Transitioning Home

August 14, 2015

After a service/mission-related trip the majority of participants have some sense of what many of us refer to as culture shock. Professionals note that culture shock is something we can experience both during our trip as well as upon our return home, or what is usually referred to as reverse culture shock. I’ve had parents tell me that they asked their daughter what happened to her new sneakers, to which she replied, “my friend in Haiti didn’t have any shoes and she was my size, so I gave her my shoes.” During a presentation on global mission, a young woman shared that she was unable to get dressed in the morning, because all she could see was that her closet had more clothing than the entire town where she had been volunteering in Central America. Another time, I had a mother call me at the suggestion of her friend. She and her two teenage sons had recently returned from a mission trip to Haiti and none of them had said a word about their trip since their return. Needless to say, it was quickly evident that they were all experiencing some form of culture shock. These are all examples … mild to more severe … of culture shock.

As I’ve shared in previous posts, I, too, have had my share of culture shock experiences. By now, I’m reasonably prepared for them … or rather, as prepared as I guess one can be. When I have certain experiences, I can usually identify them as forms of culture shock, give myself the emotional space to process whatever it is I’m feeling, and move on. Returning from Colombia, I had a few of those experiences. There were what I call “store moments” when the tea choices were a bit overwhelming, the meat choices were more than I cared to think about, and dealing with traffic and driving were strange experiences. Some were funny, others a bit stressful, and all reasonably easy to move on from.

When we talk about culture shock, however, we tend to think in the immediate. We think about that overwhelming re-entry through a major airport filled with stores, restaurants, coffee shops, ice cream vendors, and people behaving in a “privileged” manner. As we shift back to daily life we often talk about the first few days of finding our way around in our home, our first, often overwhelming, trip to the grocery store, and the experience of going someplace like to a doctor’s appointment. But then we act as if we’re supposed to get over it in a few days … like somehow it all magically goes away, and we’re back to what others, and maybe even ourselves, consider to be “normal.” But the reality, as anyone who has gone through it will tell you, is that it doesn’t go away in a few days. In fact, it may never go away … and, frankly, maybe we don’t want it to ever go away.

After the initial culture shock, which I anticipated and simply gave myself emotional space to address, a reality started setting in. What I was, and am, experiencing is what I’d call cultural transition. While it feels a little like culture shock, it isn’t quite the same thing. For example, I was driving on the interstate highway one day and couldn’t figure out why everyone was flying by me. I’ve never been a speed demon, but this seemed a little ridiculous … until I came to realize that the speed limit had been increased and I was driving based on the previous speed limit. At the time I remember feeling like I was in some kind of time warp. On another occasion we went to a parade. I can’t really explain what I was feeling, but I found it overwhelming and had to go home and withdraw from the world for a while.

There are also some subtleties in our capitalist culture that we don’t even realize until faced with them. For example, many of us note the ways in which we are defined, and our lives given meaning, by our work. People often face personal crises at retirement when they are no longer the boss, the go-to person on staff, or able to say to the neighbor who asks, “What do you do?,” something like, “I’m a professor … a doctor … the director of XYZ organization,” and so on. I’ve heard people say that leaving leadership in the military can be so stressful, after having everyone call you “sir” and following your every instruction, that there is an unusually high rate of suicide among retiring military officers. Missioners face the same types of challenges upon returning home. Well-meaning friends and colleagues instinctively ask questions like, “So what are you doing these days?,” and “Have you found a job yet?” And while my instinct is to respond, “Nothing,” and “No,” in my gut I have the feeling that somehow I’ll be considered “less than.” Of course, some of that is my own feelings related to the transition and my own cultural turmoil in my head. But I suspect we can also agree that some of that is also our capitalist assumptions related to work and what’s considered socially valued.

Repainted family room.

Along those same lines is something that I agree is more about my own feelings, but again, exasperated by capitalist culture … hence, again, cultural transition. In Colombia I was a priest in charge of a parish community. I was on the bishop’s staff. I was the “go-to” guy regarding project planning, the pursuit of funding, and so forth. I was well-respected as a colleague, guest preacher and celebrant, or so I believed, and was well-known and respected in my apartment building, immediate neighborhood and wider community. It seemed that everyone knew Padre Ted and his dog, Wilson. Even when I wasn’t wearing a clerical collar, staff in the local stores knew me as “Padre” and addressed me as such. When I returned to Maine I became just “Ted.” People don’t know me, nor, of course, is there any reason why they should know me. While completely in my head, it’s as if I went from being someone to being no one … from visibility to invisibility … from importance to completely unimportant. Again, I appreciate that all of this is in my head, but that doesn’t change the reality of my experience. And I suspect that this is the kind of cultural transition that most people go through after being abroad for a long period of time.

Eating and food is another one of those cultural transition things that people don’t often think about, which can also include weight loss or gain. I find it difficult to decide what to eat and it’s hard to plan meals. I’m also one of those people who has strange food allergies. I’m having to learn all over again what I can and can’t eat. While I’ve gained a little weight since returning home, I’ve decided it is the least of my transitional concerns. So I’m going to spend my time getting settled and then worry about taking off the few unwanted pounds later if they don’t shed themselves on their own in the meantime.

Enjoying the gardens.

Another thing that I’ve never read about and that didn’t occur to me before now has to do with clothing. I haven’t purchased much for clothes in the past five years. In addition, upon departing from Colombia, I figured anything that could easily be replaced would join the pile of things that if I didn’t have room for in my luggage and would likely be left behind. After all, I reasoned, why wouldn’t I want to keep gifts and things I’d purchased for my apartment as mementos of my time in Colombia rather than worry about clothing that could easily be replaced. Well, you know those shoes that took you months to break in, but now fit like a glove and you wear all the time? While it seemed like a good idea at the time, and an opportunity for renewal to get a bunch of new wardrobe items, it has been a huge pain. Not only am I going through a transition and not all that comfortable shopping, now I have lots of new things that need to be broken in. My feet hurt all the time as I wear my new shoes. I’m also not comfortable in my new pants, in part, thanks to the increase in weight. And I’ve not been able to bring myself to buy new shirts. So all I’ve worn lately are my old jeans and t-shirts. Ironically, not only have I been hesitant to purchase new clothes, I’ve continued to weed out and donate bags of clothing. Gee, do you think maybe I/we buy stuff we may not actually need?!!

On top of the cultural transition, though, is something that should be most obvious to people, but I suspect is often overlooked.  Everyone has changed. After 1, 2, 3, or more years apart, people have changed. The missioner has definitely changed, having lived in a different culture, hence internalized a different cultural perspective. The way he or she thinks, their likes and dislikes, what’s important to them, and so forth, are all different. In addition, their family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, etc., have also changed. They are different people than they were when the missioner left. Returning, therefore, means relearning and reconnecting. People might expect you to be the same, think the same, and like the same things. You might expect that others are the same. But the reality is that time changes people, so none of us are the same. Relationships require more work than before, friendships require rekindling, and so on. People need to get to know you anew as you relearn about them. That can be exciting and fun, but it also requires extra time and effort and can be exhausting.

Life with dogs.

All of these issues and changes take emotional and mental effort. And most of all, they take time. Acclimation and reintegration isn’t something that you get over in a few days, a week, or a month. It takes time and energy to reconnect with people and develop new routines. It also takes effort to give yourself permission to not get everything right, and to go through processes that lead to new routines. For me, reconnecting has meant a few home projects … painting, rearranging and cleaning out … so that I can reconnect with my old life and begin developing a new one. It has also meant visiting new stores and rethinking old shopping routines. It has meant being intentional about mundane tasks like cleaning the house, walking the dogs, and mowing the lawn. Most of all, however, it has meant giving myself permission to just be … doing nothing, watching old movies, working on a craft, watching the rain come down, and enjoying the different scents in the garden.

In closing, I’d like to say how much I’ve enjoyed writing this blog and receiving your comments over the past few years. It has been a pleasure to share with all of you my experiences as a missioner serving in Colombia. As I’m returning to life in the States, this will be my last blog entry. If you have an interest in the on-going mission efforts of the Diocese of Colombia, and I hope some of you will, I encourage you to periodically visit for updates. Again, thank you for sharing my journey.


Padre Ted

Note: My apologies. For some reason the captions for the pictures didn’t show up. They are … 1) The repainted family room. 2) Enjoying the gardens. and 3) Life with dogs.

2 Responses to “Transitioning Home”

  1. Kenneth Carpenter Says:


    A great account of culture shock. It also brought back memories to me of the days after a year in Japan. I simply sat in my chair for days on end, doing nothing obvious, just processing. And, all the while I was fully unconscious that I was simply sitting until it became so obvious to others that they pointed it out.

    Some of what you write about is not culture shock in that sense, but it still is so true. Our world here is so privileged, and, I confess, I’ve tended to forget that, emotionally even if not intellectually.

    All the best to you,



  2. Dianne Smith Says:

    Welcome home, mi amigo, wherever home may be — or not! You’ve shared so much with so many… Thank you, Ted.


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