Wednesday, May 20, 2009

An Open Letter to the Friends & Families of Returning Young Adults in Global Mission (from the Mexico Country Coordinator, a former YAGM herself)

My name is Andrea Roske-Metcalfe, and I’m the Country Coordinator for the Young Adults in Global Mission program in Mexico. During our second-to-last retreat this year, I asked my volunteers to write a letter to their friends and family back home. I asked them to write about how they felt, given that they only have a couple months left here. I asked them to write about how they’d changed and what they were afraid of in returning home. I asked them to write about what they had discovered about themselves, and what they were looking forward to in returning home.

I asked them to write it raw. I asked them to be as honest as they could. Sure, I told them, you can send it if you want to. You can make it part of your final newsletter or blog post. But you can always go back and edit for that later.

Write this one raw.

This might seem like a strange request, but I wish that someone had asked it of me. Reverse culture shock is nobody’s idea of a good time, and I’ve gone through it enough (including after my own YAGM year) to know that it doesn’t only affect the person returning home; it affects everyone around them.

So I wish someone had asked this of me. I wish someone had asked me how I really felt, because I only rarely admitted that to myself. I wish someone had asked me to write it down, so I could go back to it later and process it. I wish someone had asked if there were parts of it I wanted to share with friends and family before I returned; something that might have, at least in part, prepared all of us for what would be a bumpy landing.

But no one did, and so I didn’t.

Maybe I’m projecting my own needs onto my volunteers. Maybe they’re all so perfectly well-adjusted with such uber-functional families and uber-supportive friends that everyone will sail through this transition without even blinking.

Then again, maybe they won’t. Either way, I figure it can’t hurt.

The funny thing is, when I asked my volunteers to write a letter, I didn’t exactly expect to write one myself. My husband and I aren’t returning home for good for at least four years, so that transition isn’t exactly looming over my thoughts. Hindsight is 20/20, though, and I know what I would’ve said had someone asked.

And so, I wrote a letter (or a list, as it may be) to you, in case your very own Young Adult in Global Mission doesn’t get around to sending theirs:

10 Suggestions for Helping your Young Adult in Global Mission (YAGM) Return Home

1. Don’t ask the question, “So how was it?” Your YAGM cannot function in one-word answers right now, especially ones intended to sum up their entire year’s experience, and being asked to do so may cause them to start laughing or crying uncontrollably. Ask more specific questions, like “Who was your closest friend?” or “What did you do in your free time?” or “What was the food like?” or “Tell me about your typical day.”

2. If you wish to spend time with your YAGM, let them take the lead on where to go and what to do. Recognize that seemingly mundane rituals, like grocery shopping or going to the movies, may be extremely difficult for someone who has just spent a year living without a wide array of material goods. One former YAGM, for example, faced with the daunting task of choosing a tube of toothpaste from the 70-odd kinds available, simply threw up in the middle of the drugstore.

3. Expect some feelings of jealousy and resentment, especially if your YAGM lived with a host family. Relationships that form during periods of uncertainty and vulnerability (the first few months in a foreign country, for example) form quickly and deeply. The fact that your YAGM talks non-stop about their friends and family from their country of service doesn’t mean that they don’t love you, too. It simply means that they’re mourning the loss (at least in part) of the deep, meaningful, important relationships that helped them to survive and to thrive during this last year. In this regard, treat them as you would anyone else mourning a loss.

4. You may be horrified by the way your YAGM dresses; both because their clothes are old and raggedy and because they insist on wearing the same outfit three days in a row. Upon encountering their closet at home, returning YAGMs tend to experience two different emotions: (1) jubilation at the fact that they can stop rotating the same 2 pairs of jeans and 4 shirts, and (2) dismay at the amount of clothing they own, and yet clearly lived without for an entire year. Some YAGMs may deal with this by giving away entire car loads of clothing and other items to people in need. Do not “save them from themselves” by offering to drive the items to the donation center, only to hide them away in your garage. Let your YAGM do what they need to do. Once they realize, after the fact, that you do indeed need more than 2 pairs of jeans and 4 shirts to function in professional American society, offer to take them shopping. Start with the Goodwill and the Salvation Army; your YAGM may never be able to handle Macys again.

5. Asking to see photos of your YAGM’s year in service is highly recommended, providing you have an entire day off from work. Multiply the number of photos you take during a week’s vacation, multiply that by 52, and you understand the predicament. If you have an entire day, fine. If not, take a cue from number 1 above, and ask to see specific things, like photos of your YAGM’s host family, or photos from holiday celebrations. Better yet, set up a number of “photo dates,” and delve into a different section each time. Given the high percentage of people whose eyes glaze over after the first page of someone else’s photos, and the frustration that can cause for someone bursting with stories to tell, this would be an incredible gift.

6. At least half the things that come out of your YAGM’s mouth for the first few months will begin with, “In Mexico/Slovakia/South Africa/etc…” This will undoubtedly begin to annoy the crap out of you after the first few weeks. Actually saying so, however, will prove far less effective than listening and asking interested questions. Besides, you can bet that someone else will let slip exactly what you’re thinking, letting you off the hook.

7. That said, speak up when you need to! Returning YAGMs commonly assume that almost nothing has changed in your lives since they left. (This happens, in part, because you let them, figuring that their experiences are so much more exciting than yours, and therefore not sharing your own.) Be assertive enough to create the space to share what has happened in your life during the last year.

8. Recognize that living in a very simple environment with very few material belongings changes people. Don’t take it personally if your YAGM seems horrified by certain aspects of the way you live – that you shower every day, for example, or that you buy a new radio instead of duct-taping the broken one back together. Recognize that there probably are certain things you could or should change (you don’t really need to leave the water running while you brush your teeth, do you?), but also that adjusting to what may now feel incredibly extravagant will simply take awhile. Most YAGMs make permanent changes toward a simpler lifestyle. Recognize this as a good thing.

9. Perhaps you had hopes, dreams, and aspirations for your YAGM that were interrupted by their year of service. If so, you may as well throw them out the window. A large percentage of returning YAGMs make significant changes to their long-term goals and plans. Some of them have spent a year doing something they never thought they’d enjoy, only to find themselves drawn to it as a career. Others have spent a year doing exactly what they envisioned doing for the rest of their lives, only to find that they hate it. Regardless of the direction your YAGM takes when they return…rejoice! This year hasn’t changed who they are; it has simply made them better at discerning God’s call on their lives. (Note: Some YAGMs spend their year of service teaching English, some are involved in human rights advocacy, others work with the elderly or disabled, and at least one spent his year teaching British youth to shoot with bows and arrows. The results of this phenomenon, therefore, can vary widely.)

10. Go easy on yourself, and go easy on your YAGM. Understand that reverse culture shock is not an exact science, and manifests itself differently in each person. Expect good days and bad days. Don’t be afraid to ask for help (including of the pharmaceutical variety) if necessary. Pray. Laugh. Cry. This too shall pass, and in the end, you’ll both be the richer for it.


Rev Snelson said...

You shouldn't hold back. So, how do you really feel? :)

Mama V said...

This was right on, Andrea! I wish I had had this list to give out (and for, well, myself - ahem) upon re-entry! ;)

Sue-s said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sue-s said...

What a helpful post, Andrea! As someone about to welcome home a daughter and son-in-law after a year serving as ELCA missionaries in Slovakia, this is especially timely! I'll be in touch about sharing your list with a wider audience. Blessings on your dear head, Sue-s

Rebecca Rudel said...

Andrea. Wow. What a beautiful gift is this sharing. Choke, sputter, sniffle ! I wish I'd have been gifted so when the HLT came home.... what you say is so spot-on ! You are so perfectly called in this time. Thank God - and thank you. Muah! ...becky