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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.