It’s that time of year—summer study abroad programs beginning, returning students headed home, along with travelers returning after brief overseas summer vacations, not to mention those expats who are moving back in time to find a place to live and enroll their kids in school for the fall.
Yup—it’s the time of year when those of us who stayed home are likely hear how much better things are elsewhere. So while we are delighted that our beloved sojourners are returning, there is frequently a bit of anxiety as we begin looking forward to the adjustment. What to do?
First, be prepared. Understand that everyone involved—the returnee, friends and family at home, the organization for which the returnee works or school where she or he studies—all need to recognize that the transition of the person returning home begins well before the actual arrival home. Leaving new friends and colleagues, withdrawing from what have become familiar patterns of behavior, saying goodbye over and over again—these are hard things even if you are looking forward to returning home. While a major goal of “re-entry” is to integrate the recent intercultural experience with life at home, we should expect these transitions take some time, and will be better dealt with by acquiring a bit of knowledge and planning about the process.
We suggest you log into your Cultural Detective Online subscription and take a look at the ideas included in the package, The Return. While offering advice and guidance mainly directed toward the business professional returning home after an overseas assignment, there are pearls of wisdom that are applicable to any “returnee” situation. The Challenge Lens looks at different areas in which adjustment issues, both personal and professional. For example, the returnee often find that family, friends, and colleagues are not as interested as the sojourner thinks they should be in his or her experience. Things that happened at home during the time away can be more exciting to those who stayed home than are photos of new friends and places that were visited. Knowing this in advance gives an opportunity for both sides to adjust and make allowances for each others’ behavior.
Craig Storti’s highly rated book, The Art of Coming Homeis another useful resource for you and your returnee. Craig writes in a practical and easy-to-read manner, that is theoretically well-grounded, and full of valuable tidbits. Reading Craig’s book will not only help the returnee feel less crazy, but will help those surrounding the returnee understand the complexity of the transitions involved and provide ideas for smoothing the re-entry experience.
Speaking of smoothing the re-entry experience, be sure to check out “Twelve Tips for Welcoming Returnees Home,” part of the free online resource, What’s Up With Culture? Bruce La Brack authored (see Section 2.5.1). One of the most important tips: “Understand that most returnees are, in some ways, different than they were before they left home.”
And isn’t that the point of an intercultural experience? If the returnee was just the same as before he or she left, would it not be a big waste of time and money? Whether we are a family or an organization that sent someone overseas, we have an expectation that the exposure to other cultures and languages will result in the sojourner gaining new skills and attitudes—including acquiring broader perspectives, different ways of seeing the world.
However, sometimes we, unconsciously, still expect that the other hasn’t really changed, and are therefore surprised when this is not so. Being prepared to welcome home a returning friend or loved one, but also being ready to find that they have undergone important changes and may have acquired new ideas is one key to insuring a smooth transition home for every one involved.
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller