A to Z—Compulsions, Cravings, and Re-entry Challenges

Posted on: February 24, 2015 Written by
A to Z—Compulsions, Cravings, and Re-entry Challenges
Photography by: hemul75 from iStock          

In the British TV series Call the Midwife, a young apprentice starts to say, “From my experience …”

The older, wise nun interrupts her by saying, “If you had a little more experience and a little less confidence, I might be inclined to listen to you.”

For the transition to life in the United States, I am neither experienced nor confident. After years of being the old-timer on the field—the go-to person for newbies and the one who knew almost everyone and everything pertinent to living, shopping, staying healthy, and thriving in Oaxaca—suddenly I am the newcomer myself. I am insecure and totally out of my element, feeling as if I know almost no one and nothing.

Only my family (thanks, Bekah!) can direct me away from ridiculous knee-jerk reactions, because frankly, no one else has a clue why I am having such a hard time adjusting. Since I am clearly from the States, people assume that all things here should be obvious to me. The struggle I have experienced (these first months back and living in Michigan) is rather a puzzle to many people.

Perhaps this A-to-Z list of my oddities and mixed-up compulsions and cravings will shed light on this struggle and how weird I really feel.

A = Autumn
I just do not get the whole compulsion about autumn leaves. To me they are just as pretty carpeting the yard as they are in the trees. Why must people rake them before they even turn brown? I want to scream at them, “Leave the leaves!” The sooner they rake them, the sooner winter will come. Maybe if we leave the leaves, it will never snow? This is my logic, and it makes perfect sense to me (living in Mexico has left me a tad superstitious).

B = Boots
Claustrophobic feet that have seldom seen a closed-toe pair of shoes have been recently and suddenly thrust into tight contraptions called boots. At first it was only my mind and my heart crying out to return to Egypt … I mean Oaxaca. Now my very toes are joining in the rebellion.

C = Candles
There is nothing like cheery, nice-smelling candles to make a place feel like home. Unfortunately, I find myself paranoid about burning candles in a house with wooden floors, walls, and shingles after living in an adobe house with cement and brick floors, ceilings, and roof.

D = Do-it-yourself
I vividly recall a meltdown I had several summers ago when first I had to pump my own gas. Now I can handle it, because it has gotten easier. We now have only one zip code to remember instead of the old process of guessing which address was associated with which bank account: Mom’s address, or the home office, or Jim’s mom’s place? Hmmmm … I can remember one zip code (my own)! I have even figured out how to do grocery self-checkout—as long as I put the debit card in the machine the correct way—but I still prefer dealing with real human beings.

E = Expiration dates
I find myself compulsively checking expiration dates before buying perishables and then smelling them anyway. Then, I look and smell again—every single time—before consuming.

F = Facebook and Flip phones
How many times do I have to remind my children: photos are for Facebook, not for flip phones! No, I do not have a smart phone, and even though we are relatively close geographically, I still rely on Facebook and emails to see pictures of the grandchildren.

G = Guilt and Garbage
Will I ever stop feeling guilty for the amount of money “wasted” on non-ministry things for daily living, going to the doctor or dentist, and paying for car insurance?

After all those years of separating burnable and non-burnable garbage, we had progressed to the new system of organic and inorganic. Now I have to sort garbage into regular trash and recyclables, which somehow seems to take a lot more energy. It was so much easier to throw the food garbage to the dogs or the neighbor’s goats and to leave recyclable things next to the trash can—where someone else would pick them up and re-purpose them.

H = Humidity and Hair
I blamed the hairdresser for my wonky Michigan hair; then I flew to Tucson, and the desert air brought the bounce back. Honestly though, finding a new hairdresser is a big-time stress inducer. Battling humidity does not help matters at all.

I = Imported foods
Hoarding is no longer necessary but hard to avoid after so many years of having to ration and stretch imported foods to make them last as long as possible.

J = Just in case …
Even if we are only going for a very quick errand, I instinctively make one final pit stop. How vividly I remember the agony of a very full bladder while being rerouted around Oaxaca City and through the countryside because protesters had blocked every possible road home. Ditto with carrying a water bottle …

K = Kitchen light
Another thing I still fight is the compulsion to turn off every light in the house once it is nine-o-clock in the morning. In Mexico, windows provided adequate daylight to dispense with electric lighting by that hour. Not so in Michigan, let me tell you! Even with lots of windows, there are too many shade-giving trees and clouds.

L = Limes
Taco Tuesdays at genuine Mexican restaurants require that we actually ask for limes, cilantro, and onions, or else (shudders!) they serve them with lettuce, tomatoes, and sour cream. I know it is inconceivable, but it is true. I guess that is what separates the ones who have adapted and those who are new to the scene here. Apparently, I am not there yet.

M = Manzanita Sol
At Taco Bell I was ecstatic to find a familiar Mexican soft drink in the soda-pop dispenser but then had to pour it out after I got a taste of it. It was not any closer to real Manzanita Sol than American Coke is to Mexican Coca Cola—ble-e-ech!

N = No need to cringe
How long will we live in the land of perfectly adequate tap-water-run-through-a-Brita-just-in-case before we no longer feel sinful for pouring out an undrunk glass of water? We still cringe when someone so much as throws out ice cubes.

O = One list
Now I need only one grocery list rather than separate Mexican and North-American lists, but it still seems odd to write things like chocolate chips and canned pumpkin on the same side of the white board as the regular things like eggs, milk, and butter.

P = Pumpkins
Who knew there were so many ready-made foods with pumpkin! Pumpkin lattes, pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin bagels, pumpkin cereal bars … and flavored cream of wheat—wow! It brings new meaning to “the land of plenty”! This alone causes me to pity my friends back in Mexico.

Q = Quezadas
Speaking of friends, my visits with the Quezadas are now via phone and Skype instead of walking along the airstrip. However, these visits are still full of encouragement and joy.

R = Replacements
For most of my adult life, I have been substituting ingredients found in Mexico for ones the North-American recipes required. Even though it is no longer necessary, I still find myself hunting for the replacement items I used to substitute rather than the readily-available items for which the recipe actually calls.

S = Sunsets and Sky and Stars
Although I used to crave things like shade and autumn leaves, one of many things I miss is the beauty of the sunsets in the desert. Where we live now there are simply too many trees and houses blocking the sunshine, and seeing the sunset would require a drive to the country or the lakeside. I also find myself craving a glance at the stars to calm my heart—too many lake-effect clouds and too many streetlights block the view here in Michigan.

T = Tornadoes
It is also rather different living in a place where there are tornado shelters in public buildings—and no instructions on bathroom walls about earthquake procedures.

U = Unbuckling
After five months, I still find myself instinctively reaching down to unbuckle my seatbelt when I turn onto the road where we live, even though this road is paved and not rutted so badly that the seatbelt would give me a rope burn on my neck—like in the old days.

V = Variety
I am not sure how long it will take before I stop freaking out over the volumes of decisions I must make on a daily basis. Aldi’s is the only safe grocery store for me, because they have limited choices and little variety. Restaurant menus are absolutely over-the-top ridiculous in the variety of options. Just decide for me already.

W = Whatever you call that room
While sitting at the kitchen table, I have to nod toward the room located on the opposite side of the kitchen that is serving as a pantry because we still refer to it as the “laundry room” even though the washer and dryer are down in the basement and no longer in the dining-room-repurposed-into-a-food-storage-area. In other words, the room where the crock pot and Vitamix are located was always called the laundry room, and as you can see, old habits are slow to die.

X = eXtremely jam-stuffed closet
With such a wide span of seasons, I find it difficult to maintain my streamlined and simple mix-and-match wardrobe. Instead, I have hugely bulky items that look very unfamiliar to me.

Z =Ziploc bags
Any good global woman knows that you never throw out a perfectly good Ziploc bag. Even though I do not have a handy clothesline for drying them, I feel guilty for throwing out a Ziploc bag that could easily be used four or five more times.


Y = You name it!
Daily I discover more weird ideas that pop into my head which I can trace back to living outside the United States for 28 years. Basically, I am ruined for normal life here. With all its wonders and beauties and blessings, it is just not home—YET.


©2015 Thrive.

Question to consider: What are some “weird ideas that pop into [your] head which [you] can trace back to living outside the United States”?

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  • Karen Lowen

    Thanks for putting some of my thoughts and feelings into words. After almost 7 years living in Mexico, many things have changed inside of me. My family and I have been back in Canada for 5 months now, I thought it would be easier, but it has been difficult. I miss my Mexican friends just dropping by, and I miss the reverse priveledge. (D,G, I,L,S,U,V,Z) I can relate to these so well! Bless you on your journey!

    • Yes, I miss having friends drop in, too. Thanks for “dropping in” here and commenting. It IS good to know we are not alone in this journey.

  • Cheryl

    Thank you for putting into words so many of my own thoughts (especially V for Variety!). We have been overseas for 17 years, and have been back in the US for the last 6 months and possibly will be here longer. Working through the differences between my identity “over there” and my identity here, and all the things that I haven’t yet adjusted to is overwhelming and quirky. I appreciate hearing similar thoughts from someone else and confirming that I’m not alone on this crazy path!

    • Yeah, and the whole identity thing. That’s a whole ‘nuther subject all by itself. I don’t really know WHO I am any more. My future blog may be something along the lines of “Living a Life Less Defined.”

  • I loved this list. We were in Mexico City for over 11 years and just got back last month. We are still working with our mission organization but in the home office. I haven’t felt any reverse culture shock yet – but I am sure I will have some.

    • Eleven years in Mexico City? Yeah, I’m sure you’ll experience some form of culture shock eventually, sorry to say. When it does, just go find some Mexican taco restaurant/ store, and that will ease the discomfort. At least it does for me.

  • Mary

    I loved this list. I was struck by the mention of not knowing people. That is so true, even when returning to the same places. I was thinking it was ME.

    There was some mention of having a different identity overseas versus in the U.S. Wow! I always feel so out of place in the U.S., like I am a different person, different personality. Each woman’s situation is different. Being single is a factor. Takes time to adjust. And I have an ‘informal me’, and a ‘U.S. church platform me’.

    There are many things I do almost unconsciously, things learned- always shake out shoes before putting on feet in case of scorpions or centipedes, when going out always make sure money is hidden and secure and check frequently, try to assess just how skilled the Philippine worker is who promises he will fix my computer/electric/plumbing/car, etc, check bed for ants before lying down, enjoy watching lizards on the ceiling before going to sleep, keep odd things safe in refrigerator: sugar, coffee, toothbrush and toothpaste; importance of drinking only potable water, take drinking water in a thermos upstairs for overnight use, taking a bath with a bucket and dipper, bucket-flush the toilet, assuming any man standing with his back to the street is urinating, assuming everyone I talk to wants to get something out of me, using local words and differently accented English words (I forget which is the Western pronunciation) when in the U.S. gets strange looks, always calculating how many pesos something is before buying in the U.S., difficulty buying things in the U.S. because they seem too expensive, and difficulty buying clothes in the U.S. because everything looks so strange.

    • You mention quite a few really good ones I didn’t consider, like the shaking out the shoes for scorpions. Yep, we’re quirky all right, but with good reason. Hang in there!

  • Wendy

    I’ve not yet read the whole post. I will. We’ve been stateside for just one year, after 15 years overseas. Wow. Can relate. I too loved the Fall leaves – on the trees, blanketed on the ground too! Was beautiful! The raking of them was an enormous task! I even had help, but cleaning out the gutters I was in tears. Admiring my neighbors who just do it as apart of life, but it felt quite different to me.

    • Yeah, that’s just it. Neighbors do all of this so effortlessly. They have no idea how hard this all is. Yikes! I never thought about the gutters. There aren’t very many, but now they are stuffed with snow.

  • Wendy

    We are in Michigan too!

    • Brrr! Sorry to hear that. It will be gorgeous before too terribly long, though.

  • Susan

    It’s such a relief to know I’m not the only one out there with similar feelings & struggles, even with little things like Ziploc baggies or hoarding those special treats! Thanks for sharing from your experience! Having lived almost half of my 50+ life out of North America, it’s difficult to think of going back to our passport country in three more months. We’ll still be working for our ministry/mission organization but have been asked to do that stateside. This will be my 4th ‘return from the mission field’ but somehow I don’t think it gets any easier. This time we bring back with us two daughters almost grown and we’re trying to prepare them for some of the challenges they too will face. There are a lot of insecurities as one faces/deals with re-entry, but thankfully the Lord who walked with us faithfully through our ups and downs overseas will still be right there with us, giving us the wisdom and flexibility needed to re-adjust to another ‘different lifestyle’, to realize that we’ve changed yet again, but that the changes can be a plus in new ministries. Courage, sisters in Christ! Jesus faced a radical change in lifestyle when He came to this earth and He knows how to help us wherever He plants us, doesn’t He?!!

    • Yes, He certainly does! Thanks for the words of encouragement. Sometimes we are too hard on ourselves, expecting things to be easier in the re-adjustment department after we’ve been through it so many times before. It never is, though. We have to remain flexible and teachable each and every time. So true!

      Preparing out older kids is another issue, too. I’m not sure I did a very good job at that. At the same time, I think having our children to think about is sort of comforting. Like another reader pointed out, being single has other complications when it comes to figuring out who we are in the midst of all the changes. For us moms, that is one thing that remains when the rest of our identity takes a beating.

  • Sue Thomson

    Oh, my goodness! Boy, could I relate!! Even though I’ve been back from Brazil for 20 years after having been there for 13 years, I still wash out my Ziploc bags! For me it was difficult to find a good church here in southeast Michigan; I was looking for one that had the feel of a church plant.

    Things will get easier, Jamie, but it will take time, quite a bit of time. But God is faithful. That’s one of my anchors when I feel “different”.

  • Two of the things I forgot to miss in 20 years overseas? Static electricity and cold toilet seats!

  • Sara

    Muchisimas gracias por tus comentarios. Oaxaca no va ser igual sin ti. Gracias por tu servicio, y que Dios les sigue bendiciendo.

  • maligirl

    Thanks for the article, enjoyed it as I do many of your articles.