Dealing with Reverse Culture Shock

I was armed and ready for it upon my return home this time. I knew what it was, and there was no way that shady ghost was going to sneak up on me and catch me unawares.

I armed myself with knowledge of the stages I was about to go through and had my reverse-culture-shock antidote kit stocked up and ready to start firing.

Dealing with reverse culture shock
Photo: Drunken Monkey

And fire I did. I lost many rounds along the way, but I think this time I have come up trumps, unlike last time, when I had no idea reverse culture shock even existed.

I knew culture shock all too well.

Teaching in Bangkok surely had me filled with frustration at  “How they didn’t get it for many months, and then the tears that streamed down my face in the principals office at my new school in North Carolina,

“Why me?” I wailed. “I just don’t understand.”

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 there was no reverse culture shock. I came home at the same time as many of my friends, and I met Craig soon after – one month of celebration moved to another which safely glided me past the very difficult transition stage.

And then coming home in 2006 was when the proverbial hit the fan. I went through reverse culture shock, not knowing what it was, thinking I was in a state of complete misalignment with the world around me.

My life felt like it had fallen apart and I kind of let it, through not knowing what to do.

There was no way I was going to allow that to happen again, and so I was prepared

The Stages of Culture Shock

The honeymoon

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 “Aren’t Australians just so friendly?” For the first month being home is a time of reconnecting bliss.

As with all honeymoons, they eventually end, (even if you can stretch them out for 5 years.) and end in a big way.

The transition period – also known as the emotional wig out stage.

return of culture shock

Mood swings, foul language, unrest, frustration, anger, depression, alienation – these feelings of  helplessness come in undulating waves, so bad you get sea sick.

You scratch desperately at the wall to find some sort of a switch to light up the darkness, but the blackness prevails.

“Back in … Why is it like this?… I hate … 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.

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.

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.

Antidote:

  • Accept that you are not the same. You see things with different eyes and people may not recognize this anymore. Understand that is 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 Tribes group which is full of travellers 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.

And this really hurts.

You feel as if they’re not interested in your life and who you are now, and act as if you are big noting your life. 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.

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.

Antidote:

  • 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 left, and lived life without them for so long 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!!!”

Antidote:

  • For culture shock you constantly need to repeat the mantra “Not better or worse, just different.” You need to 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 last time. There was that sense of loss and confusion as to what I was going to do now.

I still feel that almost daily, but I know how to work through it and this travel blog really helps a lot.

Antidote:

  • 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, hungout 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 a piece of you

Of course. 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.

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, 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.

Antidote:

  • 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?

Readjustment Stage

Yes.

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:

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What have been your experiences in Dealing with Reverse Culture Shock?