Same Same But Different: Confessions of a Returning Short Termer

It's hard to believe time has gone by so quickly. It has, though. Tonight I'll board a plane to America after six months away. It's not what people may think returning to one's passport country is like. It's certainly not what I wish it were like.

This is confession number one: It's actually really hard to leave.

The pastor I work with says it's hard to leave your home to go to the mission field, but it's even harder to leave the field. He's right. The reasons are uncountable. Literally uncountable. Though I can verbally list some of the reasons leaving is hard (I'll miss people, places, classrooms, ministries, language, and more), many more tiny details of daily living in Cambodia are now subconsciously etched into my mind and my heart. I can't count them because I'm not even aware of some of them. Like Easter eggs hidden too well and not found till months later, parts of me which have changed - ranging from mannerisms to worldview - will remain hidden until revealed by experiences in the States. Because of this, the season of re-entry won't when jet lag does; in fact, I have no idea when it will end.


This leads me to confession number two: I am terrified.

Mostly I'm terrified because I have this tendency to, you know, want to be in control. To know what's going to happen in the future. To have a five year plan or a one year plan or okay, I'd even go with a one month plan at this point!! I handed over the keys to my room in Cambodia, and I have no permanent address in the U.S. I'm thankful I can stay with my parents, but it's not my home. I'm not sure where home will be next. This is a season of trust, and though in my better moments I can fully rest in trusting God, much of the time I'm terrified.

Those are pretty expected things to be terrified of, but perhaps confession number four isn't as obvious: I'm scared I'm not going to know how to relate to those back in America.

The Cambodians have a saying: "same same, but different." It means something like "similar but not the same" or as one of my friends used to say, "It's exactly the same as that...except not!" I'm still Allison. I'm the same daughter, friend, sister, and nurse who left six months ago...except not. I am same same, but different. I've been gone a long time. Six months may not seem long, but people back home have been growing in their ways, and I've been growing in my way, and for the most part those ways haven't intersected. I'm scared my friendships aren't going to be the same as I remember them. Or maybe I'm afraid they will be the same. I know I've changed in the past few months, but I'm not sure how yet. I'm not sure who I am in the context of America, which means I'm not sure anymore how I relate to Americans. I may need some time before I'm ready to talk about Cambodia so I can sort my thoughts out.

I'm still excited to meet up with old friends, yet right now even this is overwhelming because confession number five is: I don't know how to respond when others want to help me through this season. I'm not sure how others can help me process my experiences, and to some extent I'm not sure I want others to try to help me. Discussing half a year's life experiences over a cup of coffee seems diminutive, like trying to force a grown woman into a toddler's onesie. There's just too much there. It'll be an experimental time as I find what activities and conversations do and don't help with the transition.

It's humbling I don't know what I'm doing in this season of life and I'm not even sure how others can help. I do know a few things I'll need, though. I'll need people to be patient with me as I figure out how to do life in America again. I'll need time and space to grieve what I've left behind. As much as coffee and lunch dates intimidate me, I'll still need community. I'll need people to walk through this re-entry process with me. And I'll for sure need prayer. I'll need to walk with Jesus. Like Penny for Desmond in LOST, He's my constant in times of chaos, confusion, and changes in culture, time zones, jobs, homes, languages, and pretty much everything else.

These are some of my confessions. I am same same, but different. I know others probably are, too. A lot of life has passed for everyone. If you're in the States, maybe we can get lunch, coffee, maybe a snow cone - and let's throw Chickfila in there too - and slowly, over time, together process who we are now. Both same same, but both different.

And let's make sure to get extra Chickfila sauce in case I end up overseas again any time soon. Because I'm counting on its deliciousness being exactly same same, not different!


Further resources for understanding reentry: 

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Questions to Ask Returning Short Termers

Several months ago, I had a conversation with my sister about returning from and processing short term mission trips. She had just returned from a summer internship in Papua New Guinea, and her team did an exercise which involved writing down questions they wanted others to ask them when they arrived home.

What a valuable tool! So often returning short termers struggle to express to others what their time overseas was like—and so often friends and family on the welcoming committee struggle to know how to relate to the returner. (I speak from experience on both ends.) Yet a solid conversation with someone fresh off a short term trip can be invaluable. It helps the missionary process experiences, and it gives the listener insight into what God is doing around the world and in the heart of their friend/family member.

In light of a recent short term medical mission team’s visit and with the knowledge that countless short term teams will depart and return this summer, I put together a list of questions for people returning short term trips (I’ve included the list my sister & her team created last year).

The questions are geared toward trips spanning one to six weeks. I’ve divided the questions based on topic, though some topics are more appropriate for those whose terms were longer. Without further ado, here is the list:


  • Can I see your pictures and hear about them?
  • What was one unexpected aspect of your trip?
  • What were some of your expectations going into the trip? How were they met?
  • What was learning another language like? What kind of difficulties did it present?
  • What was a typical day like?
  • What exceeded your expectations?
  • What is something you didn’t expect to learn while you were overseas?
  • Did you learn any new skills?
  • How were you stretched in ways you didn’t expect?
  • What was a challenging part of your trip?
  • Tell me about the food you ate.
  • What did you learn about yourself?
  • What was a rewarding or fulfilling part of your trip?
  • Tell me about any fears you faced.


  • What verse really stuck with you or was significant and why?
  • How has your time in _____ shaped your perception of God?
  • What has changed in your future goals, values, and desires as a result of what has happened/what God has said to you while in _____?
  • What did you learn about God and His character?
  • Did you experience a greater awareness of spiritual warfare?
  • What is one major thing God taught you?
  • How did you see God as Provider?


  • Tell me about one person you met who caused you to think differently about something.
  • What was your team dynamic like?
  • What were your relationships with the nationals like?
  • What was one rewarding/challenging aspect of working with the missionaries?
  • What was one rewarding/challenging aspect of working with the locals?
  • Tell me about someone you will or want to keep in touch with in _____.


  • What is something about the culture in ____ that rubbed you the wrong way and why?
  • What kind of healthy ways did you learn to deal with anxiety and culture shock?
  • What is the quickest thing you got used to that is different from the States?
  • What’s something you really like about ____ culture?
  • What did you learn about _____ culture?
  • Did you break any cultural norms?
  • What was surprising about the culture?


  • How are you adjusting to being back in the States in light of all you experienced?
  • How can I help alleviate some of the reverse culture shock?
  • What emotions are you experiencing as you return? 
  • What do you miss about _____?
  • How can I best support you during this transition?
  • What’s difficult about being back in the U.S.?
  • Who has been most helpful in the re-entry process? What have they done that's been helpful? 
  • Are there things about U.S. culture that rub you the wrong way after being away?
  • How do you want your experiences to change your everyday life? What are practical ways we can work to ensure those changes last?

That’s all I've got. Go find a returning short termer, share a meal or get a hot cup of coffee, and find a good spot to talk. Happy conversations!!

Feel free to add to this list in the comments:
What is the best question someone's asked you after a short term trip?
What do you wish someone had asked you?

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