all have changed. You all are changing. And you all are still the same because you are friends and family. This, of the first visit back, is rich with paradox. God is big enough, and wonderful enough, and generous enough to meet each of you as you journey towards each other.
(Patty wrote about How to Welcome Her Back for those moving back to their passport country). Check it out!
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