Reverse Culture Shock

Reconciling the Person You Once Were with the Person You Are Now

Near the Plaka Steps in Athens, September 2017

If you are unfamiliar with the term "culture shock," in brief it means the mental (and sometimes physical) reaction you feel against a new place unknown to you. For instance, you have never traveled to Thailand before and, like me, you decide to pack up all you own into one large bag and move there—selling one's car and using the proceeds to fund the unconventional decision. After arriving in the new place, seeing the new sights, sensing the incredible (and some rank) smells... the once lovely "newness" of the place begins to overwhelm you. Now, the sights irritate you, the smells make you sick, and the clamour of people speaking a language you don't know in environments which are completely foreign to you make you angry. Is this rational? Of course not. Is this avoidable? Well, probably not for most people; who knows, there could be a rare exception. Will the initial love and joy return? YES! 

The best advice I ever received was this: let the irrational anger, sadness, melancholy, etc., wash over you in waves. DO NOT FIGHT IT. Cry in the middle of a cafe with Thai people staring at you if you have to. Yell as the other bikers yell at passing cars. Take that one day to sit in your new, and very uncomfortable, bed, eating unusual candy while binge watching Netflix shows aired in Thailand. It's okay. Try not to make it last more than two weeks, though (this connects back to the do not fight it rule). Once your mind works through the shifts of culture and location, you can begin to create a new normal for yourself. We all feel culture shock in different ways. The key is to identify within yourself what seems unusual for you, give it due credit, tell yourself it's perfectly okay to cry and rant... then in two days or two weeks move on to making a plan. I say that because getting outside and forcing yourself to interact with the new culture is in fact the cure to your culture shock. Create a schedule. Put yourself out there to make new friends. Try new modes of transportation and foods that look weird but taste great. It WILL get better. 

So now, let's not forget the title of this article: "Reverse Culture Shock." This is an experience I have been intimately intertwined with lately as I am back in my old home in the States after living abroad from almost two-and-a-half years (various countries like Thailand, the UK, and Italy). Can you imagine that your home—the place you made your schedule, found new friends, created new memories and life goals in—is not in fact the place you grew up but a place altogether different—and halfway around the world! So then, the smells in your old home, the heat of the weather, the voices of old communities, the politics on TV, the accents(!) all irritate the heck outta you and you have one thought: "Whaaa?" If you are reading this thinking, "Well, Alex, this is obviously the culture shock scenario you wrote about earlier. What's the deal?"—the deal is this: imagine feeling this towards your family...

If you think you wouldn't then you either A) have not experienced culture shock, or B) have an amazing mental capacity for change. While I think my mental capacity is tough as nails, I was not prepared for the emotional high and lows to seeing my family. What changed? I did. My family did. My home state did. My city did. The architecture, the smells, the new homes, the new styles, my cousins had kids, my mom had a boyfriend, my dad was moving, my grandparents had passed, I have a long distance relationship with the love of my life, my sisters have kids/are pregnant, I have two degrees going on more in a field my family cannot possibly try to comment on let alone understand... A lot can change in two-and-a-half years. 

Quickly I identified my state as "culture shock" and often referred to it as such in the first four weeks of my return. I had to give it life and credibility as I was lashing out at my mom, crying for spilling water on my sister's table, getting frustrated with the way people spoke, constantly referring to my home as Scotland, not the States. The worst moment was the realization that my father, aunt, etc., were treating me in the same way and with the same notions they would have almost three years ago. I found myself angry that my father would think I could be careless with money when I had figured out how to live abroad on my own with no help from them for almost three years. I found myself feeling resentful towards my aunt for thinking I live my life for my partner and not my own ambitions. I grew nostalgic for the Scottish accent and Scottish food. I missed home. 

Just as much as I needed to reconcile the ideas I once had of my old home with the reality I was experiencing as if for the first time, my family had get to know the person I had become and forget their ideas of who I once was. It has been a process, and I would like to help you through yours. 

Tips for Reconciling Reverse Culture Shock

Headed off once again! 

  1. The most important tip is the same I already mentioned: Let it roll over you in waves and do not fight it. The more you fight it the longer it lasts. Identify the culture shock, work through the odd feelings as you would in Thailand, or Italy, or the UK, and allow yourself to grieve the old and seek the new.
  2. Speak to your family and friends about culture shock. In speaking to them about what you are feeling and thinking and reacting, it allows you to explain to the ones you love that, although it might seem very irrational to them, the feelings are very real. This opens a line of communication to #3 as well as to verify that you might be on separate pages at the moment, but with time and a new normal, things will start to balance out. Try these openers: If I seem upset with the plans for dinner, let me know how you feel so I can explain how I feel... If I get angry at the way you expect me to do something, take a moment and inform me that I hurt your feelings. I do not mean to get angry, and it should not make you feel hurt, either... Understand that if I cry randomly, I am working on some things in my head and need a solid joke to lift me up. It DOES NOT mean I am sad to be home.
  3. Allow your family to experience and reconcile the old with the new. I say that because just as you are rehashing the familiar annoyance of culture shock, they are practically meeting a new YOU. They may not understand the full extent of what you have experienced (either because you never told them or they simply were not paying attention to all the Facebook posts and Instagram stories). Allow them the time to learn your new tendencies and mannerisms. This means having patience. It will not be easy to do as you will also be striving to have patience with yourself, but you absolutely MUST validate their experience as real, too. Try these openers: Just as you are getting to know me again, I am trying to know you, too. Both of our confusions and emotional ups and downs are true to us, but they should not devalue the respect we have for one another... If you are confused as to why I am saying a certain word or reacting a certain way, do NOT ignore it. Ask me about it. This will build understanding and allow us to really be 100 percent ourselves like we used to.
  4. The last piece of advice: Rebuild your sense of normalcy. This means if you used to go to the movies every Friday back home, do that in the new home, too. Invite your family to share the experience; go out with your cousins or old friends every now and then just as you would if you were experiencing culture shock in a new country; make a schedule/routine—if you get up every morning and have coffee watching the news, do that here, too. The point is to create a new sense of comfort. It might be slightly different but it will still be YOURS, and that is key to a happy mind and a happy home. 
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Reverse Culture Shock
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