by David C. Pollock
For many missionary kids (MKs), the re-entry experience is really more entry than re-entry.
For many missionary kids (MKs), the re-entry experience is really more entry than re-entry. Having spent a significant number of their developmental years in a culture other than their own, MKs have a sense of relationship to both host and home cultures. But they lack a sense of full membership in either.
However, whether the experience of moving from host to home culture is re-entry or entry, a major adjustment must be made.
The need for this adjustment is strong, and the human organism, being what it is, will adjust—either for good or for bad. What an MK brings into this transition will contribute largely to the result. However, immediate factors during the course of the experience will also affect attitudes that in turn determine behavior and relationships.
There are a number of views concerning re-entry shock. Some have viewed it as a type of temporary mental illness characterized by anxiety, disorientation, paranoia, and depression. Others see the re-entry experience as a prelude to adjustment during which the person tends to be bewildered, confused, lonely, and defensive.
An emerging view is that the process of re-entry is an intensified and accelerated form of the learning-growing-development process. In this view, the cycle of adjustment consists of an experience followed by a reaction, then reflection, and finally conceptualization.
THE CHAOS OF TRANSITION
At the core of the process of re-entry is the transition experience itself. Like the small end of a funnel, it is a process through which one may quickly pass—or become stuck. The heart of transition is characterized by a sense of chaos. Structure is lost, problems are exaggerated, and the ability to understand and respond appropriately may be greatly impaired.
Typical transition experiences include a loss of status, a sense of grief, emotional instability, an exaggerated sense of "special" knowledge, and feelings of isolation, anxiety, and self-centeredness.
It is during this re-entry transition that the cross-cultural sojourner may require special care to insure proper adjustment. The re-entry facilitator must learn to play the role of midwife. The facilitator is not the cause of "birth," nor is he or she fully responsible for its ultimate outcome. The facilitator simply supports the person through the trauma of transition, hopefully with positive results.
Admittedly, re-entry care is limited in its total impact. In the short period of time during which the transition takes place, one cannot undo the affects of the past, nor guarantee the future. However, much can be done to enable the sojourner to maintain equilibrium, learn the basic data necessary for preservation, and develop a plan for the future.
RE-ENTRY CARE FOR MKS
Types and kinds of re-entry care vary from pre-departure workshops, re-entry seminars, and the "total immersion" model. However, the best re-entry care seeks to understand and address all the varied aspects of the re-entry process. Finances, time, and personnel may dictate less than this. But a coordinated effort among those involved with MKs on the field, during transition, and through the early months of adjustment can produce an effective program.
In a special sense, the development of pre-departure ties are important. Prior to leaving for the host country and during furloughs, parents of MKs should try to establish relationships with relatives and friends to whom the MK can return. The home church can also help to provide a place and people the MK can look forward to seeing again.
MK schools play a key role in laying groundwork for re-entry. School personnel and resource people can provide up-to-date information on college life, current lifestyle trends, popular fashions, etc.
Some help must come from on-field services. It is extremely important to encourage and assist MKs in drawing healthy conclusions about the overseas experience. Resolution of conflicts with friends, teachers, and family are an important part of this process. Broken relationships and unfinished business can hamper re-entry adjustment.
Adequate farewells are also important in pre-departure preparation. Opportunity to do never-before-experienced things as well as saying good-by to people and places helps to create a smooth and pleasant conclusion.
Another area of pre-departure care is the development of proper expectations. These expectations should be both realistic and positive. The MK must recognize there will be areas of conflict and distress; yet he or she must have a sense of anticipation of successful adjustment.
Pre-departure preparation is sometimes limited, however, by the fact that because of their inexperience MKs do not always ask the right questions. Nevertheless, proper instruction and information still provide a solid base for decision-making during re-entry.
RE-ENTRY SEMINARS FOR MKS
The disorienting experience of re-entry creates attitudes—both good and bad—that will profoundly affect early adjustment and behavior. At or near the time of reentry, special programs can play an important part in the transition process. There is some debate as to the optimum time for such programs. However, positive results may be gained at seminars held either before or after the MK has been immersed in the new culture.
The value of the later seminar is that by the time it is held the MK usually has many questions and is eager for help. The weakness of a late seminar is that early needs have not been met and some key choices may already have been made that can adversely affect the MK’s future.
The early seminar is able to help MKs adjust their expectations so that they are both realistic and positive, thus preventing possible future stress. They can learn key strategies to help them understand the new and strange. In company with other MKs from around the world, the individual MK will feel that he or she is part of a fraternity. They discover that others also have the same feelings of anxiety, confusion, and uncertainty.
The re-entry seminar may be structured in one of two ways. The psychology model emphasizes psychological needs and leans heavily toward testing, evaluation, and personal counseling. The cross-cultural model emphasizes cultural variation and the process of cross-cultural learning and adjustment. Simulation games, role-playing, and discussion sessions all dominate in this model.
An effective re-entry seminar should incorporate both methods. Evaluation and testing become the catalyst to healthy counseling by qualified staff members. Psychological as well as sociological needs must be addressed. Cross-cultural stresses should be explained and appropriate coping solutions given. The approach is not an issue of either one or the other, but both.
BUILDING CONFIDENCE IN GOD
Development of a proper overall perspective is essential to re-entry adjustment. Most importantly, however, an MK needs a healthy perspective on the God who controls his or her life. Joseph is perhaps the most well-known example of a "third-culture kid." Joseph was unique because he never seemed to lose his equilibrium. He had an unshakable confidence in God’s person, purpose, promise, and process. The MK needs this same type of perspective.
After attending a re-entry seminar and then starting college, one girl wrote, "Yes, I do get lonely, and making friends is not as easy as it would be in a group of MKs. But God is definitely the same here as he is anywhere else in the world."
A proper perspective of God is a solid foundation for building and reinforcing the healthy self-view so critical to making a good adjustment. And there is a base for evaluating the experience of transition, including culture shock, being an MK, and changing values.
The re-entry seminar should also address specific problem areas and the development of practical living skills. Issues such as dating, establishing status, learning how to learn in a new environment, and dealing with grief and depression, must be confronted. Confidence-building skills such as opening and managing a checking account, how to shop for various items, and how to manage your time, should not be neglected.
AFTER RE-ENTRY, THEN WHAT?
Post-re-entry care is also important if ongoing development and full release of potential are to be realized. Dave Early of Wycliffe Bible Translators has pointed out that no true cross-cultural adjustment occurs unless a person is fully immersed in the culture. In the immersion stage questions are clearly defined, needs cease to be vague anxieties, and specific concerns surface.
MKs begin to ask questions like: How do I use a library? Why do other students seem so shallow? Where can I go for the holidays? Is anyone really concerned about missions, or even international affairs? Why do I feel out of it? How do I get a driver’s license? A network of care can provide answers to these questions and help to meet needs.
A caring community on a Christian college campus can help by forming an MK or International Club where common backgrounds and interests meet intellectual, sociological, and psychological needs. A big brother/sister program involving MKs who are upperclassmen helps to establish contact between people with similar backgrounds. The hospitality of local churches and an alert college administration that provides services and programs to meet the needs of MKs are also an essential part of a caring network.
It is important that qualified counselors be identified and made available to MKs. Counseling care begun in a re-entry seminar should be followed up by counselors qualified to work with MKs.
CHURCH MINISTRY TO MKS
The church or churches that financially support the missionary family have an opportunity for a special "hands on" ministry by helping with the re-entry transition. The church can provide a home away from home and a family away from family. An MK may not always need the caring support of the church, but just in case, it’s great to know it’s there. The initiative to open the way for the MK must be taken by the home church, the mission board, and church families who may be interested.
Other MK needs can be met through a caring network of doctors, lawyers, counselors, and home hosts who make themselves available for at least the first two years an MK is back in the home country. A communications network must be put in place in order to facilitate this. This caring Christian community should have the resources necessary to meet the specialized needs of re-entering MKs as they encounter various problems, difficulties, and frustrations.
Good re-entry adjustment is not an event. It is a process that continues throughout the entire life of the cross-cultural sojourner. Help from family members, school staff, and the Christian community is crucial for successful adjustment. Pre-departure contacts and input help the MK to cope with conflicts from the past and create positive expectations for entry. The re-entry seminar meets the sojourner at the point of crisis and helps to maintain perspective and equilibrium through the period of early adjustment. The ongoing care of a variety of agencies and individuals insure that the MK will continue to make progress toward security.
Those who are already active in the lives of MKs can encourage others to become involved at other needed points of intervention. If care is to be made available to all MKs, parents must take the initiative in preparing the way for adjustment and in encouraging their children to take advantage of available services.
Not long ago, while speaking at a retreat, a 40-year-old MK told me through a veil of tears, "I have struggled all my life with issues I didn’t understand about myself. Where were the people like this to help us 25 years ago?"
Today, we have a team of dedicated people around the world to help develop and release the potential of MKs. We have the ability to construct a network to care for the missionary family in the belief that MKs can make a marked impact on the world for our Lord and his kingdom. God willing, 25 years from now no one will need to ask, "Where were the people when I needed them?"
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