Reverse Culture Shock: To the Loved Ones.
Over the past couple of weeks we have been diving into what Reverse Culture Shock is, what the symptoms are, and how to deal with it as a returnee. The last portion of this mini series is designed to help loved ones of returnees understand the transition period better so that confusion and conflict don’t take root in the relationships that are most important.
A couple of months ago I was talking to my mom about this very topic. When I returned home over a year and a half ago, I became frustrated and slightly discouraged that no one seemed to be asking me questions about my time overseas. My family didn’t ask many questions either. I knew they were excited that I was home and that we could all be together face to face, but for some reason they didn’t ask about my life in Hungary. I was confused and hurt.
After a year of wrestling through those feelings, I finally talked to my mom and dad about it and our talks were enlightening. My mom told me that she wanted to talk about my time in Hungary, but I always seemed on edge. She wasn’t sure how to approach the topic, so she didn’t bring it up. I don’t blame her. Apparently I had unintentionally isolated myself from a healthy relationship with her without even being aware.
In a similar way, my dad didn’t really know what was going on in my mind. He thought I was completely fine, because I wasn’t normally good at being vulnerable with my feelings. Looking back and realizing my inability to describe what I was going through, along with their timidity in asking questions, I see how there was a big misunderstanding. Both sides wanted to talk but we didn’t know how. I know this isn’t the case for many people, but for those who do struggle to talk about things dear to their heart, I’m sure you understand.
To the Family and Friends of Returnees:
To all the families and friends of those who have recently returned from living overseas, please know that your patience and love is needed. When I returned home, I had no idea that it was going to be so difficult. Looking back on that season of my life, I wish I could have explained what I was feeling but I didn’t know how to put it into words. In the same way, You may realize that your loved one isn’t their “normal” self either, but he or she may not know how to talk about it. Here are three simple things that you can do that can help:
1) Be Patient - It may take time for them to open up.
2) Don’t probe or pry - They may not be ready to spill all the stories and feelings.
3) Be available - When they are ready to talk, be there for them.
You may also notice how the returnee has changed in ways before they do. Their dress may be different, speech may be different, and their personality might even be a little different. I know my personality changed a bit and my style definitely changed. The difference in my style certainly confused my family. I didn’t even realize I was dressing differently until my dad told me a year later! Being different isn’t a negative thing, so be careful not to condemn the changes. However, if something bad is taking root in them (a critical spirit, frustration, or unnecessary irritation with “American things”, etc.), simply pray and look for an opportunity to lovingly speak with them about it.
When your friend or family member returns you will be going through your own transition as well. Your loved one is finally back in town, yet both of you have grown differently, so there will be a time of learning for the both of you to endure. Putting in the work to build that relationship again will be a blessing to both you and the returnee.
One way to build your relationship again is to ask questions and truly listen to the answers. So often people told me, “Oh I want to hear all about your trip!” So I would proceed to talk about different things that happened and three minutes later the person would change the topic and start talking about something entirely different. Whether the person meant it or not, the message I received at that point was, “I don’t think your trip was very important so let’s talk about me.”
As I look back at those conversations, I’ve realized that those people actually did care, but they didn’t know how to relate to what I was saying. They simply couldn’t understand where I was coming from. So in an effort to help you avoid such misunderstandings, and to communicate better with a returnee, here’s 5 helpful questions to ask.
“What are some words you would use to describe your time living in____?”- This question is good for getting the conversation started, and is not meant to be the entire conversation. Also, if the person lived in that country longer than 3 weeks or so, ask about their time living in that context as opposed to asking about their trip.
“Can we set up a time to talk about your experience in _____? I’d love to see some pictures too!” –Asking to set up a time to talk about their experience overseas will allow the person to gather thoughts, think of stories, collect photos and prepare emotionally to talk about the place they recently left. Sometimes it can be hard to bring up the memories, so preparation is helpful. This will also remind you of the primary reason why you’ve set up the time to talk in the first place: To talk about the returnee’s experience overseas.
“How is your transition back into your home culture going? Are many things and people different?” – These questions are for people who intend on really getting deep with the returnee and being an anchor for them while they process through their transition.
“Tell me about your friends overseas…” – Talking about the friends they made overseas will bring both joy and grief to the returnee. Remembering the people who made them feel at home or who challenged them the most will bring a flood of memories to their mind. It may also be a difficult question to answer.
“What was your favorite part of culture over there, and how would you like to incorporate parts of that culture into your new life here?” – This is a golden question. More than likely the culture there had a huge impact on the person while they lived abroad so there will be things that have become a part of them without even realizing it. Bringing those things up and thinking about them will help the returnee process and learn how they can incorporate those things into their life in the States.
Although I have only supplied five questions, there are many more you could ask! You can simply view these as the diving board into the pool.
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