What is reverse culture shock?
Reverse culture shock is the emotional and psychological distress suffered by some people when they return home after a number of years overseas. This can result in unexpected difficulty in readjusting to the culture and values of the home country, now that the previously familiar has become unfamiliar.
Definition provided by Investopedia.
Culture shock and reverse culture shock - what are they?
We’re in the business of providing our candidates with incredible experiences abroad. Something we often bring up in our initial discussions with teachers is whether or not they feel prepared to take on the cultural differences they’ll experience while living in a brand new country. Culture shock is a common phrase and one with which many are familiar. Essentially, it’s the emotional roller coaster we ride when beginning a life in a place previously unknown to us. For some, it comes all at once, and for others, in waves.
Think about when you move, even if it's just to another house not too far away from your old one. You may be starting a new adventure in your new house, but you also may start to miss some things about your last home. Maybe you made great memories there or you just don't like change and you were comfortable there. This will make it a bit harder to get used to your new house, but, over time, you will get used to your new house, and it will become 'home'.
When life brings you back home -
A lesser-discussed phenomenon is that which we experience when life brings us back home. That is, the psychological, emotional, and cultural aspects of adjusting to re-entering our home country – better known as reverse culture shock. Similar to culture shock, reverse culture shock is a personal journey. Meaning that everyone will have a unique experience in their readjustment period.
For me, it seemed to take place over the course of a little over a year until I finally felt like I’d truly found my footing. With that in mind, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to take you through a few of my personal experiences with reverse culture shock and how I’ve coped with everything. Maybe you’ll find yourself going through a similar series of emotions someday!
What to expect when you move back home, and how to deal with reverse culture shock
My life abroad was so full. Every day seemed like a new adventure or challenge to overcome. Whether it was struggling to find the right words in Mandarin for a ladle, trips to the visa office, or simple days spent bopping from place to place with friends, I was constantly on the go and being a social butterfly.
When I returned home, back to my suburban town in America, I didn’t have a job to come home to at first and I found that all of my friends had moved away to new cities, and in some cases, new countries. Their lives went on and there was just significantly less activity in my life than I was used to. For several months, I found myself sitting in my room with my cat wondering when the next time would be that I’d feel challenged, busy, social, etc.
In response to these feelings of isolation and loneliness, rather than sit around and wallow in it, I forced myself out of my house. I made sure to get in touch with old friends -- some I hadn’t seen in years, and I spent time making plans and traveling to see them. I also picked up new hobbies and activities to keep my mind active while hunting for a full-time job. Don’t get me wrong though, there were plenty of hours spent catching up on all the TV shows and movies I missed out on while living in Shanghai!
I went abroad and the world at home unsurprisingly kept spinning. I saw my friends buy houses, get promotions, get married, have children. And then there was me – a person who lived in China for three years. I “halted” my life for this adventure which I wouldn’t change for the world, but I felt many people didn’t quite understand my reasons.
In congruence with my alone time, I began comparing where I was in life to where my friends were. Had I held myself back from America’s definition of success? Do I even want what they have? Instagram became a daily reminder that:
A. I was no longer living out an adventure-filled life and
B. Everyone had moved on to new phases in life. Phases that I hadn’t even come close to.
I knew my years living abroad were no mistake, but I had to constantly remind myself that everyone has a different path in life. To combat my negative comparisons, I took to writing lists of my accomplishments, things I was proud of, what I liked about myself, and experiences that I felt set me apart and made me stand out.
I needed to find my self-confidence again and writing was a great outlet to put things into perspective. When I found myself feeling unmotivated and lacking confidence, I learned that it came from my constant comparison to my peers. I needed to form a new relationship with patience – I’d just moved home from a completely different part of the world where I’d adapted, immersed, and grew up. I had to learn to give myself some credit and trust in the process.
Plus, it's cliche, but true -- the grass is always greener on the other side. Though if you change your mindset, the grass is always greener where it's watered.
A good friend of mine often says, “take from your culture that which makes you stronger and leave behind the rest”. It seems like a simple concept but I think we unknowingly define so much of our personal identity through our culture. For many Americans, that means feeling pressured to meet the status quo and to always keep our eyes on the prize – the ever-elusive “American Dream”.
Upon returning home, I had a difficult time encapsulating who I was before I left and who I was now. Accepting the home that was and the home that is. My relationships had changed, my perspectives were flipped entirely upside down, and I felt out of place.
Who am I? How do I define myself and value my worth?
The reality is that when we move abroad, we abandon so much of our “old self”. We have no choice. We’re living in “newness” every day. Coming home meant recognizing and most importantly, accepting, that I am no longer the person that once left for the adventure of a lifetime. I am now someone that cultivated an entire life abroad completely separated from that which used to hold power in my definition of self. When returning home, everything felt different and foreign, yet familiar. I felt like I no longer belonged but that everyone around me expected me to.
Frankly, it took a long time to find solace in my new identity and to be able to fully articulate it to people. And that’s my only advice here. It just simply takes time and not being afraid to talk about your experience so you can learn how to compartmentalize and continue to grow with the newfound pieces, values, and perspectives that make up the “you” of today.
Another way I struggled was that I’d often find myself speaking about life in China with friends only to be met with, “yeah we get it, you lived abroad”. Did they not wish to know what I did for the past three years? Were only surface-level conversations acceptable now? Remember that your experience won’t always be digestible to people, but don’t let that deter you from speaking about it. It can be difficult to put into words and that can feel alienating. Trust that through all this, you will find your footing again and you will certainly encounter those that you feel a kindred spirit with and who can relate to you!
Lastly, because you’ve lived in another country and in many cases, you may be the only person in the room to have done so, you can easily feel responsible to be an advocate or speak on the country itself. The sense of responsibility can be pretty heavy because again, your experience is yours and yours alone to share. You may not be able to answer questions about politics, government, culture, or whether what the media says is true – and that’s okay! Communicate what you feel comfortable communicating and don’t be afraid to say you’re not sure. Just because you lived there, doesn’t make you an expert! Remember to be humble and honest with people who are curious!
Feelings of reverse culture shock can range from slight to extreme. Above I’ve laid out just some of the emotional hurdles I went through upon returning back to the states. Of course, there were also some silly little things that I encountered along my journey in readapting too, but I decided to highlight just a few major themes.
If you start feeling alone, look around for some online teach abroad groups where you might be able to track down some other repatriates that you can befriend and vent to.