Reverse culture shock (stories from the frontline)

Reverse Culture Shock

Reverse culture shock can hit you with full force pretty soon after you arrive home from adventures overseas.

But it can also creep up on you slowly – little by little showing you the differences between your new self and your old friends, suburb and city.

I know from my own experience coming home to Sydney after a few years in London, that reverse culture shock can jolt you with a brutality that hardly seems fair.

You’ve grown and changed so much on your travels, you’ve lived in a foreign place where almost every day became an adventure, and then suddenly it feels like you’re stuck in a pool of quicksand.

These recollections of how other expats experienced reverse culture shock, should help you recognise it in yourself. Hopefully you can nod along to the words, feelings and coping strategies.

From Scotland to Australia

We begin with Silvia Da Rocha, who returned to Australia’s stifling heat after a stint in one of the world’s coldest places – Glasgow. A year later she’s still pining for the familiarity of her snowy second home.

Circumstance forced Silvia to move back to Australia from Scotland
A chilly trip to Portobello Beach in Edinburgh, Scotland.

It is impossible not to note and mull over the most difficult thing I encountered when I arrived back in Australia. It was of course the wall of heat and humidity that awaited me as I left the plane and walked, for the first time ever, into Brisbane airport.

The 33+ degree heat being no small thing when the last port of call before a flurry of in-between airports was mid-winter Glasgow.

I hailed a taxi and tottered over with half of the things I owned in the whole world: A very heavy suitcase, a very heavy carry on, a ludicrously overstuffed ‘handbag’, and the heaviest coat and shoes which I habitually wear on my person when crossing over the equator to save on check-in luggage weight.

I had left behind a pile of coats, woolen tweedy outfits, cardigans. The first thing I left behind was the cosy wintry persona I had happily built myself in the United Kingdom. One does not wear knee length wool in the tropical sunshine.

Oh, the heat. The accented, yet Aussie, English from the cabbie (he was a big fan of coal). The 7-Elevens, in unimaginable ubiquity. The hills. Hills? No one told me Brisbane had so many damn hills. Note to self: Brisbane very hilly.

The colonial architecture. I was a first timer to Brisbane but everything was not new, in a way. I checked into my room, and showered with the cold water on. The water tasted very strange to me, like dusty mould and green algae on rocks. I googled ‘is Brisbane water safe?’ (yes, it just tastes funny sometimes).

In the evening the chorus of insects and began, and in the morning the magpies. I had missed those magpies warbles the most. No one said hello to me on the streets, so I stopped smiling at everyone that walked by.

I showered many more times. My room had no air-con, so I sat sadly under the fan with the slowest internet connection I had encountered since leaving Sydney five years earlier. Ah, this – I remember this.

Every day the memory of snow, of the cheery street conversations, the cold, the subway, the warmth of the people, the thickness of the accents belonging to the place I had left began more and more to seem like a dream memory. And yet something still remains, because it has been almost exactly a year and I still complain about the water, the expense of food, the impossible cruelty of the real estate agencies, the slow internet, the affection for truly unstable and unlikable politicians. The damn heat.

I remind myself – it has got to be a little better than the world I’ve left behind, where I was more or less voted off the island, couldn’t find work, barely saw the sun, was far away from my parents and siblings. I appreciate not having those things in my life. Whilst simultaneously, I wish fervently to have those other good far away things that were so part of my life, back here with me.

From Canada to Australia

Lucy Frank, who writes A Traveller’s Footsteps, spent a dream year in Canada like a lot of Aussies who work the ski resorts (trust me, there are heaps). Coming home to sunny Australia wasn’t quite as fun though.

Lucy Frank got to experience the beauty of Canada during winter
Lucy got to enjoy Lake Louise during the winter months.

I thought I had experienced the feeling of post-travel blues before, but it wasn’t until I moved home to Australia after a year of living abroad that I really felt it.

At the age of 18, I moved to Canada where I worked in ski resorts, made friends from all over the world, stayed up until silly hours the night and made memories to last a lifetime. My year abroad was a dream.
I thought I was ready to come home to Australia and study. I was excited to get home, I caught up with all my old friends and visited my favorites cafes and hangouts, but within a week, it was all too familiar. I felt bored. My friends and family were busy living their lives, they had jobs, partners, and other commitments. I was back yet nothing had changed.
To overcome the post-travel blues, I explored my hometown like a tourist, while saving every dollar I could so I could start planning my next trip, which gave me something to look forward to.
You can read more of Lucy’s musings on beating the post travel blues here or follow her on Facebook.

From Rwanda to the United Kingdom

Cassie Pearse, from Mexico Cassie, really immersed herself in a different culture and community when she moved to Rwanda at just 18. Her reverse culture shock experience was probably the most jarring of all.

Cassie experienced extreme reverse culture shock upon returning to the UK from Rwanda
I’ve been coming and going for a long time now. My first solo trip was my gap year as an 18-year-old. I’m not going to pretend there was any reverse culture shock then. I guess I just wasn’t aware enough to notice how different the world was. I just wanted to have fun. Since then, though, I’ve clearly grown up and become far more aware of the world, my surroundings and how different things can be.

I worked in Rwanda for two years but had a brief stint at home for a few months after the first six months. I have never suffered from reverse culture shock as much as I did then. I’d go as far as to say that the shock I felt then has probably never left me. It obviously isn’t acute any more but I still get flashes of incredible appreciation for running water, guaranteed electricity and as much cheese as I can eat.

Kayonza, the town in which I worked, was small, had no running water and electricity was, um, sporadic, to say the least. We had a pit latrine in the garden and would wash in buckets of water someone had collected from the town pump for us. I admit that I didn’t wash often in those early months. I’ll never forget the bliss of being able to wash my hair in running water when we had the odd heavy downpour and I’d stand under an overflowing gutter.

So coming home to the UK, to the affluence and greed, was hard. I hated people leaving lights on (still do) or taking potable tap water for granted. My kids, aged three and five, already know never to leave a tap running unnecessarily and know all about the kids I loved in Rwanda.

You can read more about Cassie’s newest adventures at Mexico Cassie or follow her on Instagram.

From Scotland to Canada

Ashley Nitransky, of Ashley Wanders, really gets to the crux of reverse cultures shock. You’re just not the same person as you were when you left home.

You can't pass up a good hike in Scotland
Ashley realised that she was a completely different person when she got back to Canada.

After living in Edinburgh, Scotland for two years, I experienced a big dose of reverse culture shock when I moved back to Canada – which I wasn’t expecting since the UK and Canada are similar in many ways.

But, transitioning back to my old life, back to a place that was exactly the same as when I left it, was difficult. After living abroad, I had grown and changed irrevocably in so many ways, and I felt completely out of place when I returned. My hometown suddenly no longer felt like home.

I spent months feeling stressed and ‘homesick’ for Edinburgh. Most of my friends aren’t travellers and didn’t understand what I was going through, so I felt completely alone and disconnected at times.

I’ve now been home for seven months and still don’t feel like I’ve completely readjusted, but several things have helped ease the transition. Daily meditation, yoga, and gratitude exercises helped to reduce my stress levels and keep anxiety at bay.

Talking with like-minded people was reassuring, so I made an effort to connect with travellers and expats through blogs and Facebook groups.

Lastly, I didn’t want to fall into the same old routine, so I dedicated lots of time to explore more of my own backyard: I planned local trips and took advantage of all the things I missed about Canada while living in Scotland.

The thing that helped me most when I moved home? Acceptance. Learning to accept the fact that I had changed and no longer felt like I belonged in my hometown – and that was okay.

You can read more of Ashley’s work here or follow her on Instagram.

From Vietnam to Australia

Monique MacPhail, one half of Honeymoon Backpackers,  absolutely nailed reverse culture shock as I experienced it. Luckily, she and Dylan have their own secret language now. 

Monique and Dylan in Vietnam
Monique and Dylan noticed the strong accents when they returned to Australia.

After living in Vietnam for the past year, we became quite accustomed the Vietnamese way of life. We were two of six foreigners living in a tiny town in the north of Vietnam. There were no English menus, signs or anything western in the town we were living in. So we lived a pure and authentic Vietnamese way of life.

It was an amazing experience, learning a new language, trying strange foods, shopping for groceries at the local market, hanging out with our Vietnamese friends and gaining knowledge about Vietnamese traditions and customs. We loved every second of our time in Vietnam, so when we left to return back to Australia, reverse culture shock hit us hard.

The main thing that surprised us, was how quickly people spoke and everyone’s super strong Australian accents. I remember thinking to myself, “Have Aussies always sounded this bogan”…. “No way, he has to be putting on that accent”.

It’s actually quite hard becoming accustomed to the Aussie accent again, when they throw so much slang into every sentence….“Yeah mate, just havin a barbie round Johnno’s pad this arvo. Just bring some snags, an esky and a coupla cold ones. It’s going to be a rippa of a sunde”.

Translated (Yes my friend, we’re just having a BBQ at John’s house this afternoon. Just bring some sausages, a cooler and a couple of beers. It’s going to be a great Sunday) We couldn’t help but crack up laughing when everyone talked to us. Please tell me we don’t actually sound like that too?

After about a week or so, the Aussie accent soon became the norm once again. We continued to speak Vietnamese to each other; it was our own secret language that only we could understand. It helped us deal with this reverse culture shock and remain connected to our old life in Vietnam.

You can read more of Honeymoon Backpackers here, or follow them on Instagram.

From South Korea to New York

Kelly Duhigg, of Girl With the Passport, might have been prepared for the extreme change that Seoul would throw at her, but it was coming home to the US that threw a spanner in the works.

Cherry Blossoms in Korea
Kelly missed the social life she had in South Korea (and the delicious food!)

When I moved to Seoul, South Korea from New York City, I knew it would be different. I knew the food would be spicier, that I wouldn’t be able to speak the language, and that people would have a different value system; one that embraces conformity and a communal identity that leaves little room for American individuality. And I was okay with this because I wanted a change; I wanted to live in a city that was completely different from anything I had never known. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the shock of coming home.

I remember getting on the plane and bursting into tears because I was leaving a place and a people that I loved; a place that I wondered if I would ever return to.

I kept telling myself that it would get better, that I would readjust to life in the States, but it just wasn’t the same. I missed the flavorful food in Korea, the friends I had made, the caramel corn that I got at the movies, and so much more. I could no longer just hop on the metro and head to my favorite Korean Spa or my favorite Karaoke spot in Seoul. Nope, none of these things existed in New York, and if they did it still wasn’t like Seoul.

People didn’t even understand my love of Korean music or Korean film. Instead, they ignored my references and attributed my weirdness to my, “time away”. I even had to get used to driving a car again and the insane size of New York City food portions.

But slowly, my bangs grew out, my clothing Americanized, and I stocked up on surface-of-the-sun hot Tobasco to make the food in America a bit more flavorful. Sure, it took a few months to adjust but with the help of my friends and family, I re-acclimated to a world that seemed strangely foreign, even though I had lived in New York my whole life.

You can read more of Kelly’s work at Girl With the Passport, and follow her posts on Facebook.

From Finland to Austria

Jacky, of Nomad Epicureans, was hit so hard by reverse culture shock in Austria that she actually moved back to Finland. Which was lucky, because she ended up marrying her long-distance boyfriend there.

Jacky and her husband
Jacky just couldn’t settle back into life in Austria. So she moved back to Finland to marry her boyfriend.

Ever since my early teens, it had been a dream of mine to move to Finland. My wish finally came true at the age of 20 when I left my home in Austria for an exchange year at the University of Turku in  Southern Finland.

In that year I grew as a person, made new friends, and, most importantly, met my future husband. I quite literally turned  my life upside down. I had never anticipated how hard it would be to leave my new life and move back to Austria.

Naturally, it was hard to leave my boyfriend and face the struggles of a long-distance relationship, but it was more than that.

I returned as a changed person to a place that had not changed at all. After the first few polite inquiries, nobody wanted to know about my “other life” anymore and I found myself increasingly isolated. I had   drifted apart from former friends and trouble fitting into my new old life.

In fact, I had never felt as alone in my whole life as I felt then, surrounded by my oldest friends and family. The following two years I spent in Austria were depressing and painful. And perhaps it didn’t come as a surprise to anybody when I announced I would be leaving the country only six days after my thesis defense.

I packed up my bags within only two days and left Austria for Finland to live with my boyfriend. It has now been nearly four years since I left Austria and I have never looked back even once.

You can read more from Jacky and her husband Mihir at Nomad Epicureans or follow them on Facebook.

From Finland to the US

Cat Holladay, of The Compass is Calling, had her whole family in tow for the reverse culture shock ride. They took drastic (but amazing) measures to counteract its affects.

The Holladay family have embarked on a caravaning adventure.
The reverse culture shock of the American “lifestyle” was jarring after living in Finland.

When we moved to Finland in January of 2017 for work, we epitomized the typical American family. In the midst of the corporate rat race endeavoring to live “the dream”.

Except that dream was always another day, year, paycheck away. No matter how hard we worked or how many times we achieved our goals for the year, there was always something else to strive for. Working 60-hour weeks was the norm and packed schedules, routine.

Finland was a refreshing change of pace. For the first time in our lives, we were able to slow down and relax, enjoying the moment rather than living for what could be around the corner. We were more productive in less time, and happier as a result. We traveled, we worked, we made friends and we connected with our surroundings in meaningful ways.

Returning to the United States, our home, was a difficult transition. We jumped right back into our old habits. But something had changed. We no longer enjoyed the grind of being overworked. We couldn’t keep up with our overburdened schedules and lacked quality family time. We felt out of place and even depressed. What seemed normal before no longer held any appeal at all. In short, we were experiencing reverse culture shock.

This feeling was so overwhelming that we took drastic measures. After being home just three months, we decided to sell everything we owned, quit our jobs, pull our son out of preschool, buy a motor home, and travel the country for a year.

No schedule, no commitments. Just living our dream and finding our place in America. We have no idea exactly what the future holds, and that’s OK.

We’ve already made progress in reconnecting and falling back in love with our home country. We’ve also decided that the typical American Dream is no longer our life goal…and that’s OK too.

Read more from Cat and her family’s travel adventures at The Compass is Calling or follow them on Facebook.

From the US to Croatia

Alexandra Schmidt, of The Mindful Mermaid, struggles with the emphasis on work and career when she returns to the US from Croatia. 

Alexandra Schmidt overlooking the water in Croatia

It’s been exactly three years since I first came to study abroad in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Little did I know I would end up not only falling in love with the local culture, I also would fall in love with a Croatian local. Three years down the line, I have returned to a life with completely different customs than my own.

As I have gone back and forth between Croatia and the US over this time, I very much have had one foot in one culture and one foot in the other. I never realized how much I changed until returning home.

When I step out the door, it’s always both a physical shock returning back to the frigid temperatures of my home state of Minnesota. Sadly, I think I’ve lost a good majority of my immunity for the colder temperatures with so much time spent living on the Adriatic Sea.

While driving, I remember immediately feeling like I finally had so much space on the road, as opposed to driving on treacherous narrow roads along the cliffs. When in the grocery store, I remember feeling overwhelmed for the first time with all the options I had. Ten different types of lettuce, 15 different types of ice cream, 50 types of chips! Suddenly everything felt HUGE and I started to lose interest in the frequent Target runs.

I never realized how everything in the US is big, spacious, and filled with a variety of options.

Perhaps the biggest culture shocks for me is the emphasis on “live to work” in America, where Croatia is very much the opposite of “work to live”. Every time I come home I’m bombarded with questions about my career, how much money I make abroad, and what’s my five-year plan looking like. Meanwhile, in Croatia, there’s not as much pressure to be “somebody”. You can just be yourself.

While I do appreciate my American roots, whenever I return to Croatia I find comfort in these little things that America just doesn’t understand.

Read more from Alexandra and living abroad at The Mindful Mermaid or follow her on Facebook.

Reverse Culture Shock | missing expat life | Repatriate | moving back home | Aussie | Expat | Lessons from moving abroad | Aussie Expat in US | #reversecultureshock | #repatriation | #Movinghome | expat life

 

31 thoughts on “Reverse culture shock (stories from the frontline)

  1. These are beautiful stories and I can relate to so much said here. After living in Switzerland for nearly 4 years, I get homesick for it when I go back to the states now. I miss the foods you can get in Swiss supermarkets and long for clean air, mountains and punctual public transport! I’m not looking forward to the culture shock when I move on to my next adventure, but it’s the price I pay for this crazy life I’m living!

  2. This was such a lovely read. I’d like to make the permanent move myself and leave, and so wonder about the culture shock. Love the love story here; it made me feel all warm inside!

  3. Many of these were fascinating to read and how they cope with returning home! I especially found it interesting how the Honeymoon Backpackers have their own language now! #FarawayFiles

  4. I am experiencing these Blues right now after 12 months travelling and Australia is doing my head in! I knew Aussies were self interested, insular and nationalist before but now it’s so real and obvious, I am already planning the next trip and hoping that reliving memories through travel blogging will help. Thanks for the tips everyone

  5. Such a good read and great to hear others have felt/experienced similar emotions! I moved back to the UK after a long stint in Ghana and found it so hard to adapt back myself.

  6. I love how you have compiled so many contrasting experiences and perspectives here! I can imagine most repats can relate – I certainly felt many of the things mentioned here after I returned to the US from Germany. I think we are certainly less prepared for the reverse culture shock compared to the original culture shock, since returning home would theoretically be a happy, welcoming experience. But that’s not always the case! Great post. #FarawayFiles

  7. These were very interesting perspectives for me to read since we’re currently in the process of looking for opportunities to move abroad for a few years. #FlyAwayFriday

  8. Very interesting, I guess a preview of what I have to look forward to! I’m headed back to the US for a few weeks in March, that will be interesting. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard

  9. This was a great read! Every story was poignant in its own way. Reverse culture shock is a real thing, and these nomads have lived it. So interesting. Finland surely comes out looking good! #TheWeeklyPostcard

  10. Interesting to read these stories and how living abroad has affected all these people in good and bad ways. I have to say, as someone living abroad it doesn’t really feel that much different when returning, but perhaps if I moved back permanently it would.

  11. These are fascinating stories and I can relate to so much of what has been said in the post. It just reaffirms to me that I never want to go back to live in the UK (not long term anyway,) I now call Australia home 🙂

  12. Really great post! I feel some degree of reverse culture shock after all my trips. I think the sheer nature of travel taking you away forces you to put things in perspective about home life, so even after a short trip it’s normal to come back and compare… everything. It’s interesting how my experiences of culture shock have changed as I’ve grown as a traveler, though. I’m from the US and I lived in Spain a few years ago. Recently I took a trip to Morocco and then Spain, and after Morocco it was going returning to Spain where I felt the culture shock, but from Spain to the US I didn’t feel phased. I think getting really used to a place helps, and I think it also has a lot to do with how “at home” you feel in the places you visit/live. It’s much harder to deal with culture shock when you really love at place and feel at home there, than if you feel really meh about it. Anyway, thank you for sharing this post, I really enjoyed it!

  13. This was so interesting to read. I still carry parts of my childhood spent abroad with me, but I imagine the differences are a lot more jarring as an adult.

  14. I strongly identify with all these stories. I guess it is because you expect culture shock… But you’re not always ready for the reverse! It can be so strange to feel like a stranger in your own village /town/city!!

  15. It’s interesting to read the stories of reverse-culture-shock above. I remember my niece who is attending college in Texas now. When she went home last summer, she missed her life in the U.S. No traffic, cleaner air, people don’t judge your appearance, etc. It took time for her to adjust with life back home.

  16. I love reading these beautiful stories. It is such a great reminder why travel is so important and how it can change people’s lives and help them learn all about who they really are. Thanks for a great post.

  17. Before my semester abroad, they warned us about reverse culture shock. I had experienced some of my friends’ returns, where they cliqued together and treated their experience like a sorority that the rest of us couldn’t possibly understand, and I had vowed I wouldn’t be like that. It’s true though – coming back is hard. You’ve had all these adventures but life didn’t stay still while you were gone. I was fortunate to know two other people locally, so we banded together when we were feeling like no one else wanted to hear about our time abroad. It was comforting to know that I had a support system of people who understood even if they weren’t part of my daily life. I think most surprising to me was about four months after being back, I was overcome with emotion with the realization of all that I had accomplished during my time abroad and how much I had grown. I heard a song that had always played at the internet cafe that we frequented, and I couldn’t stop crying. I think the key to dealing with reverse culture shock is acknowledging that these feelings are real, normal, and good, even… and having a support system of people to help you through the days when you miss it and other people just don’t understand. 😉 #TheWeeklyPostcard

  18. What a fascinating post! I’ve never lived abroad, although I would love to… That said, I have traveled for long periods of time, and at times I’ve experienced a real let down upon our return. I guess that’s why I’m always planning my next adventure… #farawayfiles

  19. This is absolutely fascinating. I experienced just a brief episode after returning from a month-long road trip, so I can imagine what it’s like for those experiencing something completely different. All of these stories are eloquently captured. Thank you for sharing!

  20. I enjoyed reading these very thoughtful and thought-provoking narratives on reverse culture shock. It’s really fascinating to see so much diversity in the experience, through this compendium. Thanks to everyone who shared their stories xoxo #FlyAwayFriday

  21. It happens even if you travel less, but consistently over many years. Slowly and slowly, and one day you come back from a trip and catch up with friends who have done life more traditionally, or read the news and get caught up in the heated local argument of the day, and you just can’t take sides. Like how the astronauts who had gone to space and seen the Earth, can no longer take sides between ourselves.

  22. Great stories! It’s so funny, we are all having a very similar experience. At first coming home was fantastic – but as months go by, it’s becoming harder.

  23. Love this!! We moved to Sicily about a year and a half, and while I don’t think i can say we’ve experienced any reverse culture shock just on visits home, I can definitely relate to one about visiting grocery stores. HOW ARE THERE SO MANY THINGS? And none of this fruit is in even in SEASON! Haha.

  24. So many stories from so many people. I admire those such as yourself and others who do this change of place and life.I am liking home too much and the fact that leaving Sydney and family was such an emotional transition for me tells me I am not suited to Expat life. But hats off to those who are!
    Thank you for joining in #lifethisweek 6/52. Next week’s optional prompt is “Who’s a Worrier?”.

  25. Wow very interesting read. I lived in England for 2 years and miss it still after moving back to Canada. It can have lasting affects! Thanks for coming out to Fly Away Friday! See you tomorrow! 🙂

  26. Oh my gosh Kat this is so good! I loved reading everyone’s stories. I have some serious culture shock and reverse culture shock going back and forth from Tokyo, Japan to the US! Thanks for joining Fly Away Friday, hope to see you again this week! xo

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