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Coming Out of the Fog

By Howard and Bonnie Lisech

Have you ever been in a dense fog when you just cannot see nearby objects that are familiar and normally visible? Years ago, air travel was hampered and planes were grounded when dense fog descended. Fog limits our vision and keeps us from seeing our surroundings the way they really are. When a heavy fog settles in, our surroundings don't change, we simply lose our ability to view them clearly, and we lose our bearings. When the sun comes out and dissipates the fog, we realize that nothing moved, and everything is just the same as before.

Whether we have been away a few weeks or a few years, we can and usually do have unrealistic expectations about our reentry into our own culture. Before we left we were solidly entrenched in our church, ministry, school, work, and home life. Our values were driven by those relationships and experiences. When we return home everything can feel very different. Some of the things that were important to us before we left fail to impact us in the same way now that we are back.

Getting good grades, getting a job advancement, watching the playoffs, purchasing a new car, assuming more responsibility for ministry at church—all these may seem less attractive or fulfilling. After working with needy children living in a garbage dump in Mexico, hiking dangerous mountain trails to a remote village in the mountains of Papua New Guinea, trying to learn language in China, or finding a nomad camp in a Middle Eastern desert, some of our previously important activities may now seem trivial. In fact, some of the things that supported our sense of well being before we left now seem tasteless, dull, less desirable, and perhaps a waste of time, money, and effort.

Welcome to the fog of reentry. We didn’t expect it like we did the stress of culture shock, but it is just as real and just as inevitable. After all, we are coming home! When we are in a “fog” we know that our surroundings don’t change—we simply can’t see them or experience them in the same way we did before. This can be unnerving, sometimes extremely unnerving, and uncomfortable. When the sun comes out and begins to burn the fog and mist away, slowly but surely our landmarks and our surroundings come into clearer focus. Our view is no longer hindered by the unexpected fog.

In reentry, two processes are happening at the same time.

  1. Things may have changed a little or a lot in your absence as you were immersed in another culture. You may come home and someone else is doing the church ministry you poured your life into. You might have a new boss at your job. Hundreds of little things change every day, but if we aren't here to adjust to them, they can make us feel out of touch.
  2. More importantly, you have changed. No matter how long or how short your immersion in another culture, you will be significantly different as you return home. Before you leave home, you can’t realize how much the cross-cultural experience will impact you.

Several years ago I saw an illustration (concept adapted from LIFE Ministries training materials) depicting people going from their home culture as stick figures with squares representing the values, ideals, and dreams of the home culture. The host culture was depicted by stick figures that were round. Their roundness was the sum total of their values, ideals, and dreams.

Before we leave home, we fit perfectly in our square holes because our squareness was developed from the time we were infants, just as their roundness was perfectly developed as they grew, thrived, and adapted to their culture and values.

Seldom do we realize that whether we are squares or rounds, when we enter another culture, our values, dreams, desires, and experiences are slightly shaped by the host culture. We quickly learn that in many Asian cultures, we leave our shoes at the door. In some cultures, you don’t knock on the door of a house—you cough out in the front yard to announce your presence—and so on. After practicing local customs for a period of time, we come back home and are instantly aware of different practices in our home culture. The fact that you remember that different custom proves you have changed.

We may even discover that we prefer some values or aspects of the host culture. Many returnees enjoy their new values and experiences and love to share them with others. Sometimes they are taken aback when friends and family reject these newly acquired values or practices.

This is proof that we have now become rounded squares instead of true squares because of our cross-cultural experiences. We realize we really don't fit quite as perfectly in our “home culture” holes as we did before. Likewise, if one comes from a round culture into our square culture for some period of time, they may realize upon returning home that they have now become squarish rounds, and they don’t exactly fit into their home culture either. It’s not about wrong or right, it’s about different.

If we don’t recognize how we have changed, we can come home with a critical spirit. We can fall into the trap of criticizing or questioning our church’s wisdom. If we observed joyful believers in Guatemala who only had two meals per day, it doesn't seem right to purchase carpet for the youth group room or spend thousands to pave the parking lot. If we sat for four hours on a log in an African church service, spending money for padding for the pews seems like a big waste. Remember, before you left for your missions assignment, you would have seen these examples as perfectly appropriate. It's true, you have changed!

Reentry stress is real. You are experiencing it or you will experience it at some level. Sometimes you have gone through the reentry experience before, therefore you don't expect it after the second or third trip. However, there are always some reentry adjustments that will have to be made. Sometimes reentry can be more stressful after multiple trips than it was after the first trip.

Many people do not recognize that reentry stress is a real issue. Therefore, they have trouble understanding that they have changed significantly. Someone once said, “When you travel to another culture and people, your heart becomes enlarged in such a way that it will never be as small as it was before you left.” We fall in love with people overseas. All the nameless faces we have seen in missionary publications now have names. Their hurts, fears, and joys seem more important to us since some of them are our friends. You know and remember who they are and where they live. They made a meal for you with the best they had. They sacrificed a month’s wages to cook a chicken for you. When you experience these things, or a hundred others like them, you begin to realize you are a different person from the one that left some time ago.

Realizing that your values, your priorities, your prayer life, and you are different is a big step in making the adjustment to becoming a valuable, contributing believer in your church and your daily life. This is the first step in the reflection and readjustments to your own culture.

God wants you to be a blessing to your family, your church, and those you influence. We often feel discouraged, disconnected, disappointed, aloof, out of it, and sometimes just plain weird after arriving home. Sometimes it takes a long time to readjust and begin to feel normal again. Reentry stress rears its ugly head in many different and disconcerting ways. Be careful not to criticize values and decisions while you are still in the “fog.” Give yourself the gift of time. Discipline yourself to use the tools God provides for you to readjust successfully and become a more valuable member of your own culture.