We spend so much time preparing for our travels overseas but there is one area that no one seems to talk about — the reverse culture shock that nearly every traveler feels once they return home. In fact, most people are surprised that this is more difficult to deal with than the original culture shock they initially experienced when encountering new places and cultures.
It tends to be most severe for study abroad students and long-term travelLers, but even short-term travelLers experience the symptoms. Re-adjusting to life back home can be tough and it’s very common to experience depression.
What Is Reverse Culture Shock And What Causes It?
For many of you, your trip may be your first experience overseas, and more importantly, it may be the first time you’re truly free to do whatever you want. You’ll be exposed to a different way of looking at life and it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll start to look at the world differently. You’ll realize that the way things are done back home aren’t always the best.
Don’t be surprised if you start to re-examine your life, priorities, values, and worldview. It’s a gradual process and you probably won’t fully realize how you’ve changed until you return home.
Once you’re thrown back into your “normal” life back home is when the reverse culture shock hits — and for some it will hit like a truck. You find that your old priorities, values, and worldview don’t always line up with your new views. These changes are part of the human experience and they’re a good thing — but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
You also have to make that difficult transition from vacation mode to real world mode — which can be challenging in and of itself.
What You May Experience Once You Return Home
Psychologists have studied reverse culture shock and they’ve come up with a list of the most difficult re-entry challenges:
Boredom — Traveling is exciting because you’re constantly experiencing new things. After weeks or months of continual stimulation being back home will understandably seem boring. This usually fades once you get back into your normal routine.
Your Friends and Family Aren’t Interested — You’ve just gone though a life-changing trip but the people back home haven’t. You can’t (and should’t) expect them to relate to your experiences because your experience is personal to you. Sure, they’ll listen to your stories, but after a while they’ll tire and get bored with your tales.
I know I started catching myself beginning all my stories with “In Europe they do it like this…” or “When I was in Europe…” and people’s eyes would start to gloss over. People just aren’t that interested. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever talk about your travels, but you have to understand that not all people will care that much about your trip. Additionally, always talking about your travels can easily come off as pretentious.
Trouble Explaining Your Travels — This point is similar to the previous one. Many travellers get frustrated that they can’t convey their travels to other people — or that other people can’t understand the experiences they went through. It’s just one of those things you can’t describe.
Reverse Homesickness — If you lived/traveled overseas for an extended period of time you’ll start to feel homesick for that location. You start comparing both locations and miss all the positive things from your previous location.
Change in Relationships — It’s very common for the relationships between you and your friends/family to change. That’s because your worldview and priorities in life have probably changed as a result of your travels. This can cause friction and misunderstandings by both parties. This can also lead to feelings of alienation because other people don’t understand you as they once did. That woman you were in love with before you left may have already abandoned you.
Feeling Out of Place in Your Own Culture — You’ve changed and you now carry a piece of your international experience with you. This can lead to a feeling that you’re a bit of an outsider in your own culture.
Home has Changed – The world is always in a constant state of change so many people are surprised that home has changed since they left.
The Grass Is Greener — As time passes we tend to forget about the bad things and focus on the good things. Many people will start to over-romanticize their time abroad and it can lead to depression.
Return to the Routine — Getting back into a routine can be difficult and depressing — especially after you’ve spent an extended amount of time with no real routine. And it’s not just about going to work. It’s the routine of everything — grocery shopping, driving, watching TV, etc. Additionally, all you’re worries (student loans, jobs, money, etc.) are staring you in the face.
Getting Over Reverse Culture Shock
Most experts say the best thing is to simply give yourself time. If you can’t seem to shake those post-trip blues, you can try some of the following things:
• Accept Change — You’re a different person and it helps to simple accept it.
• Exercise — Getting that blood flowing is a natural anti-depressant.
• Hang Out With Friends — Find people who make you happy and don’t isolate yourself.
• Find Other Travelers — Other travelers understand what you’re going though and they’re more apt be interested in your travel stories.
• Limit Talking About Your Time Abroad — Unless you’re asked, try to limit how much you talk about your time abroad. Talking about it too much will repel people and it makes you look pretentious.
• Seek Out The Culture — If there are expats in your town, seek them out or watch movies from the country you lived in.
No discussion about returning from a prolonged period abroad is complete without thinking about reverse culture shock and your perspective. Long-term travel to the developing world often leaves you in a fastidious state of mind. However, travel also crystallizes your perceptions, honing naïve sentiments into firm sets of belief. It can help keep life in perspective. And if you concentrate enough, it can help mold you into the person you strive to be.
In subsequent returns home, the differences are less jarring and yet more sharply defined. You will have become an observer to your own existence in a way that you never anticipated, thinking of your temporary discomfort before settling into your skin once more. The things to love about Asia – the energetic chaos, and the ability to slide in sideways and create a life for yourself at whatever level you choose. And as you swing back from one continent to the other, you will find that you can adjust more easily each time.
Upon returning home from this jaunt around the world, each return is a shock to the system: weatherwise, pricewise and peoplewise. Disconnect contributes to the otherworldly, awkward feeling of being an outsider in a city you used to call home. Part of it likely stems from your specific travel experiences but no one at home really wants to hear about them.
In your general readjustment, certain memories arise where you need to remind yourself that life is just not the way it was a few days ago. These are some examples of reverse culture shock after traveling in Asia (excerpted from LegalNomads.com).
1. Table Napkins or Toilet Paper? Your first thought when eating out: wait, you mean we each have a napkin? For the last 7 months, restaurant napkins unspooled from a cartoon-clad plastic dispenser of toilet paper that sat in the middle of the table. Napkins were first come, first serve – and meals generally ended with a tiny pile of discarded paper next to your plate. Watching your friends put their napkin on their lap, and you suffer your first etiquette disconnect. Did I really used to do this? I guess so.
2. Waiting for All Food to Arrive. Common courtesy generally dictates that you wait for everyone to get their food before you dig in, with small wiggle room for dishes that absolutely must be eaten hot (fajitas) or where someone skips a course. Not so in Asia, where you will easily receive your dish well after everyone else at the table has finished theirs. Waiting for everyone to eat would be a travesty as most of the table’s food would be cold by the time that lowest-common denominator moment arrived. You need to remind yourself to wait when eating in a group since your instincts are to dig in first, look around later!
3. Portion Control. Or lack thereof. Your style of eating evolves from ‘obsessed with food but saving it for meal times’ to ‘obsessed with food, and every moment is meal time’. In Thailand, grazing is a national sport, and it is easy to fit right in. Walking down the street, one is bombarded by an infinite series of culinary options, unfolding in front of you like your own personal buffet. But portions are small, and you eat until you are full and then move on until you feel that familiar pang of longing for those perfectly grilled pork skewers and sticky rice. Portion sizes in the US are astoundingly, disturbingly large.
4. Prices. Were you to eat at home the way you did in Bangkok, you would run out of money – quickly. But when a skewer of pork and sticky rice cost 5 baht (15 cents) each, and a full plate of noodles or chicken curry runs you under a dollar, money goes quite a long way. While you know this is merely the reality of returning to North America, it doesn’t make the sticker shock any less painful or jarring.
5. Where are all the Ladies? Your life in Bangkok revolved around a set of talented ladies who make your existence much more enjoyable: my Coffee Lady in the morning and chat with her about her day, while stopping in to say hello to my Tailor Lady next door. I would eat dinner at Soi 6’s Pumpkin Lady, and lunch at the Som Tam lady just next to the Ratchawithi intersection. I would wave to my Shake Lady when I returned home, stopping at the Fruit Cart Lady for some pineapple as I walked down my street. Where have all the ladies gone? Sadly, life in North America is too fast paced for a different, specific cart to satisfy each need. But I often find myself thinking of these women and their impact on my life in Bangkok; I looked forward to talking with them every day, and miss their radiant smiles.
6. Smiling at Everyone. Speaking of smiling, having spent 7 months smiling at everyone and everything, be it in response to a smile from someone else or just because it is the thing to do, I am hopelessly used to it as a matter of course. This smiling thing is not par for the course in North America, and the customary reaction has been wariness (what is this crazy girl smiling at?), confusion (why is she smiling at me? Why?) or, from those under the age of 10, a smile back. That’s not to say home isn’t friendly – it is – it’s just a different breed of friendly, moving on a separate plane of existence from the one I was accustomed to.
7. Personality-Drenched Public Transportation. The complex network of buses, trains and taxis in New York is both thorough and effective – but it’s not as exciting navigating through a city like Bangkok. There are no motosai taxis, the orange-vested, fearless motorcycle drivers who are the lifeblood of Bangkok’s tangled web of streets, sois and back-alley shortcuts. There is no BTS Lady, yelling out the stops on the SkyTrain in her comforting, lilting voice. There are no boats along tiny klong rivers running deep in the heart of downtown, hectic and fast, a secret snapshot into everyday life amidst the concrete. And there are no tuk-tuks belching smoke into the air, their drivers giggling madly as they whisk you about town. Here, there are traffic rules. And they are enforced. This is probably good for my life’s trajectory, but it’s nowhere near as fun.
8. My Face is No Longer Melting. I never truly discovered ‘hot’ until I stayed in Bangkok through their shoulder season. April was beyond hot, the heat hitting you like a wall the second you stepped outside, leaving you drenched with sweat in seconds. Unless you are Thai – and thus do not sweat. But us farang were a soggy, sweaty, pasty-white mess. Whether I walked slowly, carried a wet handkerchief and drank water like it was going out of style, the net takeaway was that my face was melting off. Conversely, the summer in North America feels comfortable and cool – a good thing as people complain about these last few 32-degree days in NY.
9. Tall Beautiful Woman? Not Necessarily a Ladyboy. I do not want to generalize too thoroughly here, but if you stroll through Bangkok and spot a tall, beautiful Thai woman – chances are she was born a man. Some of the most stunning, delicate and well-dressed women in Bangkok were the ladyboys and they were a ton of fun to spend time with (as a woman, of course). I am still at the point where, upon seeing a tall woman here in NY, I glance at her hands and feet.
10. Bargaining. I went to buy two popsicles near Battery Park city this weekend, and when the vendor told me the price, I said cajolingly “Come on, I’m buying two – you can’t give me a better price?” Understandably, his look indicated that I had just grown a second head. Bargaining was a way of life, be it in stores, market stalls or wandering down the street in search of food. Not so in North America.
Readjustment comes with its own set of perks, however: returning to the food not available elsewhere: brown bread, salads made with ingredients not findable in foreign countries, sharp cheddar cheese, poutine. And seeing friends and family.