Recently I posted this article, listing dos and don’ts for churches welcoming missionaries back from the field. I’m now going to do the opposite: a set of tips for the returning missionaries themselves. Having been through the transition back to the home culture several times, much of what I write below is based upon personal experience.
(NB Most of these are applicable to any returning ex-patriate).
Here we go…
1. Expect to feel like an alien for the first few weeks back home. Feeling disorientated, lethargic, confused, detached exhausted and frustrated is quite the norm at this time. The only completely effective cure is time: the longer you are back, the easier it will get, but expecting the negative feelings – and preparing for them as best you can – will help ease the way.
2. You are likely to be shocked by the ignorance of many folk regarding the country you’ve been working in, the work you’ve been doing or even how mission organizations work. Expect this (you’ll be pleasantly surprised if it doesn’t happen) and try to be patient and realize that everyone has busy lives here and that most have not been absorbed by your comings and goings as much as you might like to think. In fact, most people will probably stop asking you about where you’ve been after a week or so. I’m really not sure why this is the case – maybe it’s a desire to see you ‘fit back in’ and become like everyone else again. This is not what you want, and you know it will never completely happen!
3. Driving, even if it is technically easier, will be harder to start with as you relearn a whole new set of road rules. Also, if you drive on the opposite side of the road, don’t expect to readapt instantly. For the first week home, I like to always have a passenger on board, who says “LEFT!” at every junction (and particularly at roundabouts). Once, I actually drove 50 yards on the right before realizing! You will probably also get into the wrong side of the car, maybe for months after returning!
4. Plan your ‘escape’ soon after your arrival. The initial days back home are both exciting and stressful at the same time. You’re pleased to see friends and family again, but the constant attention is likely to wear you out. You will also be asked the same questions by almost everyone – here are the usuals:
5. There will be some conversations you will struggle to follow, even though they are in your mother tongue. Again, this is due to cultural references and ways of speaking to which you are unaccustomed. With time, you will tune back into these.
6. If you are returning long term, there are likely to be hidden set-up costs. Our oven needed a costly repair, our dishwasher was no longer working and our garden fence needed replacing. We had no DVD player, no microwave and all the spices in our spice rack had gone off! Even the very act of filling your larder/freezer will cost you a lot. Prepare for this extra cost if you can.
7. People will openly express their shock at something you don’t know about the home culture, even though they know you’ve been away for years. This is another strange one – I can only assume it’s part of the culture! Things like: “Do you mean to say you don’t know what a tom-tom is?!” “What do you mean, you haven’t heard of Will.i.am?!” or “How can you not know what league Chelsea are in?!” All you can do is reiterate that you’ve been out of the country or (better still) make a joke of it “I know – I’m so out of touch, eh?”
8. Beware of weight gain: you are likely to put on several pounds in your first weeks back home, unless you are very careful. This is partly due to being fed by supporters and partly due to the vast range of processed and/or fattening foods available compared with the country you’ve been working in. Also (if you’re like me) some people eat more when under stress, and transitioning back into the home culture is very stressful indeed!
9. Some things you say – which seem perfectly normal to you – may shock or even offend others. This is purely due to the differing set of cultural norms you have been used to. Example: saying “You’re old” to an old person – this would be a respectful thing to point out in much of Africa; in the West it can be taken almost as an insult!
10. You’re likely to be shocked by: (i) materialistic attitudes and practices (“Come and look at my new kitchen – it cost £12,000”), (ii) moral standards and norms (ie how young women dress, advertisements, television programmes, bad language) and (iii) the cold response of non-Christians when you say you are a missionary. The cost of just about everything is likely to shock you, too.
11. If someone says “Isn’t it hot?” it’s best just to agree with their assessment of the weather, even if it’s ‘barely warm enough’ to you. This is certainly true in Britain where, culturally, you almost never disagree with these semi-rhetorical weather questions!
12. Be proactive in making church visits happen; merely putting a note in your prayer letter saying you’re available to take services is unlikely to jam your inbox overnight! Sending personal e-mails, making phone calls or (best of all) face-to-face contact are all more likely to yield results.
13. Try and do something to help you sleep well at night – insomnia or disturbed sleep are terribly common during those first weeks. Why not plan a half hour evening walk in the country, or listen to music which will relax you? You could even try herbal teas, or other natural products known to calm and aid sleep. Oh, and no computer work for a couple of hours before hitting the hay!
14. Some friends who have barely kept in touch whilst you were away will welcome you back warmly and you will pick up from where you left off, in spite of the lack of contact. Other people who you were good friends with before going overseas, you may no longer “click” with – you have changed, they have changed, your histories are now different and your values may overlap less. Don’t be surprised when this happens.
15. And finally, remember that you will generally feel more at ease with other people who have lived overseas, probably for the rest of your life.
4 Comments posted on "15 Top Tips for Missionaries Returning ‘Home’"
Jimmy on August 29th, 2012 at 9:46 pm #
great words and wisdom Rob this is true wherever you go back to!
Neil Zubot on August 30th, 2012 at 7:44 am #
Good insights! Thanks for that!
Philibert OUEDRAOGO on August 30th, 2012 at 9:20 am #
I do like it. Blessings and hi to you all and to AbC members
Vickers family on August 30th, 2012 at 10:41 am #
Great stuff Rob, we can vouch for many of these from our first experience of returning to the UK this summer and feel more prepared for our longer term return in a few years time. Thanks for sharing xx