Challenges of adjustment
I had left a place where I felt I lived purposefully. Every waking moment was a challenge . . . everything from functioning in 100 degree weather to maneuvering through crazy traffic patterns to learning new language, food and culture. On top of that, I was learning to work with people to develop a devastated nation. One's sensibilities are constantly sharpened in finding ways to respectfully bestow dignity on those who feel inferior in the world yet are courageously thinking outside of the box in which they were born to make their corner of the globe a better place.
Coming back to the United States, I was thrown into a living situation where I felt isolated from people. I felt like my life lacked purpose. I had no friends to sharpen my notions and observations. I observed people who lived as though they had all the answers or they were the answer to the world's problems. I got the immediate sense from some that I should conform to the box in which I had been born. The problem was that, for various reasons, I didn't feel like I fit in. There were people around me, yet I felt lonely and useless.
I'm recalling all this because a dear friend of mine is going through similar struggles of reverse culture shock, feeling lonely and feeling useless. His is even more pronounced as he spent over 15 years abroad. My heart goes out to him because he can't seem to get to the root of his pain and depression. This experience is in many ways a like an identity crisis, but also one that requires a grieving period. I grieve with him and for him, for one, because I can identify, and two, because he is not giving himself the time to grieve. He is trying to re-live his past to get rid of the pain. The problem is that life can never be re-lived as it was before.
Up until our return, my husband and I had spent the majority of our married years in Cambodia. We started our family there. Even in seven years, many family patterns are established and it is not easy to just up and change. And the leaving behind of friends, place and life experiences initiates a necessary grieving process. I still grieve that loss, just as I had grieved the loss of my brother for many years afterward. At times a particular memory or incident can bring a splash of grief washing over me again. But as time goes on, the pain is not as intense or prolonged. We must allow for this grief in order to heal and let go of that chapter of life.
And the truth is, not everyone encounters this difficulty at the same intensity level. My husband seemed to re-acculturate much more quickly than I. I think part of it was that he got a job right away and was able to experience a sense of impact and mission in his work. Within a year he was working with lots of people with overseas experience. The kind of friends he was able to connect to were those who enjoyed critiquing issues and discussing global affairs. This was encouraging to him and I believe it really helped him get his mind off of the challenges of readjustment.
It’s almost 6 years since our return and I still blog occasionally about what it is like to re-adjust to living in the United States. There are times I still don't feel like I totally fit in as an American or as part of a unique Pennsylvanian culture. But over time, I've found a few friends who are willing to hear or share my worldview and idiosyncrasies. So I've not felt as much a need to reflect. But I pray that my friend will make space for reflection and find a way to process his thoughts and grief. He is depressed and lonely. I think that, like me, he needs people to listen and encourage him. I pray God will speak to him through others who can love him even in this difficult time of transition.