For those who live overseas, it is a fact of life that the initial culture shock of arriving in a foreign place is often not as challenging as the reverse culture shock on returning “home” at the end of one’s time abroad. I’ve been aware of this challenge since I was a child, having heard my parents’ conversations with other adults about their difficult transition back to the US from Tokyo in 1989. This spring as I prepared to transition to the US from Qingdao, I wondered what form it would take for me, Adult Third Culture Kid, experienced world traveler, and someone who has visited the US almost every year of my time abroad. I really couldn’t imagine, though I didn’t think I would be exempt.
As early as my second day in the US people were asking me how I was doing with adjusting to being back. My answer – one blog post notwithstanding – was pretty much “Ask me after school’s started and I’m a month into my ‘new normal.’ Right now it just feels like a regular summer home with a little job searching thrown in.” Well, a week after moving to my new town, I’ve begun to find out just what it can be like!
There needs to be back story, of course. I’ve had two main overseas transitions as an adult. When I first moved to China 9 years ago, I only knew a friend of a friend via email, and he wasn’t in my part of town, so it was something of a rough landing, but the other foreign teachers (who had mostly arrived a month before me) took me for dinner the second night, let me use their shower when my place didn’t have a water heater the first week, and included me in their road trip to Kaifeng a week after I landed. The school also assigned me two student aides who were friendly and super helpful, for example by ordering my first jug of drinking water and teaching me how to get more, and by finding me a large bath towel when all I could find in my limited and overwhelming forays to the supermarket were hand towels. Between the sweet students and the solidarity of “we’re all foreigners together” among the other expats, I found some solid ground and learned to stand, walk, and eventually electric-bike my way around life there.
Then I switched to an international school with Leadership Development International. LDI does an amazing job of preparing for and welcoming new people, for example sending lists of what to pack and what’s available on arrival, and providing meals for the first week in-country. Even though I’d already been in China for 4 years and in some ways hit the ground running, I appreciated all the care. One of my favorite parts of each new school year has been helping to host and welcome the new staff. Then when I prepared to leave, the company provided counseling, prayer, acknowledgement and affirmation in large and small gatherings, printed devotionals, and more. Pretty much my only moment of return-to-US crying this summer was when I received their last package and realized I was now “outside” – though when I mentioned it to the person from the home office who called for my debriefing later that month, she told me they’re still praying for us, so I’m never totally “out.” No organization is perfect, but that was pretty awesome, and I knew when I was leaving that it would be a while before I found another community like that.
Arriving back in my “home” culture, I spent the summer where I grew up, mixing with other internationally-minded believers and even some friendly Chinese students, so I landed on ground I knew pretty well how to stand on – indeed, I kind of felt unfairly blessed, and I thanked God for the soft landing. But now I’m in a new city, with a new community in my workplace who don’t know me and whose local culture I’m new to, with neighbors who do speak my language but don’t work at my school (instead of either one or the other), where people don’t fit neatly into the two categories of “Chinese” or “expat like me,” and oh, all sorts of things are different, large and small. Various experiences this week left me feeling like I was totally lost and drifting, without anywhere to put my feet, any ground I was sure of. None of it was done “to” me with negative intent, it wasn’t even all negative, but it all hit me out of left field, and by Thursday noon I was sobbing on the shoulder of one of the two co-workers I’ve started to get to know so far, who bless her heart just held me and let me cry.
And then at home that evening I opened the Word to my daily-reading bookmark at Psalm 138, glanced across the page at 139, started sobbing again as I felt God reach out and hold me.
“No one here knows me” – 1 O LORD, you have searched me and known me!
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
you are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.
“I’m lost in a new place” – 7 Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
9 If I rise on the wings of the morning
and dwell across the sea, (<- exactly what I did when I left for the airport at dawn)
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
“How long will it take for anyone to really know me here?” – 13 For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. (<- as one who loves knitting, that verse always feels like it’s a little love-nudge to me straight from God)
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it full well.
“I feel overlooked and unseen” – 17 How precious concerning me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast the sum of them!
18a If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
“I’m having trouble sleeping in the middle of the night” – 18b I awake, and I am still with you.
“I don’t understand how certain things are handled here surrounded by ‘my’ culture.” I won’t write out verses 19-22, but when I’ve heard this psalm preached on, what stuck with me is that after a harsh outburst against those who are opposing God that seems to pretty clearly land David over-the-top into sin himself, David continues with this prayer:
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
24 See if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!
“O God, search my heart too! YOU are my solid ground! I know that you know me fully, better than I know myself; that you are always where I am, no matter where I move; that you see me completely and think about me constantly; that even in the watches of the night I am still with you — thus I can open up my pain and confusion, not just for comfort, but also to let you gently bring out my own sin in the situation for us to deal with together, and trustingly follow you in the way everlasting!”