"Who are YOU?" said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, "I-I hardly know, sir, just at present-at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then."
"What do you mean by that?" said the Caterpillar sternly. "Explain yourself!"
"I can't explain MYSELF, I'm afraid, sir," said Alice, "because I'm not myself, you see."
"I don't see," said the Caterpillar.
(Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 5)
Last week, my husband and I got to see the stage production of Looking Glass Alice and I couldn't help thinking how much her experience compared to the way I felt in returning to America.
I was probably overly confident as I stepped off the plane in Chicago. I had experienced closure of sorts in China, was eagerly anticipating getting engaged and married and felt that I would be able to move forward at the same rate of emotional and spiritual growth that I had the past five years in China. But, like Alice, my reality was severely altered. When you come back from being assimilated into another culture, you have changed in ways that you can't even imagine, much less explain to another person.
As I packed up my apartment at the end of my time in China, I popped the pictures out of their frames, which were too bulky for a suitcase, thinking how much like the pictures I was--staying the same, but just changing frames. I had no idea that not only was my frame changing, but that I was an entirely different picture than I was when I left five years before.
Two months after returning from China, I wrote:
Sept. 18, 2010
"Had a major meltdown Thursday night. I think the tiredness and emotions of the past few weeks finally just needed a release. It seems like I'm in tears every couple weeks and that has never been my pattern. But I think a lot of it is reverse culture shock. As expected, it's strange to work in the exact same place I did before where everyone assumes that I, too, am the same."
In China, I taught no more than 16 hours a week, leaving the rest of my time open to develop relationships with Chinese people. An extrovert, this was a dream come true for me. You mean my JOB is to hang out with people?! So it was no wonder that when I returned to America and immediately entered into a 50 hour a week teaching job (and was planning a wedding), I felt life was like a rope that I could never quite grasp as it was constantly slipping through my fingers, chafing and burning along the way.
A little over two months after I returned to America, I wrote:
Sept. 30, 2010
"The weeks are flying by. I can't believe it's already the 4th week of school. Every second has been accounted for, every spare minute claimed for some important task. I miss being."
Nov. 13, 2010
"This is such a strange time of my life. It's uncomfortable having my time shoved into a vice and compressed down to minutes. And I'm still missing China..."
Not only had my expectations for amount of time I would have for people and quiet time in a day changed, but many of my simple life routines had altered as well. With fresh vegetable stands outside my apartment complex year-round, no car, a grocery store a mile away and little access to western food, my eating habits in China had changed drastically.
Along with that, all the people where I lived would come home from work and school to have lunch as a family and NAP from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. I eventually followed suit. It was glorious. Even my laundry routines changed. Five years later, I STILL can't bear to dry my clothes after having to hang dry them for five years.
My expectations of relationships shifted as well. In America, I had forgotten that with many people, you have to plan several weeks in advance if you want to hang out. In China, I would plan in advance in my head, but invite someone to do something the day before or maybe two days beforehand (otherwise, you'd get stood up!).
As I reflect back on this rocky time of life, I think I should have taken a bit more time to re-adapt to my home culture. If I could do it again, I wouldn't have taken such a demanding job at such a time of transition. As I mentioned in a previous post, I would have sought out counseling to work through some of this change and asked for more help from friends.
But it's difficult when you are trapped in the looking glass to know exactly how to get yourself out.
"So you think you're changed, do you?"
"I'm afraid I am, sir," said Alice, "I can't remember things as I used--and I don't keep the same size for ten minutes together!"
(Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 5)
A few weeks after returning to Chicago, I wrote:
Aug. 26, 2010
"Lord, please help me to move on from the last chapter and live fully in this one and the one after that. Prepare my heart. Give me godly counsel and godly perspective...Help me to recognize that no matter where I am, who I'm with or what I'm doing, that my identity will not change. I am a daughter of the King. I am Christ's beloved, bathed and cleansed from sin and shame and allowed to dance and worship before my Creator."
How has living overseas changed you? Have you brought any daily routines back into your passport culture with you?
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This post is day 6 of the series "Re-entry: Reflections on Reverse Culture Shock," a challenge I have taken to write for 31 days. Check out my other posts in the series:
Day 1: Introduction
Day 2: Grieving
Day 3: No One Is Special
Day 4: Wasted Gifts
Day 5: I Never Expected...
Day 6: Identity: Through the Looking Glass
Day 7: Did I mishear God?
Day 8: When You Feel Like Shutting Down
Day 9: Caring for your Dorothy
Day 10: You're Not the Only One Who's Changed
Day 11: 12 Race Day Lessons for Serving Overseas
Day 12: Confessions of an Experience Junkie
Day 13: Longing for Home
Day 14: Readjusting: Same Tools, Different Work Space
Day 15: Book Review: The Art of Coming Home
Day 16: The Story of My "Call"
Day 17: Is Missions a "Higher Calling"?
Day 18: And Then I Fell in Love
Day 19: Is God Calling You Overseas?
Day 20: Life Is Not Seasonal
Day 21: What I Took and What I Left Behind
Day 22: Groundless, Weightless, Homeless
Day 23: When the Nations Come to You
Day 24: The Call to Displacement
Day 25: Scripture Anchors for Re-Entry
Day 26: In the Place of Your Exile
Day 27: Resources for Re-entry
Day 28: A Time for Everything: A Prayer of Leaving
Day 29: Journal: 8 Months After Re-Entry
Day 30: 12 Survival Tips for Re-Entry
Day 31: A Blessing
(Day 32: Writing is Narcissistic (And Four Other Reasons Not to Write)--a reflection on this Write 31 Days experience)
Find many other great 31 day blogs here!
Picture: Arthur Rackham [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Labels: 31 days (2015), China, living cross-culturally, Missions, re-entry, reverse culture shock