Contributed by Kim Roberts
If you’ve spent time living abroad, you have probably experienced some level of culture shock. Life as an expat expands your horizons, and also exposes you to new ways of being in the world. Culture shock is a well-known phenomenon that occurs when our existing set of beliefs clash with the current environment. It takes time to adapt to strange customs. But not as readily discussed is the trauma many experience after coming home—reverse culture shock. Returning to our country of origin can be more challenging than leaving home in the first place.
As an American, I experienced this acutely on my return from my first trip to India. For some inexplicable reason, I chose to visit a friend in Arkansas just a few days after I landed.
I remember looking into the eyes of one shop clerk, then watching his mouth move, trying with all my focus to hear what he was saying. My ears had become accustomed to South Indian pidgin English, and his Southern country drawl was absolutely incomprehensible.
This is a superficial version, but many features of reverse culture shock are far more deep rooted.
You’ve moved on, while others have stayed put.
You’ve moved on to live a different lifestyle, but your friends and family have stayed in the same place, so they cannot understand what you’ve been through. They may not ask questions, or may appear bored when you share stories. It can feel alienating.
You’re on your own.
This can be lonely experience. I remember at a certain point I realized that no one human would ever completely understand me, because of all the time I’d spent as an expat, and in so many different countries. Each experience leaves its imprint, and we are the fruition of all of our imprints. But this also means that what your view is unique.
Reverse culture shock is disorienting.
You might start to question reality and wonder what is true. Learning to get along in a different culture expands your repertoire and sometimes we bring back habits and customs that resonate. Then we get back home and realize people may be looking at us funny. We wobble our head sideways to mean yes, instead of no. Or we place our dinner roll directly on the table instead of the bread plate and take to cleaning our teeth with a toothpick at table or, heaven forbid, start eating with our hands. We cringe when someone points their feet toward us, or offers us food with their left hand. We get half way through a turn at an intersection and forget which lane we’re supposed to be driving in. Suddenly “appropriate behavior” seems completely random and unfathomable.
Here are 6 tips to handle the transition:
1. Give it time.
This too shall pass. Slow down your need to fit back in to your homeland society. This transition period can be rich with insights and in my experience, it is where most of the learning happens. When we get some distance from the unique experiences we’ve lived, we are finally able to digest and integrate the lessons learned.
2. Become an observer.
Become selective about what you share, and don’t look for any particular responses from people. Rest in the knowledge that you have experienced something they might never understand.
Make it a practice to listen to people and hear what they have been going through. Their lives may sound mundane to you after having seen so many new things, but for people who have stayed home, this is still the fabric of their lives. Give them the respect of listening, as you would also like.
3. Release expectations.
People may not listen with interest to the stories you bring home. For a variety of reasons, people may not be wired to acknowledge that life may exist differently, elsewhere. Rather than judging or trying to understand why people are behaving the way they are –even if this behavior once upon a time made perfect sense to us—try adopting a new mantra. The mantra? “Well, isn’t that different!” It can actually be quite humorous to realize that what we once held to be hard facts about existence are actually just fabrications of our cultural mindset.
4. Forgive people for not understanding.
It’s not their fault, nor is it a downfall. The fact is that some people are simply not interested in seeing the world, and have no desire to hear about it. As hard as that may be to understand for those of us who thrive on international travel, if you want to facilitate your re-entry, it is important to recognize and respect this.
5. Find a creative outlet.
One of the best ways I’ve learned to process my experience and the sometimes lonely phases of re-entry is to write. I have kept a journal for decades now. I journal every day to remind myself of events, places, and people. But especially after my return from a journey, I journal to refine the story. We humans thrive on good stories. Stories inform how we make choices in our lives. By envisioning your adventure from the perspective of a good story well told, you elevate the experience to art. And then it may become more palatable to people, allowing you to share the experience.
6. Keep in touch with friends from your overseas life.
One of the beautiful things about the internet is that we have access to friends across the globe. You might want to schedule a weekly Skype call with a colleague you left behind, or commit to writing on a regular basis.
Fortunately, reverse culture shock is a temporary phenomenon. You may have permanent shifts that result from your overseas experience, but the shock eventually wears off. Until that happens, be gentle with yourself and do what you would do in any extreme health situation: take lots of rest, drink plenty of water and eat nourishing foods. Go for walks in nature if you can.
Remember all the positive experiences and know that they will lead you to new and exciting adventures, perhaps in your own motherland.
Author: Kim Roberts, MA
A graduate of Naropa University’s M.A. Contemplative Psychology program, Kim Roberts has been a devoted student of Ashtanga yoga and Dharma since 1992. She spent 15 years living in South Asia and now divides her time between Crestone, Colorado, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she offers live and online counseling. She writes a weekly blog sharing tools and practices for managing emotions. Learn more at KimRoberts.co