Losing Identity In The Return

I bit down on my tongue to stop the words I was thinking from flying out of my mouth. Staring across the table at my coffee date, I wondered how I had once been close friends with this woman? I laughed out of obligation, not because I thought her pop-culture reference was funny.

While others in the coffee shop fanned themselves and complained of the summer humidity and high temperatures outside, I fought the urge to shiver under the blasting air conditioner. The sharp noise of conversations I couldn’t block out bounced off the walls of the small space. My feet shuffled uncomfortably in my shoes, confused as to why they were confined –– they were used to being freed the moment I walked into a restaurant.

My favorite hometown coffee house had been a popular place to meet friends. But instead of enjoying the reunion with my cinnamon dolce latte, I found myself longing for the quiet, peace and structure of the other home I had just returned from –– Japan. I couldn’t understand why the coffee shop’s atmosphere left me feeling agitated. I couldn’t understand why I felt so disconnected with my close friend. And I couldn’t understand why hearing English spoken everywhere I went grated on my nerves.

Not understanding why left me feeling only more agitated, isolated and confused. And it led me to question why God called my husband and I away from the Asian host-country we loved?

Coming home, I did not expect to face so many challenges. After all, it was home.

I didn’t anticipate having a hard time returning to air conditioned buildings, or adjusting to wearing shoes inside. After being without a television while overseas, I was looking forward to catching up on favorite shows. I didn’t anticipate how jarring the sound of the television would be, and how anxious I would feel to shut it off. I was excited to speak English again, instead of stumble through my fragmented Japanese vocabulary as I bumbled around in attempt to run errands. I didn’t expect to be annoyed that I couldn’t block out conversations when out in public.

Instead, I anticipated a comforting welcome from family and direction from God as to why He called us home and what we were supposed to do next.

It was not so easy. Because I had not anticipated the challenges I faced upon return, I struggled for months. I found it difficult to talk to those at home because my world view no longer matched theirs after living overseas. My family, who was grateful and excited to have us back, did not understand why it was difficult for us to be home. It hurt them that I was struggling after the return, which caused me to internalize the roller coaster of emotions and process them on my own.

Beyond the difficulties I faced with relationships, I struggled with my own identity. Instead of placing it in Christ, I let my work define my self-worth. I critiqued myself through a vicious pair of condemned lenses, where I saw myself as a failure. In Japan, I thought I was living out God’s design for my life. Back at home, I felt my gifts and experiences were being squandered as I sat chained behind a desk.

Rebelling against God’s plan to bring us home, I believed there must have been a mistake or miscommunication. Had I heard Him correctly? At times I doubted.

I was miserable for months after returning because I failed to look at the return through God’s eyes: He had given me a gift by bringing us home, and I was refusing to accept it.

Within weeks of returning, my grandfather –– a man I loved dearly and was very close to –– was diagnosed with cancer. Because we were home, I was able to spend his last months by his side. Because we were home, we were present for the celebration of our second nephew’s birth (we missed his older brother’s appearance while overseas). And because we were home, we were able to support a close family member who was struggling with addiction and we were able to watch him take his first steps towards healing.

Eventually, although at times I still felt chained to my desk, I recognized that God blessed me with a great job and placed me in an environment that did not welcome Him but sorely needed to see His light. Returning home did not mean He was finished working through me –– how I served Him Stateside did not look the same as it did in Japan, but He still had a purpose for me where I was.

Most importantly, I learned that God’s plan is always perfect. At times it’s still difficult to hand over control and completely trust Him, but I’ve learned to question who am I to doubt the creator of the universe’s plan for my life? Looking back, I see His fingerprints on everything.

In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps. For there is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the Lord. (Proverbs 16:9; Proverbs 21:30)

Why are you being called to return? Are you excited about the return, or do you have doubts about if it really is God’s plan for your life?

Each of us has a different story and God has placed a different calling on each of our lives. I continue to be amazed at how He masterfully orchestrates each of our paths. While He promises to be with us, that doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges ahead. What do you think will be the most difficult challenges you face?

14 Comments

  1. Annalisa May 16, 2017

    I’m still in the field (and probably will be to some extent for the rest of my life as I married a local), but we live close to a popular tourist destination. I end up hearing conversations in English all the time, and I completely understand the desire to block it all out! Don’t get me wrong; I have friends and fellow workers here who speak English, and that’s fine. But it’s the noise of things that don’t matter–celebrity gossip, new clothing fashions, where the parties are tonight, even the best hotels–that just grate on my nerves, and that tends to come from the tourists.

    I hope and pray that things get easier for you, maybe not in regards to the noise as it’s good to recognize the important from the unimportant, but that your feet remember how to wear shoes again. 🙂 And I’m glad you’ve found purpose where you’re at.

    1. Sarah Sams May 17, 2017

      Annalisa, thank you for your words of encouragement! And what a unique perspective — I never thought that it might be difficult to hear English or observe tourists from your original country while living abroad. Thank you for sharing your own experience!

  2. Allison May 16, 2017

    I can totally relate to you. My husband and I have moved back to the states almost a year ago now. We still question our purpose here and if we are where we are supposed to be. But we know God led us here and He will direct our paths always. Thank you for the reminder to look for the reasons why God brought us back. There are always reasons around every corner !!!

    1. Sarah Sams May 17, 2017

      Thanks for sharing, Allison! I love how you put “there are reasons around every corner.” This is so true, it only takes us slowing down and looking for them. I pray that God continues to show you and your husband the path you are to take!

  3. Katie Rose May 16, 2017

    My two-year term ends on July 19. I’m flying back with a week-long stopover in London with a friend who will also be ‘returning’ soon, and landing back in my hometown on the 28th of July. In a few days we’ll meet the 2 month mark, officially. 3.5 weeks of that time will be spent in Thailand at a conference, so I know that these next 3.5 weeks are really it. Which is unreal. I’m really bad at processing these big things until I’m knee deep in them (i.e., when I wake up on Saturday, July 29th, in a bed, a room, a house, a town, I no longer recognize or am familiar with). My dad I’m sure will bring coffee into my room that morning, which will be wonderful and familiar to hug him again (and again and again). But, still, I’m so afraid of the transition. For the past 7 years, I’ve thought I was called here to India forever. But the past two years shattered me, shattered that calling, and the only thing God has kept constant in all the change the shattering brought is writing–words and blogs and community. I’m already recognizing how difficult that is to explain–when my entire identity has been rooted in living and operating overseas, in this specific country that I have struggled to thrive in, and when the word “calling” gets misunderstood for the word “season.” Everything is changing, I am changing, the season is changing. But God is not. His identity is sure. His “calling” on my life is foremost about Belovedness & Mercy (Romans 11.29 in context)….wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, whichever season He calls me to next–those two things will remain and will hold me up where other gifts and callings feel broken and “not enough”: I am Beloved. I have received mercy.

    Thanks for providing a safe place in which to share these thoughts! 🙂

    1. Sarah Sams May 17, 2017

      Katie, thank you so much for being vulnerable and sharing your heart. I will be praying for you over the coming weeks as I know how it can be difficult to process. Some days I found (for myself) that the anxiety from anticipating the return was more difficult than what I felt after the return. I am glad you have discovered an outlet through your writing. In the coming weeks and months, I’d encourage you to journal and blog as much as you can — not only will it help you process, but it will chronicle this period of your life so that one day, when you look back on this season, you will see God’s fingerprints covering it and know why He called you home. Today you have also encouraged me with your words that sometimes “calling” gets misunderstood for “season.” My husband and I are once again praying about what we are supposed to be doing and this was a beautiful reminder. Thank you!

      1. Katie Rose May 17, 2017

        Thank you for your kind reply and words of wisdom–and prayers! That means a lot to me. I’m about to try and stretch these words into a blog to link up with the Grove on Thursday. Thanks for the encouragement to do so! Praying for you & your husband as you pray for this season…number one thing: abide. Grow those roots down deep in Him. I’m sharing Jeremiah 17.7-8 with some ladies tonight. Such a good word on seasons. It encouraged me today in studying for tonight.

  4. Wendy May 17, 2017

    Great article. I’m just confused by the reference to taking your shoes off in a restaurant in Japan and not having air conditioning. I’ve lived here since 2000 and never taken my shoes off in a restaurant. Most are also air-conditioned. But I appreciate the honesty as you tell of your struggles and journey. I hope this helps others who are struggling with re-entry shock.

    1. Sarah Sams May 18, 2017

      Wendy, thanks for your comment! My husband and I were living far north in Hokkaido. Since we experienced snow nearly 6 months of the year, it was rare to see AC where we were 😉 But it still got quite warm in the summer, and our bodies adjusted to not having AC. When we did travel south, I did notice more AC and that people kept shoes on in restaurants, but what I wrote in this article was from our own personal experience in the region where we lived. Hope that helps to clear up any confusion!

      1. Wendy May 19, 2017

        Wow, you lived in Hokkaido. Where? We spent our first three and a half years there. Yes, I remember that houses, particularly, weren’t built for the short periods of hot weather. I didn’t notice the same with restaurants, but then we didn’t do a lot of restauranting as we had young kids then. I can’t remember taking shoes off in the restaurants either, though perhaps that’s a rural thing. We were in Sapporo. When we went camping round the north of Hokkaido I don’t remember taking shoes off in restaurants…but perhaps we didn’t go to the right restaurants! Actually, we didn’t go to many restaurants then either. However I do understand feeling really uncomfortable with shoes on in a house. I struggle with that when we’re on home assignment.

        1. Sarah Sams May 19, 2017

          I guess we must have been eating at different places!

  5. Jana May 23, 2017

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts so well. I can definitely relate to many of them! God bless you!😊

  6. Amie September 21, 2017

    Thanks so much for posting this. I just returned from living in Thailand for two years, and I am not-so-patiently waiting for God’s direction for my next step. It feels very much like God used my time in Thailand and now He is somehow “done” using me. I know in my head that isn’t true, but with all the mixed emotions of repatriating and all the uncertainty of the future it’s hard to trust! I really related to where you wrote “”Rebelling against God’s plan to bring us home, I believed there must have been a mistake or miscommunication. Had I heard Him correctly? At times I doubted.” I feel like I am doubting my decision to return ‘home’ so much because I am mourning so much that I left behind in Thailand. I am constantly wondering what I will do next and if I should maybe just get back on a plane and return! So thanks again for posting, it’s good to know others have been through something similar and come out on the other side!

    1. Sarah Sams September 24, 2017

      Amie, thank you for having the courage to share what you are feeling! While I have been able to move past my initial doubt to see God’s design in bringing me home, it is still encouraging to hear that I am not the only one who has faced that uncertainty. The waiting period of what’s next has always been hardest for me, no matter what stage of life I’m in. I pray that God will speak clearly to you and that if you are to return to Thailand, He will direct your steps and set you on that path! And if He has another use for you elsewhere, I pray that He gives you peace and purpose as you trust Him with your future. How great is it to know He is always fighting for us and wants the best for His children?

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