In her intensely thought provoking book, The Poisonwood Bible, one of Barbara Kingsolver’s fictional characters has just landed back in America after living in a jungle in Africa. She puts it simply:
“It is impossible to describe the shock of return.” (p. 411)
We spend a lot of time talking about leaving well, but what about returning well? You see, once you get on that plane and leave the foreign soil, you’ve left. You’re now right smack in the middle of returning. And what does that look like?
On one hand, returning was a huge blessing. I got what I wanted. We moved back to Texas. I’m elated for the next chapter’s beginning and excited about so many things ahead.
On the other hand, it’s a tragedy. I hesitate to use such a strong word, because in the big scheme of things, it’s not that big of a deal. We got on a plane in China and got off in Texas. But, the emotions I stuffed to be able to do that are slowly seeping out of me. Here are just a few of them:
- Sadness in the realization that my youngest child will never truly grasp how much she is loved by our Chinese helper we left behind–the one who practically lived with us for 4.5 years, and on that last day in China loaded us and our monstrous pile of bags into the van, waving her final goodbye, her arms empty and tears rolling down her face.
- Longing for the story to have turned out differently and the place we called home to have had long-term sustainability. Only a few short years ago, we celebrated as our school (and reason for being in China) signed a twenty-year lease on a new building. We felt like the school was home at last, and it seemed possible some of us might stay for twenty years. I’m sad when the memory of that happy day is paired with the current reality of the same school changing ownership and almost all its foreign teaching staff relocating.
- Confusion over the boys’ education and language ability and unavailability of soccer (then again, I’ve always been confused over such things…)
- Loneliness of missing the fellowship of good friends who know the part of me that speaks Chinese and wanes philosophical over a good book and hosts fellowship on Sundays and mostly bakes without Crisco.
It’s not truly a tragedy. No one died. But there are people we loved dearly we’ll probably never see again and places we loved that touched our daily lives as they provided the backdrop of our ordinary, overseas days that now seem to exist only in our minds. And those people and places will most likely be forgotten by my younger children. Even I have a hard time realizing the place we lived is still present on the very same planet we still inhabit because it’s a complete 180 degrees different than our new place on the globe in small town Texas.
If we had known how it feels to return, would we ever have packed up and gone to China in the first place? Truth be told, the initial going felt like a tragedy as well, boarding a plane with a 9-month-old baby waving goodbye to mourning grandparents. It seems our overseas story–all the good stuff I want to remember–lies in the middle, bookended by the asphyxiating feelings of going and returning.
I hesitate to share my true sentiments because I’m sure to be misunderstood by people who have never gone as well as people who have gone but never come back (that’s a lot of people). But I trust there are those out there who have the same bookends on their shelves, propping up amazing chapters of their overseas stories between them. Those are the people who will nod my way, whispering, “Yes, I hear you.”
I also don’t want to admit how it feels because then I’m afraid that means leaving was a mistake. Or that going was a mistake. But I know better, and the one I follow reminds me of that. Jesus led his disciples through tragedy at the cross and said “Take up your cross and follow me.” We were not misguided in the going or returning, and I’m learning to allow myself to fully process and feel my way through it.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m happy to be where I am and returning was the thing to do. But if there’s one thing my time in China taught me, it’s that happy and sad can co-exist in the same heart at the exact same time. I tend to find that when I’ve stuffed my feelings they’re harder to sort out later, so I’ve been getting downright honest with myself and God about how I’m feeling post-China, no shame attached. I’m getting through it day by day and the intensity of my emotions are lessened by the acknowledgement of their presence as I continue to have a clearer understanding of myself and my story.
Is tragedy a word reserved only for Romeo and Juliet, or have you experienced something similar in returning which you can label with no other word? Fling open the gates of transparency and share a bit of your feelings on your return with me today.
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