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From Sea to Shining Sea: Tips for Helping Ex-Pats’ American Re-Entry

So you have family or friends living overseas, and they’re coming back to America! Whether they are coming for a short vacation,  a few months, or moving back permanently, you’re ecstatic and can’t wait to see them. Right? If they’re anything like me and my family, they can’t wait either!

Photo by Deibel Photography

Photo by Deibel Photography

We have been back in the States for almost six months now, and I feel like our re-entry back into America was fairly smooth. This is due in large part to some highly thoughtful things people did for us to help ease the transition. As much as we experienced culture shock when we moved overseas, reverse culture shock (culture shock upon returning to your home culture) has always been harder. It would have been infinitely more difficult without these tips I’m about to share with you.

Whether they are military, businessmen, humanitarian or in any of a myriad of other roles overseas,  these tips and ideas can help make the transition back into American culture much smoother and more comfortable for everyone.

1. Stock the basics. Our first morning back in the States, we may have fumbled for 20 minutes trying to figure out how to work the coffee maker, but that was the worst of our worries because the house was already stocked with coffee, tea, sugar, milk, bread, butter, cereal, granola bars, peanut butter and jelly. There was also a stash of basic toiletries, lotion, sunscreen and Chapstick (perfect for helping our Irish-soaked skin adjust to the Arizona dryness!). Even if they are staying in a hotel, giving them a bag with some snacks, bottled water, and toiletries really goes a long way. This saves them from dragging their travel-weary bodies down to the store only to have a stroke trying to choose a bottle from two aisles of shampoo!

2. Give them time. Jet lag’s a killer. If at all possible, avoid dragging them around to see everyone and everything the very first day. Give them time to sleep, and their bodies to adjust to the local clock. At the very least give them a couple of days – a full week is even better – before putting any kind of expectation on them for any kind of normal schedule. They are most likely waking up in the middle of the night or crazy early in the morning, and struggling to keep their eyes open by dinner time. The bigger the time difference, the longer it will take.

3. Let them be in America. Chances are while they are in America they want to be immersed and enjoy all their favorite foods, music, places and treats they can’t get overseas. So while you’ve been eyeing that Filipino restaurant and dying to take them to it to show your interest in their life, they may want to avoid everything to do with their host culture for a little while. (Remember that scene at the end of Cast Away when they served sushi and crab legs for his welcome home party after he had been living on an island for four years??) Having said that, it is fun to experience something of their new culture together, especially if you are unable to travel to where they have been. So, let them know those things are there, but let them take the lead on how much of that they want to do – particularly if they are only in the States for a short time before going back.

4. Give them grace when it comes to social norms. We’ve had several instances the past five months when we have been out somewhere and I’m suddenly aware my children are the center of attention – good or bad. Every culture has different rules for what is normal, acceptable behaviors, speech, etc. I’m the first to laugh at myself every time I try to get into the car on the “wrong” side! So, if they automatically kick their shoes off before entering your house or speak with a British accent, it’s okay to giggle in amusement, but try not to poke fun.  Kids might also not be aware of the American social norms when it comes to acceptable behavior, particularly in public. Modeling the acceptable behavior is a great way to educate without stepping on too many toes.

5. Don’t be hurt if they call their place overseas “home.” Chances are when they are over there they refer to America as home. Its part of the weird belonging to two (or three or four) places at once, which is now their reality. Home becomes much less about a location as it does about an atmosphere and the people.

6. Don’t assume they’ve been able to keep up with American pop-culture. Not every place in the world has access to Philip Phillips, Duck Dynasty or Downtown Abby (gasp!). Try to be sensitive to when they are getting lost in the conversation and be willing to fill in the back-story. And its okay if they never really “get it.”

7. Avoid asking for command performances. This is particularly important with children. Once you’ve been able to have a conversation with them about where they live, what they like to do, who their friends are, etc they will most likely be more than happy to share with you a demonstration of their latest karate moves or teach you a few phrases in their new language. But try not to say hello and immediately ask for a language lesson or song performance. Chances are they love your interest, but nobody likes to be put on the spot.

8. Educate yourself. Take a few minutes to learn the basics about their host-country/culture if you haven’t already. When we first moved to Ireland in 2002, we had people ask if we were going to have to grow our own food, if we’d have electricity, and how we were going to get clothes. Little did they know that Ireland is the second largest software producing/distributing country in the world – and they had a woman president at the time! It will mean a lot to your friends/family if you know enough to ask relevant questions about their life.

9. Be a stress defuser (did I just make up a word? I think so). Even if they are just coming for a short vacation, the transition is always going to be stressful, no matter how many times they do it. Work to ease as much of the stress as you can. Some of the most meaningful ways people have done this for us has been to make sure we have enough car space to get from the airport (with us and all of our bags) to where we are staying, offer to babysit so we can do some American shopping on our own, offer to come help sort, clean or pack when it was time to leave again, and offers to take us out for a meal – or to bring one over – particularly at the very beginning or very end of the trip is incredible.

There are always things we can do to help one another, and being a part of a family or a group of friends is not always easy and rarely is it not messy. But without the mess, it wouldn’t be beautiful. We have been on the receiving end of all of these things I’ve shared with you and it has been so encouraging – and freeing.

Have you ever lived overseas? What things helped you when you returned to your home culture? Do you have family/friends overseas? What things can they do when they return to help you understand where they are coming from?

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