Are You Experiencing Reverse Culture Shock?
Things I noticed about this less talked about side effect of travel.
Re-entry. It feels like living on another planet in another time. Truly. Especially when you first get home. Everything is different, everything is weird. Your time is thrown off and you’re not sure what is happening. I know it sounds crazy, but everything really is different: the air, your skin, your bed, your friends and family, hell, even the sunlight feels slightly off. It’s not just jetlag, because you’ve had that before and it was never like this. Unlike jetlag, this feeling lasts for a while, at least. Slowly things start becoming more... ‘normal’ but this could last days, weeks, months or years and it’s hard, it actually is.
I’ve not lived in a third world country or even abroad for more than a year, but I did spend seven months living in a tiny village in Spain and my return hit me harder than I anticipated, a lot harder. So here are some things I’ve learned about reverse culture shock. If you’re going through this, I believe you, I understand, I agree it sucks, and it gets better, I promise.
No one who hasn’t traveled frequently is going to understand.
I wanted to say that no one will understand. This is how it feels at least, but it isn’t exactly true. Some people around you may have traveled a lot or lived abroad and will know how you feel and it’s a good idea to talk to them about what you’re going through. However, most of the time NO ONE understands. Your friends and family with compassion will treat you gently, maybe ask about what is happening, but then they’ll move on and they will expect you to as well.
After all, you just lived in another country, you didn’t go to war or experience trauma. This is an internal thing and will be dealt with as such. If you’re a verbal processor like me, this is extremely difficult. I wanted to express exactly what it was I was feeling and have someone offer some sort of solution. In the end, I spoke openly about it, but dealt internally.
You’re a different person than when you left.
No matter what experiences you had, place you went, or for how long, you’ve changed. There it is. People change, in very short amounts of time too. If you came back to the same place you left, it makes it harder. Everything stayed the same, but you’re different and your community is too and it’s almost heartbreaking. Maybe while you were away you missed some of those things. I sure did. I missed my coffee shops, my church, my friend group, and fall in Colorado. When I returned, I found that my church hadn’t changed, my coffee shops didn’t turn into something else overnight, and my friend group didn’t dissolve. What I found was that I was a different person and my time away had changed me enough to not want to be in the same places or with the same people as I used to. Fall in Colorado was as lovely as I had remembered, but now I was longing for the sea.
Your culture is NOT the one you just left.
This one may seem obvious, but go with me here. Culture shock is jarring on its own, but depending on where you are, you can quickly adjust. If you go to live abroad, you semi know what it’s going to be like and prepare for that. I started learning Spanish (albeit poor Spanish), packed for the weather and researched the area. It wasn’t hard to adjust. It was exciting. Everything was new and fun and interesting. I love exploring and adventure and seeking out new places. I even loved that I couldn’t easily communicate with my neighbors. I had to try for something and I loved it. After seven months there, it became home. If I left I, was glad to go back and leaving was anything but easy. I got used to their culture of a slow lifestyle, appreciation of good food, wine, and friends, and the ability to hop on public transportation any time or place I wanted.
When I came back to America, I was hit with a hard reality of the ‘american dream,' fast-paced, work-oriented consumer culture. I’m not saying this is necessarily bad, it’s just what I noticed, and I did not like what I saw. Instead of adorable mom and pop shops with delicious and unique food, I got fast-food and chain restaurants with their widely unhealthy options. Instead of reliable public transportation, I got hours of traffic jams and high gas prices. I got back to America and found loud, English yelling people. It didn’t help that I flew back into a place known to still have deep roots of racism. I found an entirely different world than the one I had just left and I was not pleased.
Like I said, I’m not saying our nation isn’t a good one. I’m not saying that another is better. This was my experience though and hopefully yours is different. Maybe you went to a country with severe poverty and were thankful to come home to prosperity, I don’t know. What I do know is that change in culture affects us. Your culture is very different from others and the realization of it may just shock you.
Your depression, anxiety, exhaustion are justified and you’re allowed to feel them.
Thankfully, people in my community helped me to realize that what I was feeling was okay, and more than okay, that I needed to feel it. While they couldn’t exactly understand where I was coming from, what they could see was that I was exhausted, emotional, anxious to go places or do things, and generally withdrawn. None of these are my normal. I’m a joyful person and an extrovert to the extreme. When I came home, that all had changed and I was not coping very well. I could understand what I was going through but I hated that it was happening. If you’re feeling these or any numbers of feelings you either don’t understand or dislike, it’s okay. You’re allowed to feel them. Take care of yourself, be gentle, do whatever you need to do to adjust. It will get better and, while life won’t go completely back to normal, your new normal will be good too.
How to Cope
• Share your experiences and feelings, even if they don’t ‘get it.' It helps you. Writing, speaking, singing, yelling. Whatever you need to do.
• Know yourself well enough to take small steps towards adjusting. Taking on too much at once can make the process even worse.
• Seek out new experiences and places. Just because you’re home, doesn’t mean you can’t travel and explore.
• Move back. If you’re really depressed and no longer want to live in the country you came home to, then move. It’s possible.