Reverse Culture Shock Survivor: Settling In, Five Years On
It’ll soon be five years since I returned home after six years of teaching English, traveling widely and living in three different non-English-speaking countries. The bad news is that I still suffer from reverse culture shock sometimes; the good news is that I’m generally okay, okay enough to label myself a reverse culture shock survivor!
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If you’re in a similar situation to me, I hope that I can share some tips that’ll help you also get over the shock of returning to what some might call “normal life” after an extended time enjoying the excitement of travel.
What Is Reverse Culture Shock All About?
A few years back, I wrote about the symptoms of reverse culture shock. After six years travelling through some 40 countries and living in Japan, Slovakia and Germany, moving back to my hometown of Perth, Western Australia, hit hard. For a start, almost nobody was interested in hearing about what I’d done or where I’d been — I soon learnt that was normal.
My hometown suddenly seemed incredibly banal, and I wondered what on earth I would do for fun. My much-expanded tolerance for other cultures, languages and ideas didn’t seem to have a place amongst everyday conversations here. A few people I knew even showed some ugly moments of jealousy and irritation if I mentioned anything about my travels. And, living in the most isolated city in the world, I did wonder if I’d ever get the chance to travel as much as I knew I wanted to.
Without wanting to dishearten anyone who’s just arrived home, I have to tell you it took me several years to really get over this reverse culture shock — and that’s despite having close to ideal conditions for doing so, since I both lived with a foreigner (my German husband) and taught them (as an ESL teacher) so I had regular daily interaction with other cultures, something that had become really important to me while traveling.
However, I tried my hardest to be proactive about tackling my reverse culture shock. A few of the strategies I used which definitely helped me settle in back home without missing my life abroad too much included:
Keeping in touch with my friends overseas and encouraging visitors. Despite Perth’s isolation I’ve had numerous nationalities walk through my front door, and I’ve spent plenty of time chatting and emailing my old students and ex-colleagues from my time abroad, as well as keeping track of the fellow travelers I met. While people used to email me sometimes when I lived overseas and tell me they were traveling vicariously through me, I let it become my turn to be excited by the journeys others were making. And maybe just a tiny bit jealous!
Getting involved with anything multicultural that I could. I’ve been to Peruvian dancing nights and Korean food evenings and seen films and documentaries from every corner of the planet. I’ve had parties where our best Colombian friend chatted in who knows what kind of pidgin English to my German father-in-law; I’ve had traditional meals cooked by Kazakh, Japanese and Brazilian friends.
Making a big production out of a small trip. Without the flexibility to head overseas on a long, rambling journey, I’ve made the most out of shorter domestic trips by finding unusual parts of Australia to visit, and doing plenty of reading and dreaming before we went. When I picked up cheap flights to Adelaide, everyone insisted we chill out with wine in the Barossa Valley, but instead we hired a camper and explored the incredible Flinders Ranges. A short trip like that goes a long way to recharging my travel deficit.
Helping out friends with travel planning. I’m the go-to girl these days for anyone who’s planning a trip: Where should I stay if I go there? Do you think three weeks is too short? Where’s the best place for a white Christmas? I get all the questions and I adore answering them — complete with handy links and copious suggestions on matters beyond the question itself! I’ve found that using my knowledge and experience to help others have a great trip is almost as good as taking the trip myself. Almost.
When I first moved back home, I often felt completely out of the loop in conversations with friends or colleagues because I’d missed a big chunk of pop culture. If you live or travel abroad for an extended period of time — especially in non-English-speaking countries, I discovered — you won’t have a clue about the recent successful bands, singers, TV shows, movies, celebrities, and sometimes not even about basic news items that don’t make it across the border. I’ve stopped being frustrated by this — even if they take up a lot of conversation time, these things are usually pretty trivial — and remind myself of all the other great experiences that are stored in my memory bank instead!
There are a multitude of other ways in which you’ll never be the same again — and the hometown you’ve come back to will never be the same for you, either — but different’s okay, too! So basically, the rule seems to be: if you travel long term, you’ll change, and you’ll have to change how you think about your hometown or home country, if you decide to return there.
I’ve found plenty of ways to feel happy about being home again — not happy enough to never travel again, but happy enough that those initial awful pains of reverse culture shock have gone away. So take heart, take charge and stop those reverse culture shock symptoms from ruining all the positives about being home.