When I was born, it was quite the event and a lot of really great people wanted to meet me, or so I’m told. Just a few years later, my kindergarten teacher praised me for being especially polite. And then, in grade school, I was awarded the red, white, and blue Good Citizen badge to wear on my day of honor. I guess I was a pretty big deal, but I’m not surprised, seeing how I was living at the very center of the earth.
Growing up, I remember that news from next door, no matter how trivial, was profoundly more important than what was going on anywhere else on the globe. Therefore, a friend who missed school because of the flu got more attention than a famine in Africa. Weather patterns focused on my home town, as well, as we prayed more for sunshine for a birthday party than we did for people in Asia facing a typhoon.
So it’s no wonder I grew up having to fight against selfish tendencies. Who can blame me, knowing how much God was fixated on me and those in my vicinity?
Somewhere along the way, though, I found out that there was a whole world out there, a world filled with people who were just as big a deal as me—people who missed school and had birthday parties and sometimes suffered calamities beyond my comprehension. Jesus loves all the little children of the world, adults, too, I learned, and he wants them to know about his love.
So as I built my life, getting an education, finding a job, and starting a family, I had an eye on the horizon, not content to stay within my tight borders. In time, I booked tickets from America to an uttermost part, and with my wife and children, stepped onto the plane. It was then that I traded my selfishness for selflessness and self-sacrifice and never looked back as I devoted myself to cross-cultural service.
Oh, that it were that easy.
In Genesis, God tells Cain to be wary, as “sin is crouching at the door,” ready to pounce like a wild animal. For me, self-centeredness is at my door, and it doesn’t hide and wait, it steps up and knocks, like an intrusive neighbor or a persistent salesman.
My wife and son and I are now taking tentative steps to return to in-person church after being away for most of the past year. Last week I attended an outdoor gathering and this past Sunday we all went to the worship service and a picnic after. It does feel good to be starting back again—but it also feels very odd and awkward and overwhelming. It’s not the first time we’ve felt that way, though. It’s strangely similar to what we experienced ten years ago, when we moved from living in the capital city of Taiwan back to southwest Missouri, when we found ourselves dealing with “reverse culture shock.”
If you’re not familiar with “culture shock,” let me explain. in 1951, as the concept was being applied to expats around the world, anthropologist Cora Du Bois defined it as a “malady” you face when you arrive in a new country, “precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all your familiar cues.” She writes,
All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of cues, most of which we do not even carry on a level of conscious awareness. . . . Now suddenly remove all, or most, of these cues—and you have a case of culture shock. No matter how tolerant or broad-minded or full of empathy you may be—a series of props have been knocked out from under you, and more or less acute frustrations are likely to result.
Given time, most of those anxieties subside (at least to an extent) and you become acclimated to your host country, your new home. But that means upon returning to your passport country, you find that you’ve changed—and your old home has probably changed, too, while you’ve been away. You’ve adopted a new set of “familiar cues,” cues that now clash with the people around you. Many find going through this “reverse culture shock” even more difficult than what they experienced relocating overseas. It’s more or less expected that the first trip would be disorienting, but coming “home”? That should be easy, right?
My family changed a lot of our behaviors while spending time as missionaries in Taiwan. We learned to take off our shoes and put on slippers when entering someone’s house. We learned that hugging as a greeting was usually too bold a display of public affection. We learned that we should wear a mask when we weren’t feeling well to keep others from getting sick. We learned that at McDonald’s leftover food needs to be separated from the rest of the trash. And we learned that traffic signals can sometimes be treated as interesting suggestions.
Then we came back, and we learned that those lessons needed to be re-navigated.
Other Americans who move to different countries bring back their own sets of practices and attitudes and face their own brand of reverse culture shock: They may have gotten used to less personal space and wonder why Americans seem so stand-offish. They may have covered their heads and dressed to follow local customs of modesty and upon returning are uncomfortable with the styles they see all around them. They may have walked every day among extreme poverty and find the wealth in the US difficult to come to terms with.
Do you see the similarities to the adjustment to post-COVID life? Just substitute home with normal in the above transitions, and you’ll see how reverse culture shock can describe the disorientation that many are experiencing. Should we wear masks or not? Should we sit close together in large groups? Do we hug, shake hands, bump fists, tap elbows, or just say Hi at a distance? Should we follow the advice of the CDC or social media?
Some of the adaptations we’ve made over the past year we’re eager to get rid of. But some have become habit, and some we might simply prefer. Will those who’ve switched to homeschooling make it a permanent change? Will we continue working from home? Absent our usual face-to-face interactions, have we found new groups we identify with? Will we keep on attending church online? Will our churches continue to offer virtual services? Have we become more comfortable worshiping in small groups? Will we continue to Zoom into meetings? How long will a bookmark for a COVID dashboard sit at the top of our Web browsers?
And what about our children? Families who move abroad raise “TCKs” (Third Culture Kids), children who are molded by living between the world their parents grew up in and the world they themselves have grown accustomed to. It can be hard for them to find a place where they fit in, especially when, as “hidden immigrants” in their passport countries, they look on the outside as if they belong, but inside, they feel out of place. Similarly, some are labeling the children who are growing up in the shadow of COVID, or who are born into a post-COVID world, as “Generation C.” How much of an effect will the pandemic and all the restrictions associated with it have on them?
There’s something else that missionaries and other cross-cultural workers know about cultural transitions, whether coming or going: they bring a fair amount of loss and grief. They also know that this grief can become “disenfranchised” when it stays hidden inside because it doesn’t fit what others (or ourselves) think we should be feeling. Many around us have lingering health issues from COVID. Many have lost loved ones under extremely difficult circumstances. Many couldn’t be with family members as they suffered. Many had to hold memorial services over the Internet. Many have worked countless hours on the front lines. Many have lost jobs or businesses. Many are struggling to get by.
And yet the return to normal tells us that we should move on. We should celebrate. We should go to all the weddings and birthday parties and graduations and vacation getaways that we’ve missed over the last year. It can be too much for some . . . though not for all.
Many have already returned to their old lives without missing much of a beat. (Some cross-cultural workers are able to do the same.) But for those who haven’t, for those who are slow to come back to in-person worship services or who sit on the back row when they do—arriving late and leaving early, feeling more like observers than participants—there’s a need for patience and grace. That patience and grace needs to be extended from those who are comfortable to those who are not, and those who are hesitant need to extend it to themselves, and others, as well.
Please understand that not all of us who are holding back, in whatever form, are living in fear. Not all of us are judging those who take a different approach. Not all of us are trying to make a statement. Not all of us are lacking in faith.
But even for those of us who are. . . .
Patience and grace.
And in the future, if you ever see a returned missionary family sitting quietly on the back row at church, even after they’ve beenaround for a few years, please remember where they’ve come from.
When you go to a new culture and miss the signs . . . or don’t realize how you don’t quite fit in.
At first I thought I’d just let the above stand on its own . . . but I have more to say.
I’m fascinated by these clips of trucks getting stopped in their tracks, of them having their tops peeled back in shiny silver ribbons, of drivers second guessing themselves and hitting the overpass anyway. Yes, it makes me laugh, but it makes me cringe, too. I have empathy for these drivers, especially the ones in moving trucks, heading to a new place with all their worldly possessions packed up behind, having left the rental company after confidently telling the agent at the counter that they’d waive the insurance. “I won’t be needing that, thank you very much.”
When we moved overseas, we had our share of cultural miscues and language faux pas and just mistakes in general. Then after that, we had some more. And while we laughed at many, some were cringeworthy and some were painful to us or even hurtful to others. That’s what happens when you don’t see the signs or can’t understand what they say. That’s what happens when you think somebody needs to lower the road or raise the bridge, because “It’s not me. My truck is the right size!”
And then when we travelled back to our passport country, somehow the bridges were lower there than when we left. Or had our truck gotten taller? Either way, something didn’t fit anymore.
During one of our furloughs we borrowed a van from some friends for our visits to see supporters. It was a conversion van with a raised roof that the owners had just had repainted. (Spoiler: Yes, this is going where you think it’s going.)
After I wrote about debriefing last month, some people responded with versions of . . . Sounds like a good idea, but where should I go?
That’s a great question, and I’d like to point you to a place where you can find some options. Here at A Life Overseas, click on the Resources link at the top of the page, and you’ll see a list of debriefing opportunities under the heading “Re-entry and Debriefing Resources.” It’s not an exhaustive list, but with the continued help of this community, we can make it more so. Can you give us the names, URLs, and locations of other places you’d recommend? Just comment below or leave your contributions in the comments section at the end of the Resources list.
Of course, Where? isn’t the only question worth asking. So as you think about what might be a good fit for you, here are some more questions to get you started. . . .
I don’t think I’d ever heard the phrase “disenfranchised grief” before I came back from living overseas. Maybe it was during debriefing that it came up. Or maybe it was later, when I attended a series of grief-support meetings offered by a local hospice. Everyone else in the group had experienced the recent death of a loved one. I came because of the losses I’d had from my return.
Regardless, I didn’t immediately have a label for what I was feeling—sadness that was difficult to accept or express, sadness that easily led to shame and anger. But being able to name it is important. Kenneth Doka, who came up with the term “disenfranchised grief,” and who, in 1989, wrote the book Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow, says in an interview with Spring Publishing,
This concept has really resonated with people. And people constantly write and say, “You’ve named my grief. I never really recognized my grief until you talked about it in that way.”
Doka defines disenfranchised grief as “grief that is experienced when a loss cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned, or publicly mourned.” Grief is disenfranchised when losses are not typical to the population at large, so others often discount those losses or don’t understand them. It is difficult to have compassion for people when you don’t recognize why they are sad.
On Wednesday, while we were watching Game 6 of the World Series, I saw a commercial that featured a young girl introducing herself to her new classmates. Her parents met in Texas, she tells them, then relocated to Washington, and she was born at Fort Knox. Next came Georgia and then Korea. “Mmm,” she says, pointing to South Korea on the wall map, “Seaweed snacks.”
Her fellow students think that sounds pretty awful, but my son, who was born in Taiwan, yelled out, “See? See? I’m not the only one!”
She ends her introduction with “And now we live here for good.”
What were they advertising? I didn’t know, but I wanted to find the commercial online and watch it again. I Googled “home ad seaweed.” Google asked if I meant “home and seaweed” and showed me 5 Creative Uses for Seaweed in the Home, from Rodale’s OrganicLife: fertilizer, dietary supplement, East Asian cuisine ingredient, pet food ingredient, and beer additive. It also led me to a Wired article telling me, “This Seaweed-Covered House Is the World’s Coziest Sushi Roll” (“The primary challenge for the designers was turning an unruly weed into a consistent building material”), and The New York Times sharing that “‘Seaweed’ Clothing Has None, Tests Show” (“the labs found no evidence of seaweed in the Lululemon clothing”).
Thinking the commercial might be selling houses, I searched for “real estate commercial seaweed,” but that honed in on “commercial seaweed,” which gave me Grand View Research’s “Commercial Seaweed Market to Reach $22.13 Billion by 2024,” and “The Power of Seaweed, from the Wall Street Journal (“there’s growing evidence that seaweed might fit the bill as a raw material for biofuel, and one Indian entrepreneur is hoping to exploit it”).
No World Series commercial yet, but I didn’t give up. And through some combination of search terms, I found what I was looking for. The ad is from Navy Federal Credit Union and is titled “Here for Good.” I couldn’t embed it, but you can watch it at iSpot.tv.
[This is a new version of a post I wrote two years ago, including updated links and FAFSA information]
Now that your kids’ school year has started, it’s time to take in a big breath, let it out slowly . . . and start thinking about graduation. Ready or not, college is just around the corner.
Hear that sound? Listen closely. It’s the sound of time marching by.
While we can’t slow down the passage of time, we can prepare ourselves, and our children for what lies ahead. And if relocating to the US for college is part of your child’s future, then take a look at these tips for getting ready. They’re based on my experience sending two children back to the States for college while we were overseas, putting two into high school in the US (after home schooling and having them attend school abroad), and working in a university admissions office. Do you have anything to add? Let me know in the comments.
Before your child begins high school (or as soon as possible thereafter), find out the college-prep requirements and recommendations for the state in which she plans to continue her education. Each state will have its own list of required coursework for entrance into its public institutions, with courses in English, math, science, social studies, and fine arts. The list may also include classes in such areas as foreign language or personal finance. You’ll also want to check with individual colleges, public and private, to find out what additions or exceptions their requirements might have in comparison to the state’s core curriculum.
Most colleges welcome the addition of home-schooled students to their campuses, but homeschoolers will want to find out what documentation is needed and any hoops that they might need to jump through for admission. Students with diplomas from unaccredited high schools may have additional requirements, as well. Also, if students will be transferring to a Stateside high school before graduating, make sure you know the school’s policy on what courses they will give credit for towards graduation.
AP For students taking AP (Advanced Placement) courses, check with potential colleges to see what level of test scores they accept. Also, find out if successful completion of an AP course will earn advanced placement (taking the place of a college-level course), credit (hours toward graduation), or both. While you’re at it, see if the school will allow a bilingual child to test out of foreign-language courses. This may or may not be part of CLEP (College Level Examination Program) testing. Testing out of classes not only can help meet degree requirements but can also be an easy way to add a minor.
Students can take the PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test), during their junior year. The test, from the College Board, is used for awarding National Merit Scholarships. High-scoring students who receive semifinalist status can apply to be finalists. Interested students outside the US can get more information at the “International Student” page. Schools in your area may also offer the PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9 as practice tests for younger students. After completing a test, students who are at least 13 years old can link their scores to Khan Academy for personalized practice.
SAT and ACT While some institutions don’t require SAT or ACT scores, the majority do. But which one should your child take? There are differences between the two exams. For instance, the SAT emphasizes vocabulary more than the ACT, and the ACT has a science section while the SAT does not. Other differences are more subtle. For a helpful comparison of the tests, see “The SAT vs. the ACT,” from The Princeton Review. You can find international test centers for the SAT here and ACT’s international sites here. Contact your target schools to see if they “superscore.” Superscoring combines section subscores from two or more test dates, using the highest from each section instead of using only the scores from one date.
Don’t forget to keep track of deadlines: deadlines for submitting university and scholarship applications, for filling out housing contracts, for making payments or setting up payment plans, etc. Check early, as some will be much sooner than you might think.
Another big deadline is for filing out the FAFSA (Free Application for Student Aid), found at fafsa.ed.gov. The FAFSA is used to determine how much a family is expected to contribute to a student’s college education and, thus, how much will be offered in financial aid and loans. (The FAFSA applies only to US citizens and permanent residents.) Results are reported to up to 10 colleges at a time. The application period opens October 1 for the following school year, and students report income information from the previous year. (This is a change that started with the 2017-18 FASFA. Previously, applicants had to wait until the following January 1 to apply.) Each state has its own deadlines, including dates for priority consideration, which can be found here. Individual colleges may have earlier deadlines, as well. Even if students know that their family won’t qualify for federal or state financial aid, they should submit the FAFSA anyway, as it is often used for scholarship selection. It is important to remember that filling out the FAFSA is free, so if a site asks for payment, it’s not the official FAFSA.
When it comes to scholarships, there are those offered by individual colleges, and there are many, many more out there that are looking for qualified recipients. Some students treat scholarship application as if it were a job, and it can pay very well, with funds adding up well beyond the cost of school. For reviews on five top scholarship websites, take a look at Blake Sander’s article at MoneySavingPro. Remember that any scholarship or grant money that goes beyond paying qualified education expenses (tuition, fees, and books, but not room and board) is considered taxable.
Students will need to submit high-school transcripts to colleges as part of the admission process. For most schools, the transcripts will need to arrive in a sealed envelope from the high school in order to be considered official. Some will accept faxed copies from the high school. Foreign transcripts that are not from US accredited schools will need to be evaluated for authenticity, for diploma validation, and for determining a US GPA equivalent. Some colleges will do this in house, while others will require you to send the transcript to a third-party evaluation agency. If the transcript isn’t in English, it may be necessary to have it translated, as well.
Many colleges offer online virtual tours to help you get a good feel for their campus. Go to the institution’s web site, or see if your school has an online tour linked at CampusTours. When you’re in the States, it’s beneficial to have an in-person visit. If you give a school enough notice before you arrive, they should be able to arrange a tour for you.
Back to finances: One of the biggest concerns for out-of-country parents is the issue of in-state tuition for public schools. Even if you’ve previously lived in a state your whole life, the fact that you don’t now means that your child will have to prove he deserves in-state status. The final decision will come from the university, and it will depend on such things as parents’ owning a house there (though that by itself is not enough), living there for a number of years, having ties to the state and other factors that show a probability the student will remain there after graduation, filing state income tax, registering a vehicle, registering to vote, having a library card, etc. Schools have widely varying rules on how students can gain in-state status on their own, such as living in the state as a financially independent adult for a period of time. Some schools offer in-state rates to children of alums or to residents of neighboring states or states with regional student exchanges. Words such as dependent, resident, home, and domicile are important to define. (Hint: They may not mean what you think they mean.)
Make a friend in the admissions office of the colleges you’re serious about, someone you can email, or call, to get answers to your questions. You might get in touch with someone in international admissions, as well, for help with issues that are unique to students living outside the US.
FERPA Understand that even if you want to stay in control of your child’s education, you will be limited in the information you can get from the school once he is accepted. Under FERPA (Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act), the college cannot give you such things as grades, class schedule, or billing information without the student’s written consent—even if you’re the one paying the bills.
Orientation Make plans for your child to arrive in the US in time for student orientation. The earlier she enrolls, the more classes will be available for filling out her schedule. Orientation is a good time for parents, if you’re able to come, to hear first-hand the details of college life. It’s also good time for releasing your child toward independence. (That’s why you’ll probably be sent to a different room while your child picks classes.) Many schools offer priority (early) orientation for certain categories of students (for example, honors students and student athletes).
You’ll want your children to find community when they relocate. Some campuses will have a residence hall set aside for honors students or a floor designated for students with common educational interests. You can contact local churches and campus ministries (some of which will offer housing). Maybe there’s a Mu Kappa chapter (for missionary kids) on campus. Or maybe the school has a recognized group for Third Culture Kids (TCKs). International student clubs may offer a good fit as well.
In May of 2004, explorer Ben Saunders completed a solo, unsupported trek to the North Pole—on foot. He set out on his trip from the Russian side on March 5, reached the Pole on May 11, and was picked up by plane on the Canadian side on May 14. So here’s a repost, in honor of the thirteenth anniversary of his return.
Also, today is notable because it’s Mother’s Day, and point #9 below is a shout-out to moms, including a very emotional and very long-distance telephone call. Have you called your mum today?
In 2004, 26-year-old Briton Ben Saunders became only the third person, and the youngest ever, to ski unaccompanied to the North Pole. As it turns out, there are a lot of ways that making a solo trek to the North Pole is a like moving to another country. Here are 11 things that the two adventures have in common, all taken from Saunder’s February 2005 TED Talk, “Why Did I Ski to the North Pole?”
Luggage is a drag
Saunders describes his specialty as “dragging heavy things around cold places.” He says, for his trip to the North Pole, “I was dragging all the food I needed, the supplies, the equipment, sleeping bag, one change of underwear—everything I needed for nearly three months.” That sounds like trying to put every necessary item in your carry-on bag, just in case your checked luggage gets lost. (If you think your bags are heavy, Saunder’s supply of food and fuel weighed 400 pounds.) Sometimes your destination has harsh conditions. And sometimes it doesn’t have chocolate chips. How many bags of those should you bring? Can’t be too prepared.
It can be lonely out there
One of the challenges of Saunder’s voyage was that he had to make it alone. Very alone. When he arrived at the northern-most point on the globe, he was the only “human being in an area one-and-a-half times the size of America, five-and-a-half thousand square miles.” Most of us don’t go to such remote places, but even if you’re in the biggest city, surrounded by millions of other souls, you can easily feel all by yourself.
No, Virginia, there isn’t a Santa Claus When Saunders got to the top of the world, he didn’t find Santa. No Santa’s workshop. No elves. In fact, he says, “There isn’t even a pole at the Pole. There’s nothing there, purely because it’s sea ice.” When you go to another country, expect the unexpected. Don’t be surprised when what you find doesn’t match the photos in the magazine article. “I’d read lots of books,” says Saunders. “I studied maps and charts. But I realized on the morning of day one that I had no idea exactly what I’d let myself in for.” Photoshopped and cropped pics don’t do us any favors. If GPS and street signs say we’re in the right place, don’t waste time—or emotions—trying to find something that doesn’t exist.
Sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back According to NASA, during the year of Saunders journey, the ice conditions were the worst on record. Ninety percent of the time he was skiing into headwinds and the drifting ice pulled him backwards. “My record,” he says, “was minus 2.5 miles. I got up in the morning, took the tent down, skied north for seven-and-a-half hours, put the tent up, and I was two and a half miles further back than when I’d started. I literally couldn’t keep up with the drift of the ice.” When you’re in a new place, learning the language and culture, get used to those backward drifts. But always keep your compass set on your true north.
The only constant is change
Because the ice is constantly drifting over the North Pole, Saunders says that if he’d planted a flag there, it wouldn’t be long before it would be heading toward Canada or Greenland. Like Saunders, don’t be surprised when the emotional flags you plant aren’t permanent. The ground may not move under your feet (earthquakes not withstanding), but other kinds of landscapes certainly will. Find a special restaurant that serves your favorite dishes? Wake up the next day and it’s become a plumber’s shop. Make friends with some other expats? You may soon have to say goodbye. But, repeat after me, “Change can be good. Change can be good. Change can be good.” Maybe, just maybe, that plumber’s shop will end up being exactly what you need.
Culture stress can be a bear
Literally. On his first try at the North Pole, Saunders went with a partner, but they failed to reach their goal. Saunders says that from the outset “almost everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. We were attacked by a polar bear on day two. I had frostbite in my left big toe. We started running very low on food. We were both pretty hungry, losing lots of weight.” Yup. Sounds like culture stress to me.
Coming back can feel like the bear wins When his first attempt fell short, Saunders says he “was physically exhausted, mentally an absolute wreck, considered myself a failure, in a huge amount of debt personally to this expedition, and lying on my mum’s sofa, day in day out, watching daytime TV.” His brother texted him an encouraging quotation from Homer Simpson: “You tried your hardest and failed miserably. The lesson is: don’t even try.” Repatriation can feel that way. Maybe all the people who’d said you shouldn’t go were right. But Saunders didn’t let his failure define him. Instead, three years later he made history.
People aren’t sitting around waiting to hear your stories
When Saunders reached the North Pole, he got out his satellite phone. After warming up the battery in his armpit, he made three calls: “I dialed my mum. I dialed my girlfriend. I dialed the CEO of my sponsor. And I got three voicemails.” OK, that’s unfair to say they didn’t want to hear what he’d done. They were just busy at the time, that’s all. But . . .
Some people really do want to listen “I finally got through to my mum,” says Saunders. “She was at the queue of the supermarket. She started crying. She asked me to call her back.” There are special people who will make time to listen—when they can focus on your story without distractions. Thanks, Mum.
Don’t let others draw boundaries on your map
When Saunders was 13, he got a school report that said, “Ben lacks sufficient impetus to achieve anything worthwhile.” Saunder’s response—”I think if I’ve learned anything, it’s this: that no one else is the authority on your potential. You’re the only person that decides how far you go and what you’re capable of.”
One of the three most important questions will always be “Where is the bathroom?” Saunders gave his TED Talk to answer three questions:
(1 ) Why?
(2) How do you go to the loo at minus 40?
(3) What’s next?
That second question is very important at the North Pole, because it seems that “at minus 40, exposed skin becomes frostbitten in less than a minute.” Your question number two will be more like “Where’s the bathroom?” or just “Bathroom? Bathroom?” Then, once you see the facilities, you may ask yourself, “How?”
As for the answers to those question, in short, Saunder’s responses go something like this:
(1) “For me,” says Saunders, “this is about exploring human limits, about exploring the limits of physiology, of psychology, and of technology. They’re the things that excite me. And it’s also about potential, on a personal level. This, for me, is a chance to explore the limits—really push the limits of my own potential, see how far they stretch.”
(2) That’s a trade secret, no answer here.
(3) Antarctica. Saunders and Tarka L’Herpiniere are currently on the first leg of their trek from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back again—1,800 miles in all—unsupported and on foot. You can follow Saunder’s daily blog posts here. Why the South Pole? See answer number one above. Somebody’s got a severe case of wanderlust. [Saunders and L’Herpiniere completed their expedition on February 7, 2014.]