It was time to return home after another two-year stint living in the USA. My heart was broken that we could not make our dream of living in Raleigh a reality, and had to move back home to Australia.
This time, we had a three year old with us.
And this time I was ready for IT! There was no way that shady ghost was going to sneak up on me this time.
The time before, in 2006, when Craig and I returned home after a five-year honeymoon, we had no idea IT existed, and it nearly destroyed our lives.
Any traveler – especially those living abroad – will hear tales of the adjustment period called culture shock.
There is nothing like learning it the hard way – back then the spiral took us into a depressive cycle of bad choices that ended in near bankruptcy, the loss of $500,000 in assets, and $30,000 in credit card debt.
This time I had my reverse-culture-shock antidote kit ready to apply.
Disconnection and Isolation
I’ve written this post to help you understand it, and know how to manage it. Since first publishing this post, I’ve had so many people reach out to thank me for helping them understand what they were going through.
They felt so isolated, alone, and slightly crazy. One even told me I had saved them from taking their lives they had been struggling so badly from the disconnection and loss a returned traveler experiences.
I’m sure you’ve experienced after travel blues even after the end of a two week vacation when those higher emotions of love, joy, connectedness, and wonder suddenly end.
Imagine experiencing those emotions daily – for years – as a long term traveling, living in other countries having endless adventures that put you out of your comfort zone, help you grow as a person, and elevate your sense of purpose and joy.
You return home, the faucet turns off, and you no longer recognize yourself, the world you grew up in, and the people you were once close to.
Nobody understands. You feel isolated and shut off.
You can no longer connect to your past – the roots and security that typically makes you feel safe – nor can you connect to the present because nothing feels normal or real – and the future feels like a shirt flapping on the clothesline in gale force winds.
Know this. It does get better.
There are stages you have to move through to process these feelings of loss, grief, and disconnectedness a huge change like this brings.
One thing I know you learned from your travels: humans are amazing at adapting.
Culture Shock is when you first immerse yourself into a new culture – typically experienced more when you live in a foreign country, as opposed to just traveling through.
Living in another country gives you time to get to know it and discover how you can exist within it. Adaptation is the letting go of what you thought was true and right to accept, understand, and even take on something different.
You move through this weird process of falling in love with the new culture to slowly starting to hate everything about it. That’s the trauma of change.
If you know what it is, you’ll start to accept and understand the very wise adage – it’s not better or worse, it’s just different.
Soon with that acceptance and open-mindedness you move out of culture shock and into a wonderful world of embracing and celebrating the new.
Stick with it because on the other side lies a better you and a more diversely, wonderful world.
I was filled with frustration Teaching in Bangkok at “How they didn’t get it” for many months.
Years later – even though I knew culture shock and thought I wouldn’t experience it again – I found myself sitting in the principal’s office at my new school in North Carolina with tears streaming down my face:
“Why me?” I wailed. “I just don’t understand.”
Culture shock can strike wherever and whenever.
But culture shock on coming home?
Are you kidding me? I know my own culture, what is there to be shocked about?
When I first came home to Australia in 1999 after living abroad for three years, I experienced little reverse culture shock.
I returned home at the same time as many of my friends who had also lived abroad, and I met Craig soon after. One month of celebration moved to another, which safely glided me past the very difficult transition stage.
We returned home in 2006, and the proverbial hit the fan.
We went through reverse culture shock, not knowing what it was, instead thinking I was in a state of complete misalignment with the world around me, and completely crazy and alone.
My life fell apart and I kind of let it, through not knowing what to do.
This time we were returning home in 2010 after two years living in the US with our two year old Kalyra.
We were in dire financial straits, which you can hear about in this podcast. But, we had just started this travel blog, so I felt more purposeful.
And this time I arrived home knowing about reverse culture shock and the stages I needed to move through to process this huge change and adapt.
Now I hope I can prepare you, or help you understand just what the hell is happening to you.
The Stages of Reverse Culture Shock
Okay, let’s look at these stages of reverse culture shock in relation to the stages of culture shock. They are the same, it’s just one is experienced in a foreign land, and one is in your home country.
1. Honeymoon Stage
This is the utter excitement and euphoria you feel upon return home. You get to celebrate with your family and friends again,
“Oh and look my favourite Thai restaurant is still open“, and “My God look how beautiful the beach is.”
There’s always Vegemite in your cupboard, the kookaburras sing to you each morning, and you can’t stop saying “Aren’t Australians just so friendly?”
The first stage of being home is a time of reconnecting bliss. How long it lasts it depends on how excited you were in the first place to come home.
If you were dragging your feet, I think you could move out of this stage in a matter of days, or even hours! Typically it will be for a few weeks to a month.
As with all honeymoons, they eventually end, (even if you can stretch them out for 5 years) and end in a big way.
2. Transition period – also known as the emotional wig out stage
Mood swings, foul language, unrest, frustration, anger, depression, alienation – these feelings of helplessness come in undulating waves so bad you feel sea sick.
You scratch desperately at the wall to find some sort of a switch to light up the darkness, but the blackness prevails.
All of a sudden you hate everything about being back home and all you do is complain …
Back in Thailand… Ugh, why do people care so much about this?… I hate this about Australia.. This is so frustrating…God Australia your internet is so F#### crap!! Where’s Trader Joes when you need it? I just wish I could be lying in a hammock having a beer in Laos. How did I go from jungle trekking in Bukkittingi to riding the train to the office in the concrete jungle?
On and on the voices plague you.
You have become an unrecognizable monster deeply set in shock.
Here’s why the shock sets in and the tools you need to have in your reverse-culture-shock antidote kit to help you through.
You are not the same
It’s not that everything around you has changed, or that things haven’t even changed slightly, it is just that you have changed dramatically.
You are returning to a place where people expect you to be the same as when you left.
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.
- Accept that you are not the same. You see things with different eyes and people may not recognize this anymore. It’s okay. 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.
- Spend time with those who accept the new you and start making new friends. We joined the Sydney Travel Massive group, which is full of travelers who understand us. It always feels comfortable and easy to be with them. I still enjoy hanging out with my closest friends, but it’s nice to be a different me with others as well.
No one is seemingly interested
You see the eyes glaze over and the look on peoples’ faces when you begin to talk about your life overseas, until eventually you learn just to shut up and do your best to join in their conversations.
You feel as if they’re not interested in your life and who you are now. They may even feel as if you are big noting your life, and so look upon you with disdain.
But you are not. You are just sharing your life as it has been for the last couple of years.
What else can you say? You can’t make your past go away. And why would you, it was a joyful, meaningful past.
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.
- Understand that most of the time those you are conversing with have little understanding or connection with 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.
- Take time to find those who have traveled like you and share your stories with them. They get it and most of the time will delight in roaming down memory lane with you.
- Make sure you spend time with your closest 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 lef, does not mean you still don’t love and cherish them.
There are some things about your culture you won’t like
“TRAITOR!!!!” is what your mind screams with every negative thought you feel about your own country.
But you just can’t help it.
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 who can only agree with one thing and this is your mind, as their eyes too shout out “TRAITOR!!!”
- For culture shock, you constantly need to repeat the mantra “Not better or worse, just different.” Do the same with reverse culture shock as well. It is okay to appreciate other ways more, just don’t try to fight the old ways. You can’t change the god damn internet speed, so stop wishing you were back in the land where it is 21st century speed. Go get yourself a cuppa, by the time you return the page should have loaded.
- Try to adapt the old things you don’t like into new. For example, I have been struggling with having to go back to a traditional Christmas, I liked doing my own thing. So I am doing my best to make it more of a joyful occasion by attending the Carols in the Domain and having our own private time as a family during the day.
- Look for those things you love about your country and focus on that. I try to get to the beach as often as I can as I love Australian beaches and it helps me to forget that bloody internet speed.
You are not travelling anymore
You slip back into the mundane where nothing is new and everything is the same.
Wrong Wrong Wrong.
There is plenty of newness in your home town or country, you just have to look at it with new eyes. Many people remain trapped in the idea that their travels are over, almost as if life is itself.
I’ll put my hand up to this one when we returned home in 2006. I felt shut off from life itself. It felt like nothing could ever fulfill me like travel did.
Not only did I not recognize myself anymore in my home country, but I could not envision a life without travel. I was lost and confused and felt so isolated and trapped.
I still feel that almost daily, but I know how to work through it and this travel blog really helps a lot.
- Start travelling in your own area. This was the biggest thing this time that helped me to slay the reverse culture shock beast. Every weekend we jumped on a train down to Sydney to explore, we did the seven bridges walk, hung out at Terrigal Beach, went moon walking, and did adventures on the Gold Coast. This helped me to see the beauty of Australia again and to breathe that travel excitement and anticipation.
- Find a way to put into practice all you have learned from your travels. You may start a travel blog or write a book to share your experiences, or you may even start a new career. Start new hobbies, and meet new people — anything that will bring back that sense of travel for you.
Everyone wants to see you
Of course. And it’s great to reconnect with loved ones, but it can be very exhausting, especially because you are not used to it.
You have just returned and everyone wants to see you, and when they do there are the eternal questions about what you are doing next.
I’m still trying to grasp being in a different time zone, let alone come up with future plans.
You’ve spent the last however many years, either on your own or with your partner, only socializing with other like minded travellers, usually at a time and place that agrees with you.
Suddenly there are people everywhere demanding of your attention. There are birthday parties to attend, christenings, weddings, and catch up dinners.
You feel stretched in all directions, and really you just want to crawl into the nearest hammock and shut the activity out. It is extremely overwhelming.
- Take the meet ups with everyone slowly. We always came home in a mad rush as we we would be on the road again shortly. This time we were in no hurry to see anyone. This was not because we didn’t want to but if we did we knew it would set us back months. So we took it slow and steady. I didn’t see some of my friends for a month until I returned. You don’t need to go to every event. Take a step back and take some time out.
- Organize one event at one destination and tell everyone you know to meet you there. This means you get to see everyone, but you are not running to a million different parties to catch up with a million different people. Make them come to you. Remember they only have one person to catch up with you have hundreds. You have to be selfish here or Reverse Culture Shock will beat you to a pulp.
Does it ever get better?
3. Readjustment Stage
After about 6 months of being home, you will have started to readjust. How long it actually takes depends on you and how prepared you are to deal with the onslaught of turbulent emotions that are coming.
Coming home after being away for so long is a massive readjustment, bigger than you will ever realize until you go through it.
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.
It’s time to adapt, create a new life path, and put into good use all you learned along your travel journey.
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.
We talk more about reverse culture shock and how it lead us down a path of financial hell in this podcast.
And I share more about life after travel in these posts:
- Mixed bag of emotions about Life after travel
- You’ve got time + the end of a 22 year nomadic life
- Thoughts on the end of our 18 month Australian road trip
- 8 reasons why travel helps you live a good life
- 43 Travel Tips for First Time Travelers
- 55 Lessons learned from a Life of Travel
- Travel Manifesto – 10 Principles to Create Awesome Travel Every Time
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What have been your experiences in Dealing with Reverse Culture Shock?