This was the week I finally accepted something I already knew to be true, not just as an idea but as a reality. Repatriation is hard. It takes time – a lot of time. And there is no shortcut.
Repatriation means returning to your passport country after an extended time away, and this is my second time doing it. The first time I repatriated I was 15 years old. I was sick of sticking out when I wanted to blend in. The main way I stuck out was being Australian – I was the only Australian among 2,400 students in my US high school. I was so excited to go back to Australia and be normal! But Australian peers heard an American twang in my accent and vocabulary. I was called “Miss America” by a few people, which I hated – it was a reminder that my hopes for this return had been dashed. I felt a little like a deer in the headlights.
This time, I thought it would be different.
And it is different, in a lot of ways. I know so much more about culture shock, re-entry, and things like that. I know that the emotional stress of repatriation can last a long time – years, in some cases.
All the intellectual understanding and explanation in the world doesn’t change the fact that this is a stressful change. Even knowing it is a stressful change doesn’t take the stress away. Nothing takes it away. There are ways to mitigate it, to handle it, but it is still there. There is no shortcut.
I did a lot of things right as I prepared for repatriation. I took time to process my feelings about leaving my life in China (including here on this blog). My time in Cambodia provided a buffer. I had time and space to become ready to start a new life in Australia. I was deliberate about making a break from my international life so that I could engage in Australia, not just be biding my time until I could leave again. I have had a fairly soft landing in that I am living in a community that values international experiences (and we’re close to some really good Chinese restaurants!)
None of that changes that I really HAVE left not only a place but a life, and that no one here knows me in that context. And even if they did, that life no longer exists. I have uprooted myself and started completely from scratch. The fact that the people around me are, for the most part, quite sensitive to that, and grasp the magnitude of it, is really lovely. But it doesn’t change the emotional weight of it.
For me, the strain of repatriation has mostly shown itself as an intensification of the social anxiety I feel normally. Living in community, with many hours of class and other required activities each week, just intensifies that intensification. I have felt so anxious so often since arriving in Sydney. When I get the chance to stay in my room and ignore the world, I usually take it. It’s a bit annoying, because I know I have a need for heart-deep friendships, but to develop them I need to meet people and talk to them and get to know them. Which takes time. And requires that I leave my room.
This week I finally accepted that the anxiety I feel is part of the stress of repatriation, and that’s okay. It’s going to take time, and that’s okay.
Why this week? Because this was my first week back after three weeks away. The first week I was with a team from the college visiting a church in Wollongong (which I plan to write about later). Think of it as a kind of work experience for people interested in doing Christian ministry as a profession. Of course, Christian ministry has already been my profession for years, so for me it felt like returning to a world I know and am comfortable in! That was a pleasant surprise indeed. Spending time with teenagers, and singing with a band – oh! It was life to my soul. I know this stuff. I love it. I’m experienced at it and good at it! What a lovely, lovely change.
Then I had two weeks of holidays. I spent it almost entirely with people who had visited me in, or even lived in, Beijing. I had plenty of school work to be doing, but instead I devoted almost all my “work” time to my book about TCKs. It was so hard to tear myself away from it and force myself to study – and that continued when I got back to college a week ago. I had a Greek test last Monday and my heart just wasn’t in it – which means my brain wasn’t all there either! My mind, which I usually rely on to be sharp, has felt fuzzy. Unfocussed. Unwilling to focus. Not helpful during a test, and definitely not helpful while I try to prepare a major essay.
My mind has been with the 600+ TCKs who have now taken the online survey I created. My mind has been with dear friends in China, Cambodia, Singapore, Uganda, the US, the UK, and elsewhere. My mind has been in the world that I have known and loved and invested in for more than a decade.
As much as I was ready for this change, for this new challenge in this new place, it is challenging! It is challenging to start from zero. It is challenging to invest in a place my heart is not attached to – to choose what I don’t feel. It is challenging to think “permanent” in this place when everything in me wants to head back overseas as soon as I finish studying.
There is a civil war happening in my heart – between what I have wholeheartedly chosen, and what I have invested in for so long. And that civil war is tiring before I do anything else at all.
That is what I have come to realise. Being in Australia is, for me, emotionally draining. Before I try to make new friends. Before I try to invest in new activities. Before I do any study. Just being here is hard work. It’s painful to keep finding myself here, where I don’t know much and, more importantly, don’t have a lot of strong connections.
It doesn’t mean I made the wrong decision, nor does it mean that I regret being here. I am glad to be here, excited to have this opportunity, thankful to have time with my parents and grandparents and the few close friends I have in this part of the world. But that doesn’t make it easy. I’m not sad to be here – I’m happy about it! But that doesn’t make it easy.
Repatriation is hard. It takes time – a lot of time. And there is no shortcut.