The thing about culture shock is that it’s virtually inevitable but can be really subtle. Students of these psychological dynamics say, however, that reentry and reverse culture shock can often be worse for missionaries, because one assumes one’s culture of origin is already familiar and unlikely to cause much difficulty. There can also be an added dimension of guilt about leaving the work unfinished (because it never is finished), and there can be an identity crisis if “missionary” became a primary self-identifier. And on the complications pile.
Then there are the dynamics our amazing third-culture kids have experienced. That’s all its own mess (which deserves its own post). Suffice it to say our family has been experiencing transition worthy of the name as we relocated from Peru to middle Tennessee to Los Angeles.
I remember when I realized I had been in culture shock in Peru. I think, for me, training did its job. I was prepared and fairly self-aware, I tried to do the things meant to manage the experience, and I never had an overwhelming or explosive psychological crisis. But, like I said, it’s virtually inevitable. The day I realized I had been in culture shock was the first day I suddenly felt normal, about a year and a half after our move to Peru. I realized I had been in a constant state of low-level anxiety and frustration for so long that I had forgotten what if felt like to live without those pressures. When I finally felt we were home and things were like they were meant to be—because I had changed, not because Peru had changed!—I was shocked to experience contentment and peace. And to realize I had been living daily without them. Of course, in retrospect, marriage and team dynamics were far more difficult because of my state of mind.
Now, I never changed so much that I was at risk of “going native.” My gringo heart just couldn’t reconcile with many aspects of Peruvian culture. To be fair, I’m a malcontent by nature, so my culture of origin always got the same critique too. But this meant that there were many aspects of life I was very ready to leave behind when it came time for us to depart. To some extent, this made reentry easier: I had no idealized version of circumstances, either in Peru or in the US (per my general life rule: keep expectations low and you won’t be disappointed). And, contrary to many portrayals of reentry, I was not particularly overwhelmed by the experience of consumerism and excess in the US. (Technical note: I believe this may be due to a combination of (a) being in a relatively globalized city, (b) the internet allowing more continual connection with US culture than previous missionaries had, and (c) regular furloughs). I never had the experience, which has become something of a cliché in reentry literature, of standing dumfounded before the vast array of options on the toothpaste aisle. I like options. Competition and continual R&D make sense to me in a capitalistic context, regardless of whether its good. It’s excessive and weird alongside my Peruvian experience, sure, but not particularly disconcerting.
I was also really excited to get into doctoral studies—one of our primary motivations for wrapping things up in Peru—so that helped with the identity crisis issue. We had a clear direction, a next thing. Meg was eager to get back into teaching after her wonderful experiences in the Peruvian public school system. And we were, like most missionaries, tired. It was a blow to my ego to let that admission onto the scales, because I wanted to feel that I could have stayed in the field indefinitely if that had been where we sensed God’s leading. And no doubt, God would have provided in that case. But the raw truth is that I was exhausted and didn’t know where the resources would come from if I was to keep making a contribution to the church’s spiritual growth. So reentry was looking a lot like recovery by the time we boarded the plane, again making it seem like it wasn’t going to be all that difficult.
We were as prepared as we could be with an understanding of both reentry and third-culture kids. We had a generous and thoughtful support system in our sending churches. We had peace of mind, because God was at work in the church, through Peruvian leaders and new gringo Christian partners. And we were hopeful about the next adventure. But let me be honest: there was a lot of turbulence to come after that flight “home.” I was heartbroken about leaving both our church family and my life-long friends, Kyle and Larissa. I was anxious about getting into a PhD program. Meg was anxious about getting a job (though I never doubted schools would want to hire her). If I got into a program, our kids were going to live with their grandparents just long enough to make relocating really emotionally complicated in the midst of their ongoing loss of home (Peru). Meg and I were looking forward to quality time with our Stateside church family but dreading the experience of institutional church. And however committed we were to never giving up a missional lifestyle, I couldn’t shake the fear that we were going to sink inevitably into the mire of consumeristic, over-scheduled, semi-Christian Americanism.
Just over a year later, I’ve had an experience similar to my realization that I was in culture shock. I am beginning to come out of reentry, and this realization it marked by the startling sensation that I have the emotional energy to recommit to mission. Not ideologically (that’s my whole world) but practically. Shortly after I was accepted to Fuller, a mentor counseled me to get involved in ministry during my coursework. He had done a PhD and served in a church at the same time. I told him I was looking forward to focusing fully on research. His response was, “Well, maybe I have more of a heart for ministry than you do.” Don’t worry, that’s his style—and mine too—so he knows that pulling punches doesn’t serve me very well. He was just pouring salt in a wound I was trying to ignore, and sometimes that’s what being salt means, just as being light sometimes means illuminating dark corners that are meant to be hidden. My desire to focus on scholarship was not just an intention to concentrate my energy and do the very best work possible (that was how I rationalized it) but a way of coping with emotional and spiritual exhaustion. I knew (somewhat subconsciously) I didn’t have the resources to engage in ministry at all, let alone attempt to do a PhD in my characteristically all-or-nothing way while also attending to my family’s reentry experience and to the spiritual needs of other people. My mind repelled the thought of that scenario like the same poles of two magnets. The bottom line was that after six and a half years in Peru, I had found my limit emotionally and spiritually; I had not found my limit intellectually, so jumping feet first into the PhD was easy by comparison. In other words, reentry was, for me, a heap of emotional distress that kept me from dealing with the need to heal and begin down a path of new growth, which would allow me to confront some of those emotions. It’s obviously a vicious cycle.
I’m still mourning relationships marred by distance. I still cry sometimes when I hear a song like “Rivers and Roads.” I still feel guilty about abandoning people I love, which causes me to avoid contact with them, which makes me feel guiltier. We still don’t feel comfortable in institutional church. Our kids are still struggling. I still have anxiety about discovering what living for God’s mission means for our family now. And, in any event, the first couple of terms of my program have taken everything I had. But I’ve come (unexpectedly) to the point where I feel able to ask how to grow, retool, and equip for a new season of mission. They say time heals all wounds, though I doubt that very much. Still, some of mine have healed enough let me tend to others and imagine the possibility of getting back to work. I have no doubt that my life is bent toward the academy, and I don’t think I could feel a better fit than I do in my present course of studies, but I also know that my life is about participation in God’s mission. What that combination will mean is still emerging, but the point of this post is that reentry has been defined by the difficulties that plagued my capacity to explore that question. In some ways, these experiences are so personal and particular, I wonder whether they’re worth publishing, but my hope is that a bit of transparency might serve others going through reentry anyway. I certainly couldn’t have written this a year ago, so maybe the clarity of hindsight is of some value, whatever the reader’s situation.