More change on the way

More change on the way

It seems to me that every time I come back from a trip abroad, a new shop has opened on my local high street.  I don’t know if they wait for me to go away, in the hope that I won’t notice, but it’s a regular occurrence.  Since I travel quite frequently, this adds up to quite a turnover of stores.  Over time, the character of the high street changes, but most people wouldn’t notice, as the change is gradual and incremental.

But if I were to come back after a year or two away, the difference would be much more marked.  I would still recognise the high street, but I could clearly see it’s different.  The supermarket has changed hands (again!).  The post office has gone.  The bank has turned into a posh restaurant.  The greengrocer’s is now a charity shop.  We grieve (just a little bit) the loss.

This is a small example of what is called ‘reverse culture shock’.  It never ceases to amaze me how few mission workers, particularly independent ones, are prepared for the fact that things are not the same as they were when they left.  Life has moved on without them.  The sense of things not being quite the same can lead to a feeling of not quite belonging any more.  Once the euphoria of meeting family and friends again has worn off, returning mission workers can be left feeling slightly disorientated.  It’s a mild form of grieving – grieving for a lost past that cannot be recovered.

La bancaAdd into the changing high street the fact that church has changed (there may be a new vicar, old friends have left), family has changed (granny has died, mum and dad have moved into a house that was never home to me), and society has changed around us in too many ways to mention, and reverse culture shock can become quite an issue.  On top of what has changed in our environment, we have changed too while we’ve been away.  We’ve learned a new language, taken on aspects of a new culture, and seen God at work in an entirely different context.  So we can’t reasonably expect to fit back in where we left off, whether it was three decades ago, or just a year.  These changes can lead to loss of friendships, dislocation of family, and alienation from church.

If you find yourself feeling unaccountably emotional (tearful, angry, impatient, frustrated) – or indeed curiously numb – some 6-8 weeks after your return, it’s possible you’re suffering from reverse culture shock.  This can go on for quite some time, but recognising it for what it is will be the best way to start dealing with it.  Having a proper, formal debrief can help – either with your church or agency, or if they don’t feel competent to do it, please contact Syzygy to arrange one with us.  Talking about it with somebody who understands can help normalise your experience and facilitate your adaptation.  If you’re the church, family, or friends of people returning from abroad, watch for signs of reverse culture shock and be prepared to help with it.  For more information about it, see our article which is part of our guide to re-entry.

Overseas mission has a habit of knocking off some of our sharp edges.  As a result, we don’t fit back into the square holes we came out of.  That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us.  We’ve just grown.