Culture shock: “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.”
I think everyone can relate to this. Even if you have never left your home country you could see how stepping out of an airport somewhere in Africa where local kids come running up to you holding out their tiny hands and saying things in a language you don’t understand while a few adult males seem to want to take your luggage from you… can be quite overwhelming.
Less well known is the other version of culture shock: the so called reverse culture shock.
Returning to your home country with its familiar culture after having called that exotic African country or some other far away land home. That should be easy right? Being back home, surrounded by loving friends and family, finally eating the food again you missed so much…
Well, it’s not. I’ve moved back several times and often felt lost. Unable to understand why people live the way they live and worry so much about trivial things (the “first world problems”). I felt like an outsider in a country where everyone expects me to fit in.
It’s you, not them
It’s simple really: you are not the same anymore but you hadn’t realized just how much you changed.
It’s not that everything around you is different, it is just that you have changed dramatically while you are returning to a place where people expect you to be the same.
Every day you are faced with confusion and pressure and there is always that feeling of not being accepted for being the new you.
People want you to be who you once were and you can’t. So a lot of the time you hide away so you can be the real you in private; the you you like to be now.
It is a strange thing to come home. While yet on the journey, you cannot at all realize how strange it will be. – Selma Lagerlöf
Nobody seems interested
You see the eyes glaze over and the look on people’s faces when you begin to talk about your life abroad… Until eventually you learn just to shut up and do your best to join in their conversations.
And that hurts.
You feel as if they’re not interested in your life and who you are now, and you start to worry that they think you are just bragging about your experiences. But you are not. You are just sharing your life as it has been since you left.
Your memories, your thoughts and beliefs are now connected to the experiences you had on the road. This only leads you to feel more out of place and more frustrated with being home.
There are things you don’t like about your own culture anymore
On your travels you may have discovered other ways that you liked better or think worked better. And then you have to try and explain that to others, others who have not had the same experiences and by now might start to think you have become “against” your own culture and that all you do is criticize life here and tell them how much better things are in country X
But it’s not that. It is just that you have learnt that there are different ways of doing things and the ways you were once familiar with might now not seem the best ways anymore.
You’ve spent the last however many years only socializing with other like minded travelers or expats. No matter how different your friends abroad might have been from you, you all shared that one thing: you were all foreigners. You all seemed to agree about the pro’s and con’s of the country you were in and you just simply understood what life was like.
Now, suddenly you have to explain everything. You have to defend your viewpoints. And since you only just got back there seems to be an insane number of people demanding your time and attention. There are endless catch up dinners to attend, birthday parties you now can’t miss anymore, weddings, baby showers, etc.
You feel stretched in all directions, and really you just want to crawl into the nearest hammock and shut the activity out. It is just too overwhelming…
The Reverse Culture Shock Stages
Stage 1: disengagement
This is the “goodbye phase,” and it takes place even before you leave to go back home. Disengagement is important because it provides closure and prepares you to step into a new cultural context.
Even before leaving you may already miss friends or the culture, or be reluctant to say goodbye. As you pack your suitcase and prepare to leave you may feel sad, frustrated, or anxious to move back home.
Stage 2: Initial euphoria
This is the utter excitement you feel upon return home. You get to celebrate with your family and friends again:
“Oh look my favorite restaurant is still there”, and “wow it’s so nice to speak my own language again”
For the first few weeks being home is a time of reconnecting bliss. Everything is exciting and wonderful.
But, this stage eventually ends. And for some people quite quickly.
Stage 3: Irritability
Mood swings, unrest, frustration, anger, depression, alienation. Somehow you just can’t get back into “normal life”.
“Back in … people were so much friendlier”
“Why do I have to do that this way?”
“Oh come on, this doesn’t make sense…”
“Damn, can’t I finally find a helpful person around here?”
“I just wish I could be back in …, life was so much simpler there”
It’s a hard stage of the reverse culture shock and for some people it can last for a very long time
Stage 4: Readjustment and adaptation
But, it all gets better eventually.
Coming home after being away for so long is a massive readjustment, bigger than you will ever realize until you go through it.
You will gradually find that it is possible to incorporate the new attitudes, worldviews, habits, and goals you developed abroad into life in your home culture.
It’s time to adapt and put into good use all you learned along your travel journey.
How to best get through the reverse culture shock:
Accept that you are not the same. You see things with different eyes and people may not recognize this. Remain true to who you are. And if it means that some friendships change as a result then so be it. Things change, it is the nature of life.
Understand that most of the time those you are conversing with have little understanding or connection with what you have done. They may be shutting off because they don’t know what to say or how to relate to you anymore.
Don’t make all of your conversations about your travels, but don’t completely shut it off either. It is who you are and its important to you. You might even want to let those know that this is important and it hurts you when they don’t act interested.
Spend time with those who accept the new you and start making new friends. Join a network of people interested in travel and life abroad such as Couchsurfing or Internations. These people understand your experiences and most of the time will delight in roaming down memory lane with you.
I still enjoy hanging out with my closest friends but I also love having made some new friends who understand my travel experiences.
Make sure you spend time with old friends laughing and reminiscing about special times with them. You will feel wonderful and it will remind you what is so great about those who you chose to leave behind for long periods of time. It will help them to realize that just because you left, and lived life without them for so long does not mean you still don’t love and cherish them.
“Not better or worse, just different.”
It is okay to appreciate other ways more, just don’t try to fight the old ways. Stop wishing it was here like it is in the country you were before. There is no use wishing things were different if these are things you simply can’t change.
Look for those things you love about your country and focus on that.
There is plenty of newness in your home country, you just have to look at it with new eyes. Start traveling in your own area. Discover new things in this country you thought you knew so well. Start new hobbies, focus on building an interesting life for yourself instead of reminiscing how great your life abroad once was.
Don’t forget the life of your travels, but don’t hold on too tightly to them either; that is holding onto the past, which is never a good thing because life doesn’t exist there.
You have to find your place once again. You may discover your place is somewhere else and that is fine. You might discover you are happy to be home and that is fine too.
And most importantly:
Appreciate the unique experiences you have had. Because having lived abroad and traveled the world has changed you, for the better!