“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” – Lillian Smith, American writer
I’ve been back a few short weeks from a three month hiatus in China and the last damn thing I wanted to do was to have a long, hard look at myself. I would have preferred skipping the whole ‘world within’ bit entirely and just be allowed to casually relax back into the world that I had left behind: tell my stories, savor my memories and step back into my role as Queen Bee at home and in the office. But travel doesn’t allow you that privilege. Instead it twists you upside down, plays with your mind, your identity, and your puerile sense of ‘self’ as it turns the façade of culture shock back onto your family, your friends, your co-workers, your city, the whole ethos you call ‘home’…and yourself. Coming home isn’t easy friend, whether you’ve been gone a few months or many, many years.
Coming home (or cross-cultural re-entry as the pros call it) is what happens when you come home from living abroad. Soldiers know all about it and so do scholars, students, volunteers, missionaries, professionals, vagabonds and ex-pats all over the world. Coming home is that fitful roller coaster between excitement about being with those close to you and feeling totally out of sync with everyone around you. Everything has to be renegotiated- and it can be annoying, aggravating and outright disheartening.
If you are a real traveler and not just a tourist, you grew new roots while you were gone. You deliberately uprooted yourself from home, adapted to a strange land and embraced different things– all the while creating distance from the familiar support systems provided by family, friends and cultural norms. Your new roots spread far and horizontally, sometimes in crazy zig-zag patterns and very unlike the vertical roots that grounded the folks back home. Maybe they married, had kids, paid mortgages and worked steady jobs. Maybe you did a few of these things while you were away, but chances are you did them in very different ways. It is likely that you also did things you could not have imagined you would do when you left home. You’re a hybrid now. You are an amalgamation that blends your home and host culture’s perceptions and experiences.
Upon arriving home the first impulse is to share your experiences. But the actuality is that few people, even your loved ones, will want to listen to more than a handful of stories. Their eyes glaze over in a matter of minutes and fingers will start fumbling with cell phones and text messages. Your mother may announce she has to do the laundry or your best friend’s car may suddenly need a car wash. Friends and family may think you have behaviors or attitudes that, to them, seem odd, uncomfortable or uncharacteristic of the person they knew. You’ve changed and you’re not the same person you were when you left. Many won’t get why you can’t jump right back into your old skin with enthusiasm and comfort and few will have a clue what is reeling around your head as you try to navigate your home terrain.
Reverse culture shock is rarely understood at home.
Nobody wants change, and if we say we do we only want it selectively. You may take pride in your change- after all, you’ve grown from your cross-cultural experience and your world, political and social sensitivity has greatly expanded, but the truth is the folks back home changed as well while you were away. Those close to you may have become more independent in your absence and found interests far outside of yours. Social norms may have altered dramatically and politics and world events may have spun your nation into a wildly different direction. Life back at the farm (or office) is filled with new players and personalities and power structures have assembled with bizarre agendas. You may feel there is nothing back home for you now. You may feel rootless.
Many who return home face the challenge of finding new jobs, living arrangements and new friends. Others must find a way back into their family structures or catch up on a steep crag of tasks waiting for them at work. Anxiety and discomfort may wait at every intersection.
In the midst of this stressful present, your life overseas may feel surreal. Dr. Bruce La Brack, a professor of International Studies at the University of the Pacific, calls this surreal feeling ‘shoeboxing’. Returnees may worry that somehow they will ‘lose’ the experience or that it may become labelled like keepsakes or photo albums kept in a box and only occasionally taken out and looked at. Re-entry challenges may include compartmentalization; feelings of alienation; an inability to apply new skills and knowledge; difficulty in conveying your experiences to people who do not share similar terms of reference or travel backgrounds; boredom; rejection of your achievements and adventures; reverse ‘homesickness’; and feeling misunderstood or alienated. This can be a lot of social, cultural and psychological work for anyone returning home.
I was gone for a mere three months but I have felt bits of all these things upon my return. I came home to a partner who had exercised his own independence in my absence and discovered new facets of his personality that he now values. I came home to people living in my home and working in my business that did not know me. I came home to disturbing dynamics in our business that required skillful maneuvering to contain. I came home to clients and friends who were delighted to welcome me back but hesitant or unwilling to inquire (beyond superficiality) about my experiences. I came home to a community and a nation that unsettled me as it became more and more dystopian. I had to renegotiate everything by drawing new boundaries in the sand, re-establishing the pecking order at work, facing my own fears and insecurities; listening deeply to a loved one; withholding some judgments; and seeking out new ways to appreciate my homeland. And I didn’t start doing the right things for myself and those around me until I had behaved like an ass for several weeks.
Re-entry can be navigated, even after years in another culture. You stumble across others with a vagabond spirit and those that have learned to live bi or tri-culturally. You share your experiences, frustrations and thrills and sigh because they ‘know’ what you are feeling. You use your cross cultural skills to observe your own country with the eye of Margaret Mead instead of your brooding ego. You get your brain working. You don’t talk about your travels unless people want to listen. You keep your memories alive. You vow not to forget the cultural gaffes you made; what made you laugh out loud; your personal insights; what made you cry; what personal successes you felt; the risks you took; the friendships you felt; the mistakes you made. And above all else, you vow to be a serial traveler, regardless of the status of your piggy bank.
In the American town I live in the bumper stickers on the cars announce “Another Ho-Hum Day in Paradise”. It is a paradise in many respects, although one that I cannot claim ownership. The mountains welcome me home with a powerful and dignified greeting that reminds me that humility is a valuable asset. The skies over our back porch display a daily lighting show that puts Hollywood to shame. The hummingbirds whiz close to my head and perform aerial acts that make me giggle. The deer, hawks, owls, elk, bears, coyotes and wolves peek into my tiny world to let me know that they, too, are my neighbors. The earth inserts her presence to balance the insanity of my silly human existence.
I sit on my back porch until late into the night, trying to let sunsets, stars and the illumination of a huge moon soothe my spirits. Yet the breeze propels different images and scents to me and I am encircled by vibrant memories of China. Even in paradise I miss my travels. I miss the people. I miss my son. I miss travel’s otherworldliness.
I just put thirteen quarters, seven dimes and sixteen nickels into my travel piggy bank. It’s good to be homeward bound- but not to be bound by home.