by Lisa Espineli Chinn
Whether we reenter from a long assignment abroad, a short-term mission trip, a week of vacation, or even a conference, we need to know how to reenter well. Reentry is an often overlooked part of the transition process.
REENTRY TRANSITION is a serious matter. Whether we reenter from a long assignment abroad, a short-term mission trip, a week of vacation, or even a conference, we need to know how to reenter well. Reentry is an often overlooked part of the transition process. This is largely due to our faulty assumption that we, along with the people and the place we left behind, have remained the same while we were away. Naturally, the longer we are away from home, the more changes we have to face. Thus, it often becomes fittingly a Welcome Back, rather than a Welcome Home.
When I was a mother of three young children and traveled for ministry purposes, I developed a simple reentry strategy. I asked my kids three questions:
1. What was the highlight of your time while mom was away?
2. What was the “low light?”
3. What does mom need to know now that she is back?
I asked them individually, and based on their answers, I was able to adjust to their needs and expectations. Because my husband and I often travel separately for ministry, we have also made it a practice to debrief each time one of us returns from a trip. Even when we attend the same event, we put it on our schedule to share our reflections onsite and upon return.
Over the years of preparing international students in the U.S. to reenter back home (and also training short-term and career missionaries on reentry), I have found the following ten topics important to address.
1. Reentry is an integral part of the cross-cultural journey.
Developed in 1955, the U-curve theory by Lysgaard, a Norwegian sociologist, is one of the first models of entry adjustment. Subsequent research on the subject exposed some inadequacies. However, I still choose to use it with the caveat that it is not the definitive statement on cultural adjustment. It does, however, help people identify with a transition stage.
In 1963, Jeanne and John Gullahorn developed the W-curve hypothesis model which extends the U-curve into the reentry experience, as depicted in the diagram below.
I discovered over the years that this simple diagram helps generate a much-needed reentry conversation, processing, and understanding of what people may be going through. People may skip one stage altogether but will relate strongly with another. Many find it freeing to name what they are experiencing.
The fun reentry stage is the honeymoon phase. We are filled with happy thoughts about being back home where things are predictable, food is familiar, people follow the same rules, and there may be running water. Many people start with this phase, but others may begin their journey back home with the next phase.
The flight reentry stage can occur within hours or days of returning home. We may avoid people and activities because we long for our new friends, the spiritual vitality we had, and perhaps a simpler and slower pace of life. Back home, we may “fly back” and sentimentally daydream of still being abroad. We may begin to resent some people’s short attention spans when we share our stories.
Reverse culture shock sets in. We go through the emotional disequilibrium when the cultural cues do not come as naturally as before. As a result, we may feel isolated and depressed.
During the flight reentry stage, we may experience anger because things are different. Interestingly, the things we consider bad now were normal and unnoticed before we left! We may find ourselves saying things like, “People do not know how to relate with others!” or “They are hopelessly clueless about the world!” or “I hate this place! There are too many choices at the supermarket!”
We may also begin to mock if things at home look foolish to us now. People’s preoccupation back home with time or order may come across to us as a foolish fixation.
2. Reentry is like a 3-step dance. Step 1 is to imitate. We can immediately treat life like business as usual. We copy what others are doing or revert to old routines and habits. We quickly plunge into the pace and rhythm of life as if we never left. We have a strong need to meet people’s expectations, but at the same time may discover that the things we used to do or value are no longer appealing or desirable. Some imitation is necessary to fit back home, but it should be done without loss of newly-acquired values and our integrity.
Step 2 is to isolate. Like a foreigner, we feel odd and out of place. We retreat to our own rooms or seek the company of others who have traveled abroad. This is a normal reentry response. But isolation is not all counter-productive. In fact, we may welcome times to be alone as a break from the stress and fatigue of reentry. There is a place for appropriate isolation without loss of opportunity to grow, relate, and give to our family, friends, church, or community.
Step 3 is to integrate. We are beginning to merge into life with ease and we actually like being home. Without abandoning our newly-acquired skills or values, we feel like we are making significant strides in readjusting. We have a new appreciation for our culture and an increased ability to relate with it at different levels. Congratulations! We should integrate in every way possible, but be true to who we are becoming.
The returnee copes daily by using these three steps: imitating, isolating, and integrating. In this dance, all three moves are needed to ensure a balanced reentry.
3. Reentry is not the end; it is a process. For effective reentry to happen, this topic should be woven into the pre-departure, onsite, and post-return programs of mission groups: How does one think of reentry on the front end? Some agencies are asking reentry questions in the application form—questions like “Who is the person you can share with upon return?” or “What challenges do you think you might face?” For helpful debriefing questions, including questions for spouses and children left behind, see Reentry Guide for Short-Term Mission Leaders by Lisa Espineli Chinn (www.deeperroots.com).
As we unpack from a long trip, we sometimes keep a backpack of emotional issues unopened. It takes time for some of those issues to surface and we need to process these with others when they do arise.
4. Reentry is not as easy as we think because of how much we have changed and how much home has changed. We say, “We are just returning home,” but we forget that change has occurred in us and at home. Our view of the world, God, missionaries, or people from another culture has been altered. Consequently, we return with a new set of eyes and a fresh advocacy for a new group of people. We have acquired an appetite for different foods and a desire to meet our international neighbors.
In the meantime, home may have also undergone changes. Our family got used to our absence! People picked up new roles and responsibilities during our stint abroad. Perhaps new programs and people are in our churches and workplaces. Friends may have moved on, physically or relationally, and even our neighborhood experienced changes. And now we may feel like the new foreigners.
5. Scripture has examples of returnees and their kingdom impact. One famous returnee, though reluctant, was Moses. Pharaoh had died while Moses was away and God remembered the plight of his people. He unfolded a plan that included Moses (Exod. 2). Moses went through major changes in occupation, marital status, role, and self-understanding while in the desert. In the meantime, his people experienced population growth, leadership transfer, and incessant oppression. God called and used Moses, a returnee, to be his messenger of hope and deliverance from Egyptian bondage.
Naomi left her country with her husband and two sons because of the famine in their land. She returned home a widow with a new name, Mara, because the Almighty had made her life very bitter (having also lost her two sons abroad; Ruth 1:20). In addition, she brought home Ruth, a foreign, but committed daughter-in-law. Although the foreign experience was harsh and difficult, Naomi was able to reengage with her home culture with savvy and hope. Her role in God’s plan was clear—she became the great-grandmother of King David.
Jesus relayed fitting words for us when he gave his entry briefing and reentry debriefing in Luke 10. The seventy-two disciples returned with joy from their short-term mission trip and reported that “even demons submit to us in your name.” Jesus acknowledged such triumph, but reminded the disciples, “However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” We may return with great stories, and rightly so, but at the end of the day what is important is that our “names are written in heaven.” Our security and value rest on what God has done for us and not what we have done for God.
6. Reentry has a grief component. Grief is the natural response to loss. Thus, there is an accompanying sadness that comes with the end of a foreign experience. Grief can also blindside us. For example, one returnee shared that she found herself crying at unexpected times and places triggered by a passing thought or a person/event that brought back memories of the time abroad.
Although people grieve differently, it is important that we pay close attention to signs of grief that can lead to depression. Our reentry grief can be minimized by talking about the foreign experience. As we share, we demonstrate the significance of the people we left behind.
Souvenirs, including photos, play a significant role in our grief as they become visual reminders of the people we met and the experiences we had. Through them, the time abroad is relived and its significance affirmed.
7. Returnees need good listeners. “How was your trip?” is an inviting and often misunderstood question. For the returnee, it may mean that people are interested in hearing the whole story. However, the reality is that people back home may not have the time to hear the full report. That is why it is helpful to train returnees, while still away from home, to give a one-minute, three-minute, or longer response to the question.
It is important to consider that every returnee needs an audience: an unhurried and interested audience. Ask questions like: “What surprised you about your time away from home?” or “What may you consider starting, stopping, or continuing as a result of your mission trip?” or “Who were the special people you met and why?”
Oh yes, returnees need to be thoughtful listeners, too. Avoid the temptation of being the focus of attention and sincerely ask family and friends about their lives.
8. Healthy closure is a must. Victor Hunter captures this idea well: “Today I must say goodbye. Goodbyes are important. Without meaningful goodbye, an effective closure, there cannot be a creative hello, a new beginning and hopeful commencement” (1986, 179). In other words, good endings lead to good beginnings.
Dave Pollock’s reentry training suggests three ways to have good closure:
1. Make sure that people have a chance to say goodbye to people, places, and even pets.
2. Say thank you to everyone important to the returnee.
3. Say sorry to anyone who may have been offended during the time away from home.
9. Attitudes can make or break the reentry experience. If we begin with a negative and unrealistic attitude, then we will respond with criticism and rationalization that leads us on a path of alienation, isolation, and broken relationships. However, if we start with a positive, realistic, and hopeful attitude, we become observant and we inquire and listen. This results in understanding, empathy, and deepening relationships. Along the way, if we discover that our attitude is holding us back from fruitful reengagement, we can choose to alter our posture. (See diagram below.)
Additionally, we should be ready to adjust our reentry expectations, being careful not to make quick judgments of people’s behavior or intentions. We need to keep a humble posture, maintain a good sense of humor, have a grateful heart, and have an unfailing trust in God who continues to be with us during our reentry.
10. Reentry is part of our Christian formation in the context of a community. Reentry is part of our continuing discipleship. Our Christian growth was enhanced through our involvement with God’s people abroad and with our respective teams. Through them, we understand ourselves a little better, we see the world a little bigger, and our faith is a little stronger. As a result of our time abroad, our lives may have even taken on a new meaning and direction.
In the end, we join other globally-mobile Christians who love and follow Jesus in and through the transitions of life.
Hunter, Victor. 1986. “Closure and Commencement (The Stress of Finding Home).” In Cross-Cultural Reentry: A Book of Readings. Ed. Clyde Austin, 179. Abilene, Tex.: Abilene Christian University Press.
Lisa Espineli Chin experienced her first reentry when she returned to the Philippines after finishing her graduate studies at Wheaton Graduate School in Wheaton, Illinois, USA. She continued to serve with InterVarsity Philippines as a college staff worker and literature secretary until she returned to the U.S. and joined InterVarsity USA. Lisa finished fourteen years as national director of International Student Ministry at InterVarsity/USA in 2014 and currently serves as a ministry coach and consultant.
Copyright 2016 by the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. All rights reserved. Published in EMQ Jan 2016 Vol 52 No 1 pp. 92-99. Not to be reproduced in any way without written permission from EMQ editors. For Reprint Permissions beyond personal use visit our STORE at www.emqonline.com.