I was trained really well for how to stay on the field. I had no training in how to return home, however. Being handed a re-entry book and given a one-hour seminar on the actual logistics of leaving our organization obviously didn’t even begin to prepare us. A mentor of ours recommended doing a week of debriefing in Colorado a couple months after our return. This week was pivotal in our moving forward; it gave us the space we needed to process through the range of emotions we were going through. Most importantly, it gave our family common language to talk about how huge this change was.
Re-entry is full of paradox. It’s okay to feel two seemingly contradictory things at the same time. We had moved from a crowded and congested city in Southeast Asia and were transplanted into the cornfields of rural Iowa, and at times, the transition was jolting. I wrote down these thoughts a few months after we had moved:
- The green grass and endless space are restful, but our hearts remember the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh and the convenience of shops right out on the sides of the street.
- We like the predictability of life here, but miss the spontaneity of our previous one.
- We love hanging out with our family here, but miss our family there.
- “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
- Sweet corn and juicy steaks are so delicious, but our tongues miss the flavorful Khmer dishes.
- Stores in America are full of everything you could possibly need, but there was something special about finding that one item you hadn’t seen in ages and didn’t know if you’d see again.
- Team life can be tiring at times, but our hearts ache for a deeper sense of community and connection.
- Loving the cooler weather, but it was so much easier planning for only one season of clothing than it is now, trying to buy for four seasons.
Sometimes just identifying the paradox in your transition can help you move forward. One of the biggest paradoxes I had to work through was our identity as overseas workers. Life in Cambodia had many times been stressful and extremely difficult, but we had found great purpose in our work there. There was the sense that we were doing a great work that people admired and supported. Our kids were getting exposed to amazing things and were living that wonderful and diverse third culture experience.
Upon our return, I had to ask, “Who am I if I’m not doing that work overseas? Are we settling for less than what we were called to be? Are my kids missing out on a meaningful cross-cultural experience that I see my friends’ kids still having?”
While we lived in Cambodia, I missed life back here in the States. I would see pictures of family gatherings or school events, and in a way, long for that environment for my kids. Now that my kids are in the States, I have grieved the missed experiences and growth in Cambodia. I have discovered that no matter where you live, a part of you longs for the other side. That is part of the paradox.
It has been almost a year since our return, and slowly, the ache has begun to fade. The ache of loss and disorienting situations. The loneliness of feeling like an outsider in your own home culture. These things are part of this huge transition. We still feel Asia tapping us on the shoulder, beckoning us back, and at times we have wondered if we made the right decision to leave.
As we have settled, though, into our home in Southwest Minnesota, we have seen that God is at work here, as well as in Cambodia. It may not be the most exotic location, but He has fully met us here.
I don’t know where you are at in your re-entry journey, but a helpful exercise at any stage is to make a list of the paradoxes you have faced and/or are currently facing. Sharing it with a spouse or a close friend is important. Writing them down helped me tremendously. It doesn’t mean things suddenly get easier or more understandable, but it can help you to see why you at times feel so torn and emotional. We have had the privilege of living across the world, and there will always be a part of us that straddles both.
How has paradox helped you in transition?