Hang On, Reverse Culture Shock?
Meine Damen und Herren, Mesdames et Messieurs, Ladies and Gentlemen!
Guten Abend, bonsoir, good evening!
Wie geht’s? Comment ça va? Do you feel good?
I bet you do!
I mean, you’ve just arrived home, your first safe haven and sanctuary from the world. After a longer stay abroad, feeling homesick, and struggling with the new language, this should be a place of comfort and relaxation … Well, what do you mean no? Ah, it’s the opposite, you say? You’ve been feeling ill-at-ease and disoriented? Things are not quite as you remember them, and you are having difficulties adjusting to your old life? You may very well be suffering from reverse culture shock!
Reverse Culture Shock Definition
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am the Master of Ceremonies in the Expat-XP Club, and I am here to guide you through your turbulent emotions or reverse culture shock. Before we begin, allow me to introduce the band: Tonight, for your entertainment only, we have the spokesperson of the Club of Expat Experiences playing the guitar, drums, piano, and singing the lead vocals, the backup, and the choir. And yes, we have an odd trombone in the background too.
You’ve heard of culture shock. Heck, you’ve even lived through it when you moved away from home. Now allow me to introduce you to reverse culture shock. That’ll hit you when you come home. Reverse culture shock (or re-entry shock) is the sense of ill-adjustment you experience after living abroad for a longer period of time. It’s the feeling of not quite belonging in the place that is supposed to be your true home – the place you were born and where everyone speaks the same language as you and shares the same values.
Alas, here we are.
With the growing trend of relocating for work and studies, taking and spending a gap year abroad, or simply travelling for a longer time, reverse culture shock has become a common occurrence. After all, moving to another place necessitates integration or, at least, some adaptation to the host culture, which results in some loss of identity related to your home country.
Worry not, because …
the Sun will rise
And the Moon will set
And learn how to settle
For what you get.
It will all go on if we’re here or not
So who cares? So what?
Look Out for These Reverse Culture Shock Symptoms
What good is sitting alone in your room? Come feel the culture shock. Life is an endless sea of change; let feelings run amok.
Being asked to recall all your memories and habits of a life that seems so distant now can be daunting. It can also make you want to coop up in your room, watch Netflix, and pretend life outside is happening to someone else. But I am here to tell you that this, too, shall pass. Isolating yourself is one of the symptoms that often emerge when reverse culture shock arrives.
Some other symptoms of reverse culture shock include:
- ‘This place is nuts!’ This may well be one of the very thoughts plaguing you right now. Everything is different; people have different attitudes to rules, personal hygiene, hospitality, and … seriously, is this what they eat all the time? You may feel at odds with values and cultural norms, and you might even get stomach issues due to the sudden change in nutrition. No, you’re not alone; all of us here at the Expat-XP Club have been driven crazy by our own home countries.
- Homesickness for that other home. Suddenly it’s clear how much of a home you’ve built elsewhere. When you come home, you may feel a great longing for your life as you had created it. Here, expectations and lifestyles are different, and you feel trapped.
- You have changed. One of the greatest benefits of living abroad is the change and growth you experience. It takes some serious guts to move away from home, learn a new language, make friends, and find a job. Consequently, you grow as a person in ways you couldn’t have at home, but when you return home, you feel as if you’re trying to squeeze your foot into a shoe that is uncompromisingly too small.
- Relationships have shifted. Maybe you find yourself in your parents’ home again, which takes a toll on everyone involved since home dynamics had been different with you gone (and you, too, have got used to being fully independent). Be patient with your parents; they’re navigating this situation for the first time as well. On the other hand, maybe you’ve lost contact with many people, and you feel their absence more acutely now.
- You’re not sure how to apply your knowledge. This new-old place has different rules, and you’re not sure where your experiences fit in. The job-market praises other values, and the university has its own way of dealing with students (doesn’t every university actually? Higher education law? Who needs that anyway?).
Apart from these more noticeable symptoms, you may feel bored and disengaged from your home, disconnected from people who ‘have known you since you were this big!’ You might also be unsure of how to spend your free time now that your usual sources of entertainment and relaxation have been cut off.
Navigating Reverse Culture Shock Stages
If you brought me roses
Like some other gents
Might bring to other girls,
It couldn’t please me more
Than the gift I see;
A pineapple for me.
No, I haven’t lost my mind; I’m navigating this just as you are. But a pineapple, you ask🍍? Well, that’s exactly how you might feel upon re-entry – like everyone is pining for roses, but all you want is a pineapple (and, yes, you may get weird looks for it, but alas, you cannot help it).
Getting a proverbial pineapple may be a good way to deal with the stages of reverse culture shock. Ease yourself through them and ensure you have enough comforts to lift you when you’re feeling down. But before all that lifting business, check out what to expect when you go home:
1. Disengagement. Under normal circumstances, you will have had some time to get used to the idea that your journey is drawing to an end. At this time, you might be thinking about everything nice you missed from home, such as great meals, comforts, and the welcoming crowd of friends and family.
Navigating this stage is easy: Plan reunions and outings, call everyone you want to see, and prepare pictures and stories. Allow yourself to be excited about going home. At the same time, it’s time to say goodbye to your host culture. Have a farewell party, go to your favourite shops, and take some time to take in the atmosphere of the places where you used to spend your time.
2. Euphoria. You’re home. Everyone is excited to see you. There are hugs, tears, endless talks and coffees, and you feel like buzzing from one place to another, barely taking any time to rest or enjoy the silence. Let yourself enjoy the all-time high. Talk and talk and talk … until you notice that friends have no questions left and wish to discuss other things. Which may cause a …
3. … Conflict. When the excitement has subsided, you may experience unpleasant feelings about your home country. Your values may no longer align with those practised in your home culture, you may be annoyed at the speed or way things are done, and it may be challenging to come to terms with your family and friends’ lifestyles.
The best way to power through this stage is to seek support from people you’re close to. Allow yourself to feel all the emotions, and don’t invalidate your opinions. What is more, don’t let others invalidate your experience. Try journaling and introduce gentle routines into your life. There’s no reason why your mornings or evenings should be drastically different from your time abroad. Start small and build from there.
4. (Re)Adjustment. After a couple of months, you’ll hit this stage. The good news is that it takes less time to overcome reverse culture shock than culture shock, as you are, indeed, coming home. In this phase, open yourself up to your home culture more and start planning how to build a life you will enjoy.
A Note on Reverse Culture Shock and Depression
It may well happen that the shock of returning home is greater than what is considered normal or even expected. If you feel overwhelmed and are shutting yourself up in your room, your symptoms may have grown into re-entry depression. This is usually accompanied by increased sensitivity, angry or sad outbursts, and a decrease in motivation, energy, or interest in things you used to love.
Depression is a serious illness and is best handled by a professional. Help is always available, be it through telephone hotlines or seeking a therapist.
Until you’re in a position to get professional help, try being gentle with yourself and try the following:
- Make a to-do list of simple tasks such as taking a shower and going for a brisk walk.
- When dark thoughts hit you, confront them. If you’re feeling unhappy, consider why this may be and what the underlying cause is. For example, you may be unhappy because of the sudden change in the degree of public security (compared to your host culture). In this case, maybe you could look up some self-defence course to regain control over what you can do.
Naturally, some problems are not so easily solved – oppression, corruption, racism, and classism are issues you cannot fight on your own. In this case, make sure you’re making your opinions known (venting helps) and see what positive impact you can make. Join a community project, offer your talents to those who need them, write a column for a magazine, and work your way through your emotions.
The most complex and crucial part of dealing with depression is re-wiring your brain. While some medication may be necessary, do not underestimate the power of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. In layman’s terms, try to focus on the positive aspects of your new life. Acknowledge them actively. If you’re having a drink with your friends, practise gratitude for this joyful moment. If trees in bloom look beautiful, acknowledge them. Baby steps are better than no steps at all.
Once again, seek professional help, but don’t feel helpless on your own. And remember, when you’re at home, you’re never completely on your own – your friends and support system are there.
Dear Readers, this is the Master of Ceremonies speaking. The Expat-XP Club will have a short intermission before the grand finale. Make sure you enjoy your drinks and don’t leave the theatre premises. We are delighted to welcome you back in a moment.
Dealing with Reverse Culture Shock
Maybe this time you’ll be lucky,
All the odds are in your favour
Something’s bound to begin
It’s got to happen, happen sometime
For sure, this time, you’ll win!
Ladies and Gentlemen, hold on to your seats; we’re entering the emotional finale of dealing with reverse culture shock. Regardless of how gloomy things may seem, there are ways to combat them:
- Slowly initiate and expand contact with your family and friends. Reconnect with the old gang and spend meaningful time with your family. Speak and listen actively, go on trips together, or try out new things.
- Build a routine. Creating sustainable habits is the quickest way out of the reverse culture shock rut. Start going for regular walks. Let your feet guide you – they already know the way, and the familiar is comforting when you’re feeling lost in your own home. Add other activities to your daily routine – like enjoying a morning coffee or doing some sports.
- Get busy. Time to reintegrate into your university or work life. Celebrate small victories and significant achievements alike, and motivate yourself to push forward.
- Be an opportunist. Look for ways to apply what you learnt abroad to your home country. If your host university had some cool clubs, you can start something similar at home. Practise what you appreciated back there and rope others in to help build a community.
- Connect with other returnees. You are probably not the only one who has lived abroad for a while, and in my experience, people tend to stay connected. Screen Facebook groups and blogs to get in touch with people with whom you can share your experience and be understood.
And lastly, always remember to give yourself enough time to re-adjust to your old-new life. You got this!
When You Study Abroad, Be Ready for Reverse Culture Shock
Gather together to greet the storm.
Tomorrow belongs to you.
Before we wrap this all up, you should remember that reverse culture shock cannot really be avoided. Any extended stay abroad might send you stumbling when you get home, so it’s good to know what to expect. To sum things up:
- Reverse culture shock is the sense of disorientation you get after you come home from studying or working abroad for a stretch of time.
- Symptoms include a sense of unease, boredom, annoyance, or homesickness for your host culture.
- Stages involve disengagement (preparation to leave the host country and ‘saying goodbye’), euphoria (the excitement of being home), conflict (home country clashes with the host culture), and (re)adjustment (finding ways to feel at home again).
- The best way to re-adjust is to get busy, build a routine, and nurture meaningful relationships in your home country.
Meine Damen und Herren, Mesdames et Messieurs, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Where are your troubles now? Forgotten? I told you so! We have no troubles here.
Here life is beautiful – the people are beautiful – even the orchestra is beautiful.
Until next time you stumble upon the Expat-XP Club,
Auf Wiedersehen! A bientôt! Good night!
Kander, John, and Joe Masteroff. Cabaret, the New Musical: Book by Joe Masteroff. Based on the Play by John Van Druten and Stories by Christopher Isherwood. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Piano Reduction by Robert H. Noeltner. New York: Sunbeam Music Corp, 1968.