re-entry: you don’t get it [being in uganda was not an ‘experience’]

recently while talking with a few other mcc-returnees the subject turned towards friends, family and stranger’s reactions to our “being home” in north america. we all had a shared experience of some variation of the following reactions:

“well! you must be glad that’s over!”

“that must have been quite the experience. but, now you’re home.”

“what an experience! but now it’s time to move on from that.”

“you are passionate about that place now, but it will fade the longer you are home.”

and i’m writing on behalf of those friends and many other “returnees” who know that you don’t mean to hurt our feelings, or belittle what we’ve been doing while away, we know that you don’t mean to demean our time in a different community by calling it “an experience” or necessarily understanding that we weren’t just somewhere else working, we were living our lives. making friends, falling in and out of love, learning a new way to speak (languages and culturally) and live in a different community.

during our service-term we spent a huge portion of our time forming relationships and community. we immersed ourselves in new culture and new work with new friends and people who would become our families. our leaving these communities, for many of us, feels as if we were betraying this community. we are grieving.

when you talk of our time with mcc we assume that you don’t mean to imply that we were just playing or having a good time while we were in-service. we assume that were it you, you would also engage your community and seek out friendship and companionship in your new community. that you would become a part of that community and participate to the fullness of your ability.

but the feeling that we are getting from you is that you just don’t get it.
and in a way, that’s okay.
you may not have lived in another community far from your own before.
perhaps your travel experiences are few, or consist of large groups being lead through large foreign cities and week-long-mission-trips with vetted and seasoned hosts in the host country or city.

but in a way we feel like we’re doing the bulk of the work, trying to meet you where you are and choosing to not engage in conversation about our time away because it seems like too much work. this isn’t your fault. its just really difficult for us.

it is difficult for us to find words to answer a question like “how was africa/china/appalachia/haiti/cambodia/nicaragua/etc.?” or the question of “how was it?”

well, how where the last three to five years of your life? can you tell me in a sentence? do you have an answer prepared?

and to an extent we realize that it is not fair to get upset about this question. perhaps you know no other place to start than a huge-over-arching question like “how was it?” you’re not getting a glazed look necessarily because i don’t want to answer, but probably because three years worth of stories, adventures, heart-break, tears, triumph and failure are whizzing through my head and i have no idea where to start. what do you want to hear? what do you not want to hear? what can i say that will not solidify stereotypes you have?

perhaps you could say something along these lines:
* tell me about the community you were a part of. who were you living with?
* tell me about the church you attended. what did you see god move? how can i pray?
* what was your job title? what was the best part of your work?
* [bonus points] do you want to return? (only if you ask in a non-accusatory tone.)

and finally, moving from the rant on behalf of the corporate returnees to the more personal: please do not say to me that my life in uganda was something in the past tense. please do not tell me that my passion and love for uganda and my friends and family there will fade with time. please do not tell me that i have to ‘move on’ from caring about a place that is not what you define as my “home.”

when i share with you that i love uganda, deeply and intensely, do not pat my hand and say “one day that will fade.” when i share with you that i long to return to uganda, and feel that i one day will but am not totally sure how yet, please refrain from referring to a calling to love as “youthful zest” that “will wane.”

typically i wouldn’t rant so much in a public forum, but the more i rant and the more i share what i’m feeling regarding being back in the states and talking about uganda with people, the more i hear similar things from others. others who have also returned and who express love and respect of their new home and culture and are met with statements and responses that we know are not meant to be inflammatory or backhanded, but they sure come off that way.

sometimes we’ll need help in the grocery store because we’re not sure if that is a zucchini or not. or help navigating new technologies that didn’t exist when we left. sometimes we’ll burst into tears in the deli section of the grocery store, or stare at the 200 choices of crisps as if in a trance. we’ll do weird things like get excited about drinking tap water, or want to work really hard to conserve water in ways that may seem crazy. our speech patterns or use of words may have changed, we might sound funny. we may not know how to greet you properly…do we hug? shake hands? make eye contact? bow? nod?

it truly is confusion, not trying to show off. trust me, no one wants to be that woman standing in the bread section of the store paralyzed by the sheer number of loaves with tears falling from her eyes. no one wants to be that guy who is overwhelmed by the rapid-fire speech of north america and has to say “um? sorry?” six times a paragraph.

on behalf of my fellow reverse-culture-shocked brothers and sisters i ask you to be gentle with us. we’re dealing with a lot and managing a lot of things that we don’t necessarily know how to cope with or explain. we want you to ask questions and we want to share with you but are still learning how. it is our hope that you will also be willing to learn with us.

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6 thoughts on “re-entry: you don’t get it [being in uganda was not an ‘experience’]

  1. Thera, thank you for writing this…I think Dale and I have escaped a lot of this because we are older, married, have lived a total of 13 years overseas, and perhaps also because we have friends who do ‘get it’ and ask us things like, oh, wasn’t it hard to leave all your friends there, and such meaningful work? What do you miss the most?” Blessings as you grieve, and work, at meeting people where they are. God will take you back, I’m sure of it. Karamoja will never “get out of your system”–you are called to be a person at home in many places. Love you!

  2. Thera, I wish your blog had a ‘like’ button. Or better yet, a ‘love’ button. I have felt like this so many times in my life and I know I’ll feel this way again someday. I long to go back ‘home’ (for me it’s South Africa)… one day I’ll get there. Thanks for putting into words what always failed me. (My re-entry retreat was 6 years after being moved back to the US. It was unbelievably helpful and in hindsight, it happened at exactly the right time with exactly the right people – although maybe another retreat a few years earlier would have been equally helpful!)

    • charity- i’m not sure how i’d be coping with this…transition?…re-learning how to be in this place? whatever its called…without the aid of the internet and being connected with people who have also walked this strange path. thank you for sharing!

  3. After reading this, i was talking with Kaitlyn & she said i should post a reply, so here goes:

    While Heather & i have been blessed with supportive families (who get us) & friends, we have experienced this kind of patronizing-without-meaning-to-be-mean remarks.

    In my own experience, i’ve often found myself feeling that i need to somehow defend how i’ve chosen to live out the calls i have felt in my life; to live simply, justly, humbly upon the earth & with others. If i may reply a bit to Gann as well, i think that this, for me, seems to come down to age as opposed to married versus single life. Even the choices that we have made in living out our marriage, we’ve felt challenged by people of older generations. (e.g. “When are you going to start a family.” “Well, we’ve already created a new family by getting married.”)This niggling need to defend choices & beliefs is one of the reasons that i wish i were older now.

    I have been reading Kathleen Norris’ Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, in which she reflects a lot on the value of monastic people; people whom i, & maybe you also, feel a kinship with in my chosen life vocation. “It’s hard to say what monastic people mean to us,” she writes. “I suppose they’re a lot like poets: nice to have around until they ask to be taken seriously.” For me, striving to live in a prophetic already-but-not-yet fashion has put me into this category in many exciting situations, as well as many infuriatingly frustrating situations. I remember being in university and suggesting to a faculty member that we strive to follow the Rule of Christ (Matthew 18) when dealing with conflict. “Yes, but you can’t expect people to actually follow such a thing,” was the response. Yes, all those nice things Jesus said are all well & good, but it’s very difficult to envision such a world, or even such a church community, in which people actually strive to follow those things as fully as humanly possible. (& perhaps i’m not giving enough grace here, but hey, i can rant too.)

    I know a few older people who’ve led “alternative” lives of deep conviction & calling, people i look up to & think about on an almost daily basis. These are people who now (seem to) have no need or compulsion to defend the way they’ve chosen to live out their faith. For them it was simple; they kept going down the path. In all my struggling, i hope i can look back on my life in a similar way.

    Apologies for the length of this comment; i guess i had more to say than i thought.

    • joel- thank you for your comment(s)! i certainly understand the feeling of needing to somehow defend how i’ve chosen to life out my life calls, too. (perhaps this isn’t news as i have indeed been ranting a lot lately.)

      i love that you quoted Kathleen Norris’ “Dakota”. that book (and a lot of her writings) had a very profound effect on me and my spiritual life when i started reading her while in seminary. you are correct that i do feel a kinship (and have deep admiration of) with monastic people. (i would also add mystics to this list…) to live prophetically means living outside of the accepted cultural narrative most of the time, and well meaning people want to pull us back to what is culturally acceptable as “normal”. i know they mean well, but a lot of the time i do struggle with it feeling belittling.

      as much as i hate to admit it, if there was not struggle to live out lives of deep conviction and calling i would question it. there is a lot to refute and unpack in that last sentence but i’m going to leave it with no more explanation.

      thank you, as ever, for more food for thought–and for reflecting with me. i’m very glad to have you as a part of my “alternative” community.

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