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Reverse Culture Shock 
When Home Feels Like a Foreign Country

Most travelers who have been away for a time experience reverse culture shock once they get home.

After more than three years on the road I know I did.

Nothing felt right. Traffic lights scared me. I couldn't understand why anyone would take an elevator for only four or five floors. Everything seemed wasteful and superficial. The food was awful.

Eventually I started fitting in again, got a job, acquired more possessions, and life went on. I had changed inside, but I slowly fell back into life as it once was - even though it wasn't altogether comfortable.

This kind of estrangement is a real feeling for many of us after a spell traveling or living abroad.

Foreigners shopping in IndiaForeigners at market at the Sardar Girdikot Gate, Jodhpur, India. You may feel like this when you get home. Photo Eric Parker via Flickr cc

How to prepare for reverse culture shock

The best preparation is... preparation! Be ready for it, because it'll probably strike, even if you've been on the road for just a few months. 

The best defense against reverse culture shock is to plan your return home before you leave.

Had I realized this sooner I might have saved myself some grief and bewilderment, but there are some things you can keep in mind about your touchdown:

  • Your experiences on the road may have radically altered the way you look at the world, so cut your friends and family some slack. They haven't been away for months or years, and their pace of change has been slower. In fact they may still be in the same job, living in the same place, and going to the same restaurant every weekend.
  • Your timeframes may be different. Your friends and former colleagues will be driven by the clock, while you may be driven by a desire to savor the moment. Try to be understanding. They have to go back to work after lunch. You may not have to. Yet.
  • Your family may be hungry for every last detail, especially if they've followed you step by step. On the other hand, some people won't have have read your blog or social media shares at all. They honestly won't know what you've been up to, other than 'traveling in Africa'. That close encounter with a lion may not have any meaning for them. In fact it may leave them perplexed or worse, bored.
Starbucks - can be a welcome sight when you travelA mirage? Photo Yoshimov via Flickr CC
  • Reverse culture shock means you may not like the same things anymore. A Starbucks latte may pale next to that Ethiopian coffee ceremony you attended just last month.
  • You may be bored. On the road or where you used to live, each day brought new faces, new places, new experiences. Back home, you may feel you've plunged into 'same old same old.' Well, you have, so accept it.
  • Your friends may be envious of your trip. Phrases like 'when I lived in a village in the Upper Zambezi' or 'when I sped across Bali in a ministerial convoy' may be the absolute truth, but they won't always be welcome if the best your friends can come up with is 'I've commuted back and forth to work every day.' That doesn't make your life more important, but your friends may feel slighted.
  • Simple things may seem odd. Like traffic on the 'wrong' side of the road or people waiting for the light to turn green before they cross.
  • Your routine will be very different from what it was overseas. But that's part of life too.

On the practical side, you can avoid reverse culture shock by putting some of the following arrangements in place before you go:

  • Have some work, even if it's short-term, waiting for you when you return.
  • Sort out your living arrangements - will you be able to stay with family or friends?
  • Have a few possessions waiting for you. If you've been in the tropics, you'll be happy to have that ski jacket and scarf waiting for you at home.
  • Leave some money behind so you don't come back empty-handed. I suffered major financial culture shock when I moved from Bangkok back to Geneva - and paid more for a single coffee than I had for an entire day's meals in Thailand!

Dealing with reverse culture shock - when you're in it

You're home now, and many things don't feel right. How can you ease back into a life that no longer seems to belong to you?

Here are a few ideas.

Have a big party
Invite all your friends over - and don't talk about your trip. That's right. Most people probably heard enough about it while you were on the road or when you first came home. Talk about them and their lives instead. Find out what you've missed and what's changed, who is married and who is divorced, who changed jobs or had children. It'll help rebuild your community.

Keep in touch with your foreign friends
Just because you're returning home doesn't mean you've disappeared off the planet. Email the many friends you've met on the road. Invite some of them to stay with you when they travel your way. Share your return trip impressions with them. Find out where they're headed to (although beware, it might be too much to take if you've got itchy feet!)

Capture your memories
You can do that in many ways. You can print out your blog and put it in a binder with photos of your trip. You can write a final wrap-up blog post. You can put your souvenirs on a special shelf or wall. Or make a scrapbook. Don't be depressed, you're not saying goodbye to travel. You're only filing things away for future contemplation. And if the travel muse pursues you, you can always pull everything out, and reminisce.

Go to a restaurant that reminds you of your trip
Did you just spend a year in Southeast Asia? Find a great and authentic Thai or Vietnamese restaurant. Just back from South America? Time for a Brazilian rodizio, or steak house.

Join a language or cultural group
If you were in one place long enough to learn a new language or get to know the culture, don't lose that when you get home. Join a language group or a cultural group from the country you lived in. Make the Alliance Fran├žaise or British Council your second home. Or why not the China Cooking Club or the Argentinian Tango Association?

Help others on a travel forum
Don't let all that great experience go to waste. Plenty of traveling or expat women out there need your help. This may be their first solo trip or posting abroad. They could be uncertain or scared or first-timers looking for more confidence. You can pay it forward by passing on some of your special knowledge.

Be grateful to be home
Enjoy your family and friends. Remember how fortunate you are to have a place to return to. Think of what you've missed, and try to catch up.

Plan your next trip
If you're part of the diehard breed of backpacking women, start planning. There's nothing to lift the post-travel blues like planning for your next grand tour.

Still can't get rid of that reverse culture shock?

Then you may have no choice but to try some of the following last-ditch tactics once you're back home:

  • Start greeting everyone with the following questions: What's your name? Where are you from? How long have you been away from home? Where are you going next?
  • Put on some loud Burmese or Ethiopian music. Then try to go to sleep.
  • Next time you spot someone reading a newspaper from home, move up close, peer over their shoulder, smile, and ask if they don't mind sharing.
  • Open your kitchen cupboard, pull out only those ingredients with labels written in foreign languages, and mix them all together. Make a face and swallow.
  • Find a bus - any bus - and get on. Immediately begin talking to your seatmate by introducing yourself and asking: Where are you going? How many hours have you been on this bus? Has it broken down often? Where are the bathroom stops?
  • Fill your backpack or suitcase. Carry it around with you every day, even to work. Then lock it to your desk and look back furtively each time you take a few steps away.
  • Do not take the elevator, ever. It probably hasn't been checked since it was built. And that little certificate with the date stamped on it is a computer-generated facsimile produced by the owner's seven-year-old niece.

Joking apart, reverse culture shock does have its positive sides and one of the most wonderful things about long-term travel or living abroad is the wealth of experience and understanding you bring back with you when you return home.

Hang on to that open-mindedness, and share what you've learned. You'll make your world a better place because of your travels.

Need to know more about reverse culture shock? These two books might help: How to Survive Reverse Culture Shock by Elena Nebreda and Burn Up or Splash Down by Marion Knell.

Have you had any good (or bad) experiences returning home? Please do share them in the comments below!


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