Gaston, South Carolina. Train tracks. A grocery store. A Wendy’s. And a re-entry camp for worldwide MKs on the shores of a small, tree-surrounded lake. I wasn’t sure I’d survive the heat. I wasn’t sure I’d be welcomed, arriving a couple days after the opening festivities. And I wasn’t sure the “rustic” surroundings would meet my wimpy bleach-and-A/C standards… But the heat was bearable, the welcome was effusive, and the bleach Lauren and I picked up on the way from the airport to the camp was a perfect compliment to the rattling small A/C unit wedged into the window of my comfortable cell…er…bedroom.
What a week it was! Seventeen MKs from around the globe coming together to breathe one last, communal, calming breath before launching into a college career. When Lauren (a former student from BFA who I love like a sister) called to ask me if I’d be willing to fly to SC for a week, I answered “yes” without hesitation. And when she told me I’d be covering the sessions no one there wanted to tackle, I practically jumped up and down for joy—which is a bit of an odd thing, considering said sessions would be on the topics of loss, grief and coping with negative emotions. Not exactly jump-up-and-down fare!
But as difficult as the topics are, they’re also critical to an MKs ability to adapt to a new world. As I write, many of them are arriving on college campuses where nothing is familiar and few (if any) of their peers will relate to the globalness of their integration and adaptation challenges. They’re watching their former lives fade into the distance, and through the haze of newness and lostness, they’re seeing their present slowly come into focus. It’s a strange limbo-land of loss, confusion and anticipation in which they’d prefer to take just one of two distinct roads: doing well or doing poorly. Those are manageable outcomes. But ask them how they’re coping in a week, a month or a semester, and you’ll find their answers lie somewhere in the deep and thorny underbrush between the distinct roads.
I thought I should suggest a few basic principles to assist them with these first steps into the rest of their lives. Please pass these on to MKs you know who might be struggling too.
1. Recognize emotions for what they are.
Homesickness, trepidation, sadness…those are all easily understandable, given the circumstances. But sometimes, the grief shows up in more head-scratching ways. Something that might normally just frustrate you now infuriates you. Someone who might normally merely annoy you now incenses you. Something that might normally tug at your heartstrings now threatens to open floodgates of emotion. Over-the-top responses are often just an alternate manifestation of grief. Recognize the intensity for what it is, because only then will you be able to talk yourself down from reactions that can damage “fresh” relationships.
Remember that though other freshmen have lost their world, you’ve lost your universe—the smells, tastes, ways of life, languages, culture and customs that populated your former life. It’s okay and normal to find it hard to enter this new phase when so little of it feels familiar or safe. Just recognize that when your emotions get a little out of whack, they may not be proportionate to whatever causes them. Recognize in those instances that they’re the expression of your grief, and try to implement some of the following steps to cope in a less damaging way.
2. Make sure your self-talk is truthful.
It’s so easy to let our self-talk add to the difficulty of starting a college life in North America. Common, heartfelt exaggerations are:
- “Everybody hates me.”
- “No one will ever understand me.”
- “I’ll never fit in.”
They may sound ridiculously dramatic when stated “on paper,” but they’re often the relentless mantra running in the back of our minds in our times of transition.
When you sense that your heart and mind are beginning to recite untruths, counteract them with truth and interject some hope into your grieving.
- “They don’t hate me—they’re just busy with their other friends right now.”
- “They don’t understand me yet because we’re so different in some ways, but we’re alike too, and I need to engage with them in a way that shows that.”
- “It’s only been two weeks—I’ve got lots of time to begin to fit in!”
3. Communicate with someone who cares and hears you.
Jesus. If anyone can relate to being alone in suffering, it’s Him. Talk, scream, moan, beg, accuse. He can take it. Just stay close to Him.
Communicating with friends or loved ones from your previous world can also be a wonderful source of comfort in times of transition. With so many ways to reach across oceans, that’s an easy thing to do. But also seek sounding boards and sources of solace in your new world. It’s so important that you not have all your anchor points in the past, but that you develop some in the present too.
This might take some trial and error…and that’s okay! Give it time. Be patient as you seek out people on campus, in church and elsewhere who seem to be trustworthy and interested in you. Don’t limit your focus to peers. Adults will uniquely be able to love you and hear you as you process your transition. And peers will be able to accompany you through the ups and downs of daily life. Without an outlet, whatever emotions you harbor will fester and grow. Defuse them by expressing them to someone you trust.
4. Find ways of relieving the emotions.
Read a book. Go out for coffee. Watch a movie. Play a video game. BUT ensure that these forms of relief are intermittent, not constant. Losing yourself in something for days on end will actually hinder your ability to healthily integrate your new world. These forms of relief should be a temporary reward for intentionally making forays into the life ahead.
5. Be active.
Coming from me, that suggestion is a bit like Jack Sparrow promoting world peace, and I realize the irony of it! But exercise “resets” the brain, releasing endorphins that brighten one’s outlook and clarify one’s thinking. Go for a walk, run the stadium stairs, jog, throw a football, work out at the gym, play ultimate Frisbee. Look for ways to build activity into your day and see the results. If nothing else, you’ll be healthy!
6. Initiate connection.
I’ve already covered the need for you to find someone to confide in. You’ll also need to develop a circle of casual friends among your peers. This will consist of possibly less “profound” relationships, people with whom you can hang out, do homework, go to the cafeteria and talk about the opposite sex! ALL your relationships don’t have to be gut-level, intense friendships. It’s okay (really, it is!) to just have people you pal around with. And who knows—with enough time, those might turn into something deeper too!
Because of the nature of college social circles, it may be necessary for YOU to initiate some of those contacts. No one is really meant to be a hermit, but if you let it happen for too long, it’ll become a hard habit to break. If you see yourself heading that direction and if no one is initiating with you, grab every last shred of courage you have in you and hit the pavement. Join a card game going on in a dorm room, sit with strangers at a meal, ask classmates if they’d like to study for a test together. Be okay with failure and celebrate success! We MKs sometimes sit back and expect the world to come to us. That only works if the world is willing and aware of our need! Sometimes (oftentimes?) we have to make the first move.
7. Remember who you are.
Just because you’re in a different place doesn’t mean you aren’t yourself anymore! People around you may not know who you are yet, but give them time. Remember that North Americans enter slowly into an intimate level of friendship. It’s okay for them to ask superficial questions and engage in casual friendship at first. And it’s REALLY okay for you not to impose your own definition of friendship on them. Again—give it time. The person you are won’t fade. You won’t become less of yourself just because others don’t know the full you. It will still be in there. Celebrate your rich heritage with other multi-cultural friends, and let your mono-cultural environment slowly discover all you have to offer.
At the retreat last week, I had the MKs write the names of their heart-homes on the soles of their feet, a sort of temporary tattoo that emphasizes how the past is foundational to who MKs are. Japan, Russia, Italy, Spain… You stand on the cultures and experiences that have shaped you. No one can take that away from you! And on their hands, I had them write what they need to bring to their new world in order to find friendship and community here. The hand-tattoo represents commitment to humility, intentionality, courage, patience, and whatever other traits they think they’ll need to display as they begin new lives in a new place. The soles of their feet are their past—the foundation of their identity. The palms of their hands are what they bring to their future—their commitment and hope. Both can exist together! Pick up a pen and try it. If nothing else, the word-tattoos will serve as a reminder of who you are and what you need to offer.
8. Exercise gratitude.
No other form of exercise carries the same ability to transform your life! Ann Voskamp (author of “One Thousand Gifts”) did some research into the subject and found that people who focus on gratitude –
- Have a relative absence of stress and depression. (Woods et al., 2008)
- Make progress towards important personal goals (Emmons and McCullough, 2003)
- Report higher levels of determination and energy (Emmons and McCullough, 2003)
- Feel closer in their relationships and desire to build stronger relationships (Algoe and Haidt, 2009)
- Increase their happiness by 25% (McCullough et al., 2002)
My advice? Get a notebook or journal that you’ll keep by your bed. Every night (EVERY NIGHT), take a few minutes to write down three things for which you’re grateful. At least one of them needs to be something that happened that day. Because the negatives of life have a way of leaping up and smacking us in the face, it’s important to counter them with a determined effort to see the positives. This small exercise has the potential to change your life…
Whether you’re an MK or not, please spend these next couple of weeks praying for those who are watching the taillights of their past disappear into the distance. Then continue to pray as the more long-term adjustment takes place. For some it will take much longer than the first couple of months… Though they may look and act the part, these young people are what we call “Hidden Immigrants”—so different from this culture despite their resemblance to it. One MK this summer told me she wished she had an accent so people wouldn’t assume she belongs and thrives here. It’s a sentiment many of them will feel as they enter college on this continent. Pray that they will find the courage and energy to make yet another life-altering transition, that people (maybe you?) will come around them to love them and support them, and that they’ll find Jesus to be their greatest strength.