When It’s Hard to Want to Want to Be Back [—at A Life Overseas]

Our pictures are on the walls!

It’s been a year since I wrote about the long process I and my family were going through fitting back into life in the States and not yet feeling at home—still not having our pictures hung up. Since then, quite a few things have changed, and I would be remiss if I didn’t pass that on as well. I have a new job and my wife is able to stay at home, and we’ve unpacked our pictures and they’re all hanging in the house we’ve been able to buy.

We are so grateful for the ways God has helped us move forward.

But though it’s been over five years since we came back, we can’t say that the transition is completely behind us. It’s still there, just now in less obvious ways.

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This post is about reverse culture stress, but it’s not about the difficulties of fitting back into a home culture or family culture or church culture. It’s about the undercurrent of feelings that flow in the opposite direction of our physical move. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to fit in. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to want to.

What are some of the things that hold returned missionaries back from pouring our whole hearts into settling in? What are the feelings—good or bad, right or wrong—that can keep us from jumping into this new chapter? Here are a few I’ve noticed. . . .

Finish reading at A Life Overseas. . . .

Empathy at a Cultural Threshold

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Empathy has taken somewhat of a beating lately, as Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion has made the rounds. I’ve not read the book, so what I know of it comes from third-party reactions, not enough for me to make any intelligent critique or defense. After all is said and done, though, I would guess that most of us would champion empathy, even if we agree that it can have a negative impact when misguided.

Christopher O’Shaughnessy is author of the book Arrivals, Departures and the Adventures In-Between. He’s also, per his website, an “international speaker and globetrotting adventurer” and, per the video below—an excerpt from his keynote address at last year’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference—an empathy advocate. In fact, the video begins with him saying,

I want to tell you a story that emphasizes for me when I first sort of imprinted how important empathy was.

His story takes place after he entered a new school as an eighth grader and met an Eastern European girl who had just made her first international move. O’Shaugnessy, who was born in England to US military parents and spent chunks of his growing-up years on alternating sides of “the pond,” understood what she was going through and befriended her while others made her the object of their bullying.

His first story ends with a second story that takes place years later, in a bank, with a suspicious character, a note passed to a teller, annoying hope, and leaping tears.

It’s worth a listen.

This video is posted at Youtube in the Culturs.guru channel, which says that “CULTURS is a global multicultural philanthropic brand that brings lifestyle content to liminal identities.” I wasn’t familiar with the word liminal, but quick Google search told me that it means “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.” I like that. There’s plenty of room for empathy in that place.

[photo: “Empathy Picture,” by The Shopping Sherpa, used under a Creative Commons license]

A Soldier’s Letter, Unopened and Unread

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To the men and women in the armed forces, thank you for serving our country. The sacrifices you make are more than I will ever truly know.

I just listened to a re-airing of a 2012 NPR interview with Brian Castner, author of The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows. Castner served as commander of Explosive Ordnance Disposal units in Iraq. The entire conversation is well worth listening to, but one part that jumped out to me was when Terry Gross asked Castner about a letter he’d written.

When groups visited us on the mission field, we’d have them write letters to themselves before they left, and we’d mail them the letters several months later. The idea was that the notes would be a reminder of what they had felt and experienced—sort of an encouragement to their future selves. We also think this is a great thing to do with missionaries who come off the field as a way to help them process the changes that they are going through.

Castner’s letter is one he wrote to his sons before he went to Iraq, a letter that they were to read if he didn’t come back, a letter that still sits in a safe, a letter that now frightens him. It’s not always easy to get a message from the person you used to be.

“You haven’t read it since you’ve gotten back,” says Gross, “and you don’t even remember what you wrote. So I guess I’m wondering why you kept it, and yet why you haven’t read it.”

Castner replies,

You know, as a bomb tech, you don’t spend a lot of your life being scared, but I’m scared to read that letter. I don’t want to read it, because I don’t know what I put in. And I’m afraid that it’s going to just be full of bravado and flag and country and this is my great purpose and a lot of the things that I felt that just don’t make a lot of sense anymore.

I kept it because it is honestly who I was, and either when my sons are older or after I’m gone, it’ll give some insight, I suppose. I feel like I can’t throw it out unless I read it first. And since I’m too scared to read it, it’s still sitting there.

The host on NPR says that Castner recently came across the letter, and he reports that it remains unread.

(“‘The Life That Follows’ Disarming IEDs in Iraq,” “Fresh Air,” NPR, July 8, 2012)

[photo: “Envelope,” by skeptical view, used under a Creative Commons license]

Goodbye: Making a Hard Word Easier [—at A Life Overseas]

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From my post this month at A Life Overseas –

goodbye /gə(d)-ˈbī/ excl. / salutation spoken at a departure, extremely unpopular for certain English-speaking tribes, such as cross-cultural workers, TCKs, their loved ones, and the like.

Many of us know from experience that saying goodbye can be hard, really hard. And practice doesn’t make perfect. In fact, it often makes it worse.

But what makes goodbye so tough to voice? It’s not because it’s hard to pronounce. That’s simple enough. Rather, it’s the meaning behind the word that’s difficult. Is that because we don’t actually know the definition of goodbye? To quote that great linguist/philosopher Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Goodbye actually comes from God be with you, which, in it’s older form, was God be with ye. From there, it morphed into such shortened versions as God be wy youGod b’w’yGodbwyeGod buy’ ye, and good-b’wy. The replacement of God with good was influenced by the similar phrases good day and good night, which takes it even further from the original. Seen in this way, goodbye is related to the French adieu and the Spanish adios, which mean “to God,” as in “I commit you to God.”

So what’s so hard about saying, “God be with you”? What’s so difficult about giving someone a blessing? Why do we so often hear, “I don’t want to say goodbye”?

Maybe it’s because we do actually know what it means—at least for those who move far away. . . .

Continue reading

[photo: “Goodbye Summer 2011,” by deargdoom57, used under a Creative Commons license]

Standing Up Crooked Together[—at A Life Overseas]

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The Crooked Forest outside Gryfino, Poland

Here’s an intro to my post this week at A Life Overseas.

Standing Up Crooked

There’s a tree near Colorado Springs that I admire. It’s a pine tree sitting on the property of The Hideaway Inn and Conference Center, where I and my family attended MTI’s Debriefing and Renewal several years ago.

This tree is surrounded by other pines, but this one’s different. While its trunk starts out on a vertical path, after a several feet, it breaks to the side at a ninety-degree angle. Then, over a few more feet, it makes a slow curve, working again on an upward climb.

Near the end of the retreat, we were told to find a place to be by ourselves, and I knew where I wanted to be, sitting in front of that tree. I must not be the only one who appreciates it, since there’s a bench facing it close by.

I don’t know what trauma caused the tree’s shape. Maybe it was a storm, maybe a disease, maybe the blade of an axe. Or maybe it was more of a heart thing—a promise unkept, a hope deferred, a joy shattered.

Regardless of the cause, the reason I admire this tree is that though having faced trouble, it still reaches upward. It’s “persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed;” wrecked, but not ruined. No, not ruined at all.

Can you identify with this tree?

Have you ever had your feet knocked out from under you because of some tragedy?
Have you ever tried to take hold of something beyond your reach and fallen in the trying?
Have you ever been bent to the point of brokenness?
Have you ever been laid low by the realization that you are the cause of someone else’s pain?
Have you ever wrestled with God, refusing to let go until you get a blessing, and walked away limping?

[photo: “Krzywy Las w Nowym Czarnowie,” by Artur Strzelczyk, used under a Creative Commons license]

Finish reading at A Life Overseas.

Decisions, Decisions: How Better to Make Them

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Decisions. Life is full of them.

Leaving our ministry overseas and coming back to the States has been one of the hardest decisions we’ve had to make, but it was even more difficult because it didn’t stand alone. So many issues were intertwined with it: our home, our community, our children’s education, our careers, our ministry, our identities, our income, our friends.

Sorting by Numbers

While we were weighing our options, our field coordinator introduced me to a very helpful tool: the Prioritizing Grid, presented by job-hunting expert Richard Bolles in What Color Is Your Parachute? The grid offers a systematic way to rank multiple options or to determine which factors in your life are the most important to you.

The Prioritizing Grid works by numbering each item in your list and comparing them all in pairs. When you’re done, you tally the total votes for each one and you’re able to put your list in order. Over the years, I’ve tried to recreate the grid on paper, but I’ve found it hard to remember how to set it up. I was glad to find that career coach Beverly Ryle has provided an online version of Bolles’ grid at her website. It’s customizable from 5 to 40 items. Forty items?! Yes, sometimes our lives can be pretty complicated, and sometimes the list of alternatives can become overwhelming. Ryle writes that using the grid “helps people in transition to focus their energy and keep from spinning in circles.” Sounds like good goals to me.

Creating Your Own Reasons

While the Prioritizing Grid presents a quantifiable approach to decision making, Ruth Chang, professor at Rutgers University, looks at the same topic from a more philosophical slant. For Chang, even her ideas surrounding decisions, especially hard decisions, stem from her own choices. In a TED Talk, embedded below, she says,

I couldn’t decide between two careers, philosophy and law. I really loved philosophy. There are amazing things you can learn as a philosopher, and all from the comfort of an armchair. But I came from a modest immigrant family where my idea of luxury was having a pork tongue and jelly sandwich in my school lunchbox, so the thought of spending my whole life sitting around in armchairs just thinking, well, that struck me as the height of extravagance and frivolity.

So she made the “safe” choice to become a lawyer. But when she realized that wasn’t a great fit for her, she turned back to “extravagance and frivolity” and began a life of philosophizing. Now she’s a well-known expert on making tough decisions.

She explains that choosing is more than a mathematical comparison, and it’s more than simply finding the best of multiple options. Rather than discovering reasons for what is best, she says, difficult choices give us the opportunity to create reasons, and in so doing, recreate ourselves:

When we choose between options that are on a par, we can do something really rather remarkable. We can put our very selves behind an option. Here’s where I stand. Here’s who I am. I am for banking. I am for chocolate donuts. This response in hard choices is a rational response, but it’s not dictated by reasons given to us. Rather, it’s supported by reasons created by us. When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are. You might say that we become the authors of our own lives.

Deciding to Decide

And finally, there’s this from the fictional Reverend John Ames, as written by Marilyne Robinson in Gilead:

I stay home Mondays when I can—my day of rest—so I had the morning to think and pray and also to do a little resolving, and while I was doing that, it came to my mind that I should consider what I would say to myself if I came to myself for counsel. In fact, I do that all the time, as any rational person does, but there is a tendency, in my thinking, for the opposed sides of a question to cancel each other more or less algebraically—this is true, but on the other hand, so is that, so I discover a kind of equivalency of considerations that is interesting in itself but resolves nothing. If I put my thinking down on paper perhaps I can think more rigorously. Where a resolution is necessary it must also be possible. Not deciding is really one of the two choices that are available to me, so decision must be allowed its moment, too. That is, as behavior, not deciding to act would be identical with deciding not to act. If I were to put deciding not to act at one end of a continuum of possibility and deciding to act at the other end, the whole intervening space would be given over to not deciding, which would mean not acting. I believe this makes sense.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, Picador, 2004

[photo: “Choices,” by Derek Bruff, used under a Creative Commons license]

A Horrible Bird Named Jealousy [—at A Life Overseas]

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[Read the full post at A Life Overseas.]

“You can’t keep a bird from flying over your head, but you can keep it from building a nest in your hair.”

You’ve probably heard a form of this saying, usually referring to some sort of temptation.

I like the old Jamaican version: “You can’t keep crow from flyin’, but you can keep him from pitchin’ ‘pon you head.”

What birds are circling nearby for you? Lust? Anger? Hopelessness? Greed?

Yeah, I’ve got those. But there’s another kind of bird that wants to roost in my hair. It’s nasty and dirty, with grey oily feathers. It’s heavy and clumsy and foul smelling. It’s eyes, they’re a dull green. It’s name is Jealousy.

This is not the kind of righteous jealousy felt by God, whose name is Jealous (Exodus 34:14). No, my jealousy makes me lay claim to things that are not my own. If there are taller people in the room, not only do I look for a box to stand on, but I’m also tempted to kick the feet out  from under them. There’s nothing attractive about Jealousy, and the nest it wants to build is repulsive, as well, made out of frustrations and excuses, crooked sticks, rusty paper clips, snakeskins, and used Band-Aids.

Jealousy is the offspring of a strange combination of parents: One is “You’re not good enough,” and the other is “You deserve better.”

It’s been hovering close by for a long time, like a loyal friend. But it’s not a friend. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. And yet, there it is.

Continue reading at A Life Overseas.

[photo: “Home Improvement,” by Mike Timberlake, used under a Creative Commons license]

Study Prep: Getting Your Kids Ready for College back in the US

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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 going to college in the US 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.

  1. Academics
    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.
  2. Homeschoolers
    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.
  3. 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.
  4. PSAT/NMSQT
    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 will need to find a local school that is administering the test. To help with this, the College Board offers a PSAT school search form.
  5. 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.
  6. Deadlines
    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.
  7. FAFSA
    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. Results are reported to up to 10 colleges at a time. The application period opens January 1 for the following school year, but each state has its own deadline, found here. Individual colleges may have earlier deadlines, as well. Tax data is necessary for completing the form, but updated information can be supplied later by amending the application. 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.
  8. Scholarships
    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.
  9. Transcripts
    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.
  10. Campus visits
    Many colleges offer online virtual tours to help you get a good feel for their campus. Look at the institution’s web site, but you’ll also find a number of schools represented at YouVisit’s college site. If 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.
  11. In-state tuition
    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 dependentresident, home, and domicile are important to define. (Hint: They may not mean what you think they mean.)
  12. Admissions office
    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.
  13. 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. Under FERPA (Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act), the college cannot give you such things as grades, class schedule, or billing information without the students written consent—even if you’re the one paying the bills.
  14. 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.)
  15. On campus
    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.
  16. Transition
    Our two sons who came back to the US for college while we were overseas attended reentry programs. These were very valuable in helping them understand the transitions they were facing and giving them practical advice for acclimating to US culture. The two seminars we used are sponsored by Barnabas International (they also offer one in partnership with the Narramore Christian Foundation) and Interaction International. For help in understanding the TCK mindset and how to navigate cultural changes, get a copy of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds (by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken) or The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition (by Tina Quick).

The kids really are growing up. It’s never too early to get ready. Hear that sound?

[photo: “Graduation Cake Guy,” by David Goehring, used under a Creative Commons license]