Written By Dominic Tham, Malaysia
The three years I spent as a student in Canberra were some of the best years of my life.
I had the good life down pat: lived in a nice neighborhood where I was able to host dinner two to three times a month, held a decent job as a junior system analyst with really good pay, and attended a church where its members were genuine about serving each other and had a heart to reach unreached communities globally. Life seemed almost too good to be true.
And then, I found out that my student visa was expiring, and it was time for me to head back to my home country, Malaysia. I tried applying to further my stay in Australia, but it was rejected twice. I was heartbroken, but reluctantly packed up my belongings and made my way “home”.
Life back in Malaysia couldn’t have been any more different. I had trouble finding a job, and had lost touch with my friends. There was also the difficulty of readjusting to living with my family again, which meant losing both my independence and the freedom to host people for dinner parties. I felt so isolated and lonely.
After months of searching and praying, I found both a job and a church where I felt (kind of) at home, but I still yearned for that sense of togetherness and belonging I experienced back in Canberra. The turning point came when I went on a weekend retreat with my connect group to Ipoh (a state in Malaysia). The long conversations and the goofing around I had with them reminded me of the road trips I used to take in Canberra with my Australian friends, and that sense of community began to grow.
This church slowly became my home, and I’ve been attending and serving at this church for a year now. Throughout my time serving here, God has opened up so many opportunities for me to meet new people and to walk alongside those who are in the same boat as I am—struggling with the same issues of transition and belonging.
If you, too, have just returned from a time living overseas or are struggling to find a community where you’re at, here are a few pointers I’ve learned which might be of help to you.
1. Lean on God’s leading
I badly wanted to continue living in Canberra. I had grown very attached to my friends and the community that I was a part of, so I felt like a little part of me died when it was taken away from me. I prayed and fasted, in hopes that God would answer my prayers and allow me to stay on in Canberra. But in the midst of my disappointment, a friend reminded me that God’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8).
This verse filled me with new hope. I was determined to start an exciting journey back in Malaysia, leaning on God and learning from Him as I go through the seasons.
Looking back on the past year, I reflected on how it wouldn’t have been possible for me to secure my current job without my dad and my friends’ help. My current workplace has the added bonus of being one train stop away from my church, which means I’m able to head home from church without having to battle the traffic.
I thought I could do everything on my own, without having to rely on anyone else. But God has shown me that I should never underestimate how He can use people to help me, and I’m excited to see what else God has in store for me in the future. He’s the painter, and the life He’s given me is the canvas.
2. Stay connected with your old community
I initially thought moving back home would mean severing ties with my Australian friends, but thanks to technology, I’m still able to keep in touch with them, despite the time difference. There were times where I would jump in on a Zoom chat with them for Bible study or to hang out with my old life group members. By and large, I keep in touch with them via text messages, whether it’s sharing a Christian meme, or chatting about a particular Scripture that each of us has been studying, and how we can apply it to our lives.
These people have known me for a long time, so I’m glad I’m still able to stay in touch with them, and go to them for advice or pointers. Once, I was complaining to them that no one loved and cared for me like they did, and how I often found myself in a position of loving and caring for others, without having it reciprocated. My friend lovingly pointed me to verses like Matthew 22:37-39 and reminded me of how God’s love enables me to love others.
3. Build and grow a new community
While it’s good to keep those old ties going, it’s also important to reach out to others in your new community and intentionally pray for God to bring people in your life that can speak into it and encourage you to follow Him.
Find people in your church whom you would like to connect with—it could be the person who’s serving alongside you, people from your new connect group, or the new person you notice has been sitting alone the last few weeks. It might be awkward initiating the first hellos, but the person would appreciate the simple gesture of being invited to have lunch with you and your friends after service.We’re built for relationships (Genesis 2:18), so step outside of your comfort zone, say hi to someone in church, and see where that might take you!
Relationships do take time to build, they’re not instant ramen—so take time to get to know your new friends and do some activities together. On my end, I’ve organized a few board games and pizza nights at my church, and it has just been a really fun night of getting to know each other.
The journey transiting back into life in Malaysia and finding a new community hasn’t been an easy process for me, but it has been a good ride. Though my life has taken a slightly different turn from what I had in mind, I’m starting to see that God knew what He was doing when He sent me home. Perhaps I was getting too comfortable with my life in Canberra, and going back to Malaysia was an opportunity for me to learn to trust Him and see His hand of faithfulness over my life—regardless of where He’s placed me.
Occasionally, I still find myself struggling to adjust to life back in Malaysia, but I trust that God is working in and around me. If you’re a recent overseas returnee like me, and you’re missing the friends you’ve made overseas, or wondering if you’ll ever be able to adjust to life back home, I’d encourage you to not rush the process. Use this time to continue trusting God, and know that He’s ahead of you every step of the way.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanks giving, present your request to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6)