Dear [Returned] Student Missionary:
You’ve returned. You’ve been called, you’ve gone, you’ve served, and now it’s done. You’ve come back changed, whether you feel like it or not. Now you run through Wal-Mart with the glee of a child at Christmas. Applesauce and peanut butter and ice cream and Taco Bell have never tasted so good. Toilet paper is exciting. Friends and family hail your return. But you’re back to real life. And perhaps, if you’re like me, life’s purpose eludes you.
Reverse culture shock is real. Trying to fit back in with the lifestyle that once was yours is hard to do. In fact, it’s impossible. You can never fit back in exactly as you did before. Everyone tells you it’s because you’ve changed, and they’re right.
Please, learn a lesson from me: You don’t have to fit in. You tried so hard to blend with your host country or state or school, spending months learning the nuances that determined visitors and foreigners from those who belonged. You found a niche and did your job there. But when you come home, don’t do it again. Don’t try to learn all the new habits and behaviors that make one a part of your home culture. Don’t struggle to fit in.
I came home from my year away and tried so very hard to re-acclimate. To become the epitome of perfect PT student, to engage with others as any 23-year-old college student should, to wear my hair and my clothes and my makeup just so. To fit in with the crowd. To blend in where I’ve been placed.
It’s taken me a year to remember that I left a home culture that I didn’t blend in with. I’ve never been “typical”. I’m not an average American. I never was very good at being the cool kid. I don’t often resonate with the characters portrayed in films and shows that are supposed to be just like me. I’ve never fit in… but it’s never bothered me.
I always enjoyed life. I enjoyed it until I decided that I should care what others think of me. That I should find out what the social norm was and adhere to it. To fit in. To become average. To do the things that others did, because that was how life was supposed to work. But in becoming average, I’ve lost things. I’ve lost the freedom to go crazy, to cast off inhibitions in favor of embracing propriety. The ability to express myself as I know how, trying instead to shove my thoughts and emotions into neat Rubbermaid organizers, labeling each with a narrow assortment of emoticons. I’ve lost highs and lows – dynamics. My life feels stationary. I don’t feel like anything’s moving; I don’t dare believe I’m growing.
So, Student Missionary: Remember what you were before you left, too. Don’t try to become someone you never were. Embrace who you became in your time as a missionary, but don’t cast away the foundation that led to your transformation. Remember who you were, and allow that person to be influenced by the place and the people with whom you served, but never forget who you were to begin with. You’ve spent a lifetime shaping your character, a character that God bestowed upon you so that you’d be ready to answer the call; don’t give it up.
Student Missions gave you purpose – it gave you a place to live and a people to serve and a job to do. It became your life. When you come home, it’s easy to lose that purpose. Remember who you were. Embrace your former role and let it be changed by what you did last year.
I am Jessica. I am a sister, a daughter, a classmate, a friend. I was a student missionary teacher. When I came home, I focused so intently on showing others how well I fit in that I lost sight of what makes me different, what makes me who I am. But now, I cast off every weight, pursuing a life beyond the cultural norm and living a crazy life for the One who set me apart from the beginning.
By Jessica Stotz