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Notes from the Roller Coaster

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A story of re-entryBy Candice, RMM staff writer

There is a book I read when our family was preparing to leave for our assignment in Thailand called Re-entry: Making the Transition from Missions to Life at Home by Peter Jordan. It compares the re-entry of mission workers into their home culture, to a space shuttle’s “fiery and turbulent” re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. To me, re-entry felt more like a roller coaster ride. Not just the emotional roller coaster ride that people refer to (although it was that also), but the feeling of whipping around turns, plunging down steep tracks, and the disoriented dizziness you feel as you screech to a halt. To our children (Claire,10; Eliza, 8; and Silas, 5), leaving Thailand after seven years was leaving the comforts of their home and landing, off-balance, in a place where the customs were unfamiliar. It meant leaving their favorite noodle shop, the little friends they played red light/green light with, the garlicky-cooking-fumes-mixed-with-bus-exhaust that was the particular smell of our neighborhood. It was saying good-bye to a team that felt like family. Even our house itself, the mango trees, the buried pets, and the bubble tea stand down the street had taken on their particular kind of childhood significance and were hard to leave.

Friends helping us move our belongings from our house in Thailand.

We did our best to say “good good-byes.” We took many photos of our favorite people and places, wrote good-bye letters, went to parties, and gave gifts of appreciation to our friends. We wrote our names on the trees outside our house. We spent several evenings looking at photos of all our good times and everyday life in Thailand, trying to end with grateful attitudes and good memories. We processed our feelings—all different and changing by the day. We left with many tears, feeling drained and exhausted.

Landing here in our “home” country was stepping dizzily from the roller coaster into many unknowns, especially for the kids. Silas often commented on how everyone was speaking English and how strange it was to understand everything. We marveled at the carpeting, warm water in the bathroom faucets, expanses of grass, and the wide open spaces. One day, driving in the Rosedale area, Claire mentioned that we hadn’t seen a single person since we got off the interstate about twenty miles before. After the crowds of Bangkok, it was almost surreal and spooky. We needed to describe what farms in America were like and why the houses were so widely spaced. We explained the rules of sports that seem like a natural part of every American childhood. Our kids didn’t know the rules or even the names of balls used in basketball, football, and baseball. We noticed that some people seemed to be obsessed with sports! We observed that people here were extremely busy and laughed and talked loudly. They even wore shoes inside the house which felt strange to us.

Those were some of the superficial ways that re-entry hit us in those first days. Other parts were refreshing and energizing. We finally had time with our families again. We had a crab feast in Delaware and ate Jess’ hotdogs in Virginia. Eliza and Claire learned to use Grandma’s sewing machine and Silas learned to play baseball with Granddaddy. Each one of those things roots our kids in their American identity. Traditions and times with grandparents make them feel like they have other homes on American soil, even though the house in Thailand still feels like their true home. I spent time going through old black and white pictures of my ancestors and chose a few to print and frame for our new house. We took the kids to an old Rhodes cemetery, and we had a picnic and mowed the plots while Dad told them stories about the past. I had this longing for my children to know where they came from, that their history goes back far beyond parents and grandparents. Only here can I effectively share with my kids where they come from. They are already rooted in God’s global Kingdom and in the country of Thailand, now I wanted to give them roots in their passport culture too.

Claire processes life with Grandaddy during first days of re-entry.

Tom and I had this dream, maybe a crazy one, that we could help our kids find identities in two cultures; a dream that they could feel comfortable enough (and uncomfortable enough, too) in each country to flow between the two. We knew that realistically our family would continue to be a part of two cultures and wondered if it was possible to make them heart citizens of both or at least give them the opportunity to bond more deeply. So the next two years would be an experiment for our family. We knew we were returning to Thailand in 2015 because of our commitment to the long-term work in that country. We long to see God’s Kingdom come there. For the kids, thinking of our return to Bangkok is a wonderful thing; they are eager to return to their life in the city. They are homesick at times. In the meantime we are blessed to have two years to work at the RMM office in support of the work in Thailand and to experience many new aspects of American culture.

We prayed a lot before we arrived—for good teachers, good friends for the kids, for a house to live in. Sometimes I have to look around me and laugh about how good God is to us and all the ways he’s provided. Our kids are in a Columbus city school that is high quality and they love their teachers who are each uniquely suited to our children. They are thriving in that setting. We love the Clintonville area where we live with its delightful library (a heaven of books for a family of readers!), the marshy and wooded bike paths, and fun food trucks. We’ve begun meeting international friends through International Friendships at the Ohio State University. Over the holidays, we had a turkey feast with Chinese and Korean friends. Eliza has a new best friend at school named Muji, whose parents are from Hong Kong. The girls recently had their first playdate—a big success! Keeping some of our Thailand experiences (like eating Thai food, speaking a little Thai, listening to Thai music) and meeting Asian friends who are new to American culture, makes us feel connected to our life there. It’s easy to feel stifled, if we can’t find “global friends” to connect with.

As we re-entered the U.S., I had a strong desire to prioritize. Early in my adjustment, I only had energy enough for very specific things. I took time for creative writing or meeting with one friend over a lot of activity. We didn’t sign our kids up for extra-curricular activities. We kept our life quiet. It was like wetting our toes in the culture, then retreating back to the sand. As time goes on, we’re going out deeper and deeper, becoming involved in more activities, committing to more, but in the first six months, we were in protective mode; protecting our kids from overstimulation and ourselves from burnout. If we seemed a little quiet, a little timid, it’s because inside, we were overwhelmed with the choices. In Thailand, our choices about what to be involved with were very few; here they are abundant. We still feel the need for some of those boundaries and sometimes say “no” when we feel activities are becoming overwhelming.

Even many of the day-to-day routines of life felt overwhelming at first. Buying a car and getting it insured, needing to make choices about an internet provider, TV, cell phones, etc. was difficult. In so many ways, we needed to choose our standard of living. We looked around at what everyone was doing and we asked ourselves how our life should look. It’s like starting completely fresh. We are re-learning how to budget and how to be simple and frugal in new ways.

We have many tensions inside us as well. The tension of a changed style of church is one we sometimes struggle with. We had become accustomed to small group settings, attending church primarily with seekers and to a simple style of Bible study. Now we re-enter the world of sermons and Sunday school and many Christian resources and opportunities and ways to be involved in the structure of church. While many of the things offered are wonderful and encouraging, again, the overwhelmed feelings come. We sometimes feel like newcomers at our church although we have history with many people. London Christian Fellowship has been a warm and welcoming place, but we still need to rebuild many relationships which have a gap of years. How do we belong when we know we are leaving again? How do we engage but keep our priorities and our focus on missions?

Our family on the day in June that we moved into our new home in Columbus.

At times, we have failed to do our part in a healthy re-entry. We have been judgmental. We’ve gotten frustrated with “the church” in general and a perceived lack of care for those outside the church. We’ve escaped into books or isolation rather than relating to friends. In some ways, we’ve felt that this is not a true re-entry. Because we know we are returning to Thailand, we can stay somewhat engaged in Thailand (at least the ministry aspect of it), so have not been required to fully re-engage and re-enter this culture. In some ways we avoided some of the hard parts of re-entry.

Through all the changes we’ve experienced, Jesus has been our anchor. He has answered our prayers every time and helped us to regroup as a family and work toward new relationships. One song that we love as a family and has become a family theme for us is the hymn, “He Leadeth Me.” While we want this security, these roots for ourselves and our children, we face the reality that our lives will continue to feel somewhat uprooted and we want to continue to see physical and spiritual momentum and movement in our journey as a family. “He leadeth me, O blessed thought! O words with heav’nly comfort fraught! Whate’er I do, where’er I be, still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me.” They are old-fashioned-looking words but very true in our life as a family. If we didn’t have that sense of his leading hand and peace in his calling for our family, we would be floundering.

We still don’t know how this experiment will end. We don’t know if our children will adjust here and still want to return to Thailand at the end of two years. We don’t know if they will be angry at us for all the transition and moves we are making—the choices we make which deeply affect their lives. We worry about them. However, we believe the Holy Spirit has led us to Thailand and that is the calling of our whole family. We know that following the Holy Spirit often feels like hopping on that roller coaster again. So, we trust him and continue to re-enter.

More Notes from the Roller Coaster

A few more returned RMM workers talk about what coming “home” felt like to them.

Wendy Mayer, who re-entered in June 2010 with her husband Kevin and their kids, Evan and Ellie, was an RMM worker in Malaga, Spain. Wendy is currently studying nursing at Ohio State and Kevin is the director of SEND Ministries at RMM.

When we moved back to the States after living in Granada, Spain, it felt like entering our home, but it was no longer familiar or known. During the years we were away, life had moved on, people had changed, and everything was different. We now had the challenge of finding our place in a community that we had known all our lives, but no longer fit into. Our worldview and perspective had changed, making us round pegs trying to fit into square holes. Regarding the practicalities of life, in some ways it felt as if we were starting all over again. We had to make arrangements for living, purchase a vehicle, find jobs, and choose a school for our children (to name a few) and all these big decisions needed to happen at once. It was overwhelming, but through it I developed a deeper trust in God. A verse that I noted in my journal during that time was Psalms 142:5: “You are my place of refuge. You are all I really want in life.” God was my refuge during that time, and through that time of upheaval in my life, all the decisions coming at me felt less stressful when my eyes were on Jesus.

Being human, I often forgot to keep things in perspective and life sometimes felt very stressful. Our home church and friends were there for us in very helpful ways, such as helping to clean our home before we moved in and providing us with a grocery shower to help restock our cupboards. However, just as we had just landed into a changing community, our lives had also changed drastically since we left years earlier. In some ways, it felt as if we had landed from Mars. For some people, we might as well have been Martians, as we felt avoided and ignored. Others did their best to ask about our experience and tried to identify with our experiences.

Jon and Dawn,* RMM workers in North Africa, re-entered in January of 2012. Jon is serving as the interim president of Rosedale Bible College and Dawn tutors refugees and recently-arrived immigrants in the English language.
Four members of our family returned to the U.S. in late January 2012, after three-and-a-half years in North Africa. The sons accompanying us were 13 and 15 years old. Their older brothers (ages 18 and 20) had come back to the U.S. several years before to complete high school and attend college. We returned when we did because we had come to see the importance of being in the U.S. while our sons launched into young adulthood.

What are things you did to prepare for re-entry?

Dawn: There is so much physical preparation for a trans-continental move that it can become all-consuming. Emotional preparation is a little harder to achieve. We tried to say strong good–byes to people and places that were dear to us. That involved letting friends and co-workers know how meaningful it had been to share life in that setting. It included moments of grief. There’s no way to avoid the deep ache that accompanies not knowing if you will ever see a friend again.

When you re-entered, what were some of the initial cultural differences you noticed?

Jon: Sometimes it’s little things. Cars stay behind the line when the traffic light is red here.

Dawn: Yes, I laughed out loud the first time I drove into town and sat at an intersection waiting for the light to change. Everyone was so passive! There was no cutting in front of the line with a vehicle or honking. And where were all the people? I couldn’t see one pedestrian as I sat there!

What is an analogy for what re-entry felt like for you?

Dawn: I felt as if I was in an extended fog. Since we returned to a community in which we had lived before, familiar things and people were all around me but my mind was clouded by the huge changes and all the choices that faced us.

How did people in your church help with your re-entry?

Jon: Soon after we arrived our church had a grocery shower to stock our cupboards. That was a practical and helpful way to welcome us back.

Dawn: Some good friends took the time to sit and ask questions and listen to us reflect. That’s invaluable. From our observations, perhaps it’s easier for people to show interest in a short time overseas than it is to process the experience of years of living abroad.

What were some of the hardest things about re-entry?

Jon: Finding a place can be a challenge. We returned to some of our roles, responsibilities and friendships, but not to all of them. So the question was, “Who am I here and now? I knew who I was before I left. I knew who I was in my other world. But who am I now?” That can take time.

Dawn: Having a purpose for this phase and location was missing for me initially. Creating a home where our family can gather is important, but what else? There are so many Christians here. How am I even needed? It took me a while to begin to find a reason for being.

It also takes time to process where we’ve been. How do we weave the living and the leaving of the past years into the fabric of our lives? We’re grateful to God for his faithfulness during a stretching time and release to him the fragments of rigorous language-learning, budding friendships, and family stresses. It will be his work to make them part of his big story.

On our final evening with our North Africa team, we listened together to Josh Garrels’ rendition of the song Farther Along. “Farther along we’ll know all about it; Farther along we’ll understand why.” The past, the future, and life transitions rest in the hands of our Father.