Collage of home photos.

What Home Assignment Means for a Missionary – Arriving “Home”

Part 5

What comes to mind when you think of home? If you’re a missionary, the idea of home can get complicated. Is your home the country you came from, or would you consider your home to be the country you’ve served in for many years? Even when on Home Assignment, the word home can be a bit fluid. That’s something OMF Japan missionary Wendy Marshall addresses in this article. She also shares about reverse culture shock.

(Listen to the companion audio discussion of this series featuring Wendy Marshall and Kesia Pain.)

By Wendy Marshall

Once you get to your “home” country you encounter the other part of your move: setting up house in a country you used to live in, but haven’t for some time. How this looks varies greatly for each missionary. Some stay with relatives, others rent an unfurnished place and need to scrounge up furniture. Some are housed by their church in a “mission” accommodation, others spend their whole home assignment hopping from one place to another.

Finding accommodation for home assignment can be very stressful. Each time we’ve gone back we’ve had people in Australia help us find somewhere to live. Sometimes it’s been our home church doing the searching; other times it was a close friend.

Last time we flew out of Japan without knowing where we’d be living for six months, but our friend called us just after we’d landed, telling us a place had been found. We’d planned a few days of recreation in another city, and one of those days we found ourselves in the middle of the city looking for a store that would let us use their computer and scanner so that we could sign the lease agreement before we got back to Queensland. We discovered later that though our friend thought she had seen the house that we’d agreed to live in for six months, she actually hadn’t. But, in God’s providence, it turned out to be just what we needed.

This time we go back to a land that is in the midst of a housing crisis. Rentals are in high demand and homelessness is on the rise. Whenever I start to feel anxious about it, though, I remind myself of God’s abundant and timely provision for us each time we’ve gone on home assignment.

Our family keeps a small storage container on the rural property of a friend. In that container we keep kitchen goods and linens, a limited amount of furniture, and some sentimental things. We also store our queen-sized bed at my parent’s house and a few photos and wall-hangings with a friend. That is all we possess in Australia. And it’s all we’ve needed.

Most times we’ve ended up in an unfurnished rental accommodation. But for each home assignment God has provided furniture from all sorts of sources. I remember one time when we packed up our house to return to Japan and a pastor’s wife realised how much we were giving away (almost all the furniture in the house, stuff we’d been given 12 months earlier), she was shocked. But we stand amazed at God’s generosity and are now able to testify to his abundant and ongoing provision.

Reverse culture shock

When you arrive back “home” to your passport country you experience conflicted feelings. You get to meet family and friends you haven’t seen for a long time, but you also notice how people have changed and they notice that you are also different. It is a shock to realise that most of the people you know there have little idea of what your life overseas has been like, and, in fact, many of them don’t have much interest in finding out.

A library
Even a library can seem quite different after years away.

Places also change. Last time we went to Australia for home assignment we went with our teenage boys to a local library. On previous home assignments it had been a favourite place to spend time. But the library had changed—it now looked like a bookshop with books grouped on free-standing shelves that had labels like “Pop science,” “Award winning,” and “Fantasy.” The décor was black and grey, the size of the library had halved, and, most disturbingly, there were very few books on any shelves. It was only four days since we’d landed in Australia after three years away and we were all still feeling a bit raw. This unexpected shock left me feeling unsettled and uncomfortable. We struggled to hold back our exclamations about the changes and one boy struggled to hold in his anger.

Reverse culture shock is worst in those initial days and weeks, but can unexpectedly hit you later too. On my personal blog in 2010 I wrote about visiting a medical specialist in Australia. During our “chat” he asked me some questions about my medical history. I couldn’t remember the English word for a problem I’d had, just the English equivalent of a Japanese word that had been borrowed from English, but not any longer in regular use in English. He figured out what I meant and I just explained that it was “one of those days.” On the same day I had trouble filling up my car with gas. A complicated array of factors had me worried that I was in the wrong line and that I had filled my car with wrong type of fuel.

It sounds manageable when you put a neat name on it, but reverse culture shock is very disorientating, and, even worse, if it involves someone else who doesn’t know why you are so confused (or confusing). Often, after the fact, it’s easy to get clarity, but in the middle of a situation you can feel very uncomfortable.

Other practical matters

There are many other things that need to be done in the days and weeks after a missionary arrives. These might include enrolling children in school, ensuring internet connectivity, buying new clothes, connecting with local services like medical, and changing addresses for insurance.

Even getting settled into shopping at a new grocery store takes time. Many missionaries struggle more with grocery shopping than you think. In Japan we only have a small selection of cereal in most stores, but in Australia we have to choose from an entire aisle!

Missionaries usually arrive back in their “home” country feeling exhausted. Facing challenges like reverse culture shock as well as many decisions that are necessary soon after arrival is quite daunting. If you’re ever in a position of being able to help a missionary in this very early stage, seize it with both hands.

(Next time, Wendy shares how Home Assignment isn’t exactly a time of rest and relaxation… it’s the start of a ‘new’ job. Read the prior articles in this series: Part 1 – Advanced Planning; Part 2 – Preparing to Leave; Part 3 – Emotional Toll; Part 4 – The Actual Move)

A libraryAbout the Author: Wendy Marshall is an Australian serving with OMF. She has been in Japan with her husband David since 2000; they have three young adult sons. Wendy is a writer and editor. She’s the managing editor of a magazine for and by missionaries in Japan called Japan Harvest. She’s also the editor for OMF Japan’s social media and blog. She and David love to camp and have set up their tent in more than 30 places in Japan. You can follow Wendy on her personal blog: on the edge of ordinary.

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Yvonne Marie TAYLOR
11 months ago

thanks Wendy for your insight into what you all have been experiencing, God bless you guys and we look forward to seeing you xx

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