Preparing for Re-entry

by Dr Debbie Hawker
Posted on 1st June 2005

This article will discuss what can be done to facilitate re-entry at three different time-points: throughout your time overseas, around the time of leaving, and on return 'home'.

Throughout your time overseas
Re-entry is easier if you have plenty of contact with your home culture during your time overseas. Keeping in touch by e-mail, phone, letters and subscribing to magazines or professional journals helps you to keep up to date with changes at home. Having some knowledge of current affairs, technological changes, popular culture and professional changes helps to smooth the transition, make conversation easier, and reduce the sense of ignorance many people feel when they first return.

Parents may find it useful to link with a family at home who have children of a similar age, who can write or send literature or videos to keep the children in touch with the latest trends.

Maintaining some continuity between the old life and the new helps when adjusting to life overseas, and also helps prepare for an easier transition back home afterwards. For example, when children are involved, family routines and traditions should be continued. It is also helpful to show children photos or videos of their extended family, and to update them with news from home.

If you keep up regular contact with friends and family members while you are away, they are likely to have greater understanding and interest when you return, and conversation will be easier. Much can be gained if friends or family members visit you overseas.

Re-entry is also easier for people who have returned home during breaks. When deciding where to stay during visits back home, consider where you intend to live when you return permanently. If it is possible to stay in that area during vacations, re-entry is likely to be easier.

Around the time of leaving
If practical arrangements are made well in advance, stress can be minimised. Issues to consider include finances, employment, and accommodation. Where children are involved, it is important to consider options for education. Some children return home to go to boarding school or university, while the rest of the family remains overseas. When this happens, it is recommended that at least one parent travels with the child and remains with them during the first few weeks while they are readjusting, if this is feasible. It is also helpful to ask someone to be available to answer their questions, provide support, and visit or be visited by them. Vacations should be given special consideration.

As well as making practical preparations, it is important to prepare emotionally. Considering the differences between the cultures, and the emotions these differences evoke, is one step in beginning to prepare emotionally for the relocation. It is helpful to show children photos or videos of the area they will be moving to.

The last few weeks can be a time of mixed emotions, including anxiety, sadness, excitement, and perhaps anger. It is important to say farewell to special people, places, possessions and pets. This can cause a sense of mourning, but it is helpful to work through the grief now rather than be overcome with grief or regret later. Possessions to take home should be carefully considered, and visits (with a camera) made to special places and people. Contact details of friends can be collected, so that it is possible to keep in touch. Farewell parties and gifts help create good memories.

It may be helpful to think about what to do for the first few weeks after return. A balance should be sought between visits and tasks on the one hand, and having time to rest and readjust on the other. Having a holiday on the way home is a great idea, providing rest after the tiring process of packing up, and breaking up the starkness of transition. People who travel from a rural area in a developing country to a highly developed nation often find it useful to take a holiday in a major city in the developing nation on their way home. The holiday city becomes a bridge between the extremes of the two other cultures.

Re-entering the 'home' culture
60% of returned expatriates report that they had predominantly negative feelings about returning to their own country. It is common to feel confused; disoriented; 'like a fish out of water'; exhausted; frustrated with materialism, and overwhelmed by the amount of choice in supermarkets (e.g. by six different brands of diet dog-food!). Such feelings are sometimes referred to as 'reverse culture shock'. Some people feel disappointed that expectations they had before they went abroad have not been fulfilled. Some people have to return earlier than they expected.

Many missionaries experience signs of mild depression for a short period after returning to their own country. These may include a lack of energy; sleeping problems; irritability; difficulty making decisions; a change in appetite; tearfulness; feeling unhappy, and feeling overwhelmed by small tasks. Some people find that they cannot stop thinking about their experiences overseas, and that it is hard to concentrate on anything else. For other people there is a sense of numbness, and the time abroad seems distant or unreal. Some try to cope by not thinking about their life overseas.

It is important to realize that such symptoms are completely normal after living in a different culture, just as a grieving process is normal and expected after the death of someone you love. It is important that you do not criticize yourself for feeling this way, or get depressed about feeling depressed. People who accept their feelings as a normal part of the readjustment process tend to get over them more easily. It often takes at least 18 months before people feel 'back to normal' in their own culture. People who adapted most to the culture overseas and were most involved generally take longer than those who were not so involved with the local culture. Rushing back overseas again is generally not a good idea, as this causes more stress, and makes the next re-entry even more difficult. It is generally better to wait until you feel more settled before considering another move.
Among the findings of a survey of one group of people who had returned home after spending two years or more working in another country were the following:

Difficult aspects of resettlement: Reported by:
Communicating the overseas experience 58%
Fitting in again 53%
Finding work 41%
Lack of money 32%
Finding accommodation 12%

The most common adjustment difficulty reported was communicating the overseas experience. Most people want to tell their family and friends about the things they have experienced. But communication is often difficult. Be prepared for the fact that some people won't seem interested in hearing about your experiences, and their eyes may glaze over, or they may ask seemingly stupid questions. There are a number of reasons for this, and it does not mean that you are boring!

To deal with these reactions, it is useful to prepare a 20-second snapshot of your time overseas, and then wait for the response. People who genuinely want to know more will ask questions. Otherwise, it may be easiest to let the conversation drop. Friends may be eager to tell you their own news. If you listen to them, they may be willing to listen to you afterwards. People have a limited attention span, so let your stories come out gradually, rather than trying to share everything at one sitting.

It is worth seeking out people who are interested in your experiences abroad. Otherwise you could feel very isolated, and as if your life has two disconnected parts, 'then' and 'now'. It can be worth getting in touch with others who have lived abroad. Some organizations run reunions for returned workers, which can be a great way of having fun, sharing experiences with people who are interested, and learning that your reactions are normal! For details of seminars for returned missionaries, see www.actionpartnerscorp.org.uk/training . In Ireland, support for returned aid workers is provided through www.comhlamh.org . Details of summer camps for 'missionary kids' can be received by emailing mariondk@uk2.net

Whether your experiences were positive, negative, or mixed, relating them to someone who understands can help you move on to the next step in your life. As well as talking with friends and family, many people find it helpful to have a more formal debriefing session. Personal debriefing has been defined as 'telling your story to someone who understands, until you are heard in such a way as to bring "closure" to your experience, so that you are free to move on'. Personal debriefing is recommended for all returned missionaries, as it can help you reflect on your experiences, cope with the stress of readjustment, and enhance self-understanding and personal growth. To locate a debriefer, contact your organization, or email doctors_hawker@yahoo.co.uk

If you experience symptoms of stress or depression, take special care of yourself. Don't berate yourself, as such symptoms are a common part of re-entry. Moving cultures is exhausting. It is important that you take sufficient time to rest and relax on your return. You may need to sleep more than normal. Try to avoid making major decisions until you have had time to readjust. Even if people keep asking, 'Are you going to go back?' or 'When are you going to get a job', don't feel forced into making decisions too soon. It may be helpful to turn down some invitations at first, and take things slowly for a while. On the other hand, it is important that you do not avoid all forms of activity. Prioritize the things you want (or need) to do.

Doing things which you enjoy and which give you a sense of achievement can help defeat feelings of depression. Spend time with supportive people, and look for opportunities to laugh. Moderate exercise, like walking, helps to reduce feelings of stress, and acts as a natural anti-depressant. To look after your health, try to eat a balanced diet. Avoid drinking excessive caffeine or alcohol, as these can interfere with your readjustment. Cry if you feel like crying - it is a healthy thing to do. Don't take on too much, but set yourself small, achievable goals. Recognize when you are under stress and do things which help you to relax. Accidents are more common at times of tiredness and stress, so take extra care, especially when driving.

Try not to dwell on negative thoughts. Think about what you achieved and learned through your time overseas. This is not to deny that there may also have been negative experiences, but it can help you to see that the experience has not been meaningless.

If you feel very negative about returning home, try to remind yourself of the good aspects of being back home. Try to see both cultures in balance, the good and the bad. Consider writing down your thoughts and feelings about your time abroad. If you like to write, also write down how you are feeling now that you are back. If you don't like writing, find someone to talk to about it instead. Research has shown that writing or talking about thoughts and feelings has both physical and emotional benefits.

After having allowed yourself some space to adjust, begin to slowly build up your level of activity again. If you are spending a lot of time alone, gradually seek out ways to meet people. There are lots of ways you can maintain links with the culture you were living in. One is to see if you can meet people from that culture within your home community. Is there a local society for people from that region? Can you offer hospitality to students from that area? In addition, try to stay in touch with some of the friends you made overseas. If you were working for justice, environmental issues or poverty issues abroad you may wish to channel your skills and interest into continuing to addressing such issues from where you are now.

If you feel physically unwell, go to your doctor and tell them where you have been, so that they can test for any relevant illnesses (some of which can appear months after your return home).

If sleeping problems, symptoms of depression or recurrent thoughts about your time overseas persist for more than six weeks after your return home and interfere with your ability to get on with life, seek help. Ask your doctor or your organization to arrange this, or e-mail doctors_hawker@yahoo.co.uk . Realizing when you could benefit from outside help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Seek help with practical matters as well, if this is likely to be of benefit. Careers advisors and financial advisors can help make adjustment easier.

Although this description of difficulties might sound very negative, most people readjust well given time. Most say that they would not have wanted to miss the experiences they had overseas, despite any negative feelings they may have on return. Even those who experience depression or stress symptoms completely recover when they receive help. It is important to remember:

• Having some difficulties fitting in when you first return is normal
• Adjustment takes time
• It is best if you don't bottle up your feelings or criticize yourself for having them
• Talking about your experiences can help, and debriefing is very beneficial
• If you are worried about any difficulties, or if symptoms persist, contact someone for help
• You have coped with transitions in the past, and you will get through this too

You may find the following books and websites useful:

Storti C. The Art of Coming Home. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press; 1991. (Excellent general book on re-entry, including specific sections on exchange students; volunteers; military personnel, and missionaries and their families).

Foyle, M. Honourably Wounded: Stress among Christian workers. London: Monarch Books, 2001. (Excellent book detailing issues related to stress among missionaries, including re-entry).

Pascoe R. Homeward Bound: a spouse's guide to repatriation. North Vancouver, BC: Expatriate Press, 2000. (Especially written for non-working partners of those working abroad).

Pollock DC, Van Reken RE. The Third Culture Kid Experience: growing up among worlds. Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press; 1999. (Excellent material on growing up in another culture - useful for older children, and parents).

Lovell-Hawker, D. Debriefing aid workers: A comprehensive manual. London: People in Aid, 2004. (A manual describing how and why to debrief missionaries and aid workers).

Debbie and her husband David are Christian clinical psychologists who specialize in offering help to missionaries and their families. They are based in the Midlands (England). They can be contacted by email: doctors_hawker@yahoo.co.uk