The Reality of Reverse Culture Shock

It’s difficult to identify a more thrilling feeling than stepping off a plane in a country in which you don’t speak a word of the local language, and everything that lays before you is blank and unknown. Every step is a first step, and you are transformed into a curious, naive child again.

As you navigate yourself through the airport, your mind full of wonder and confusion, your heart pounding with anticipation, you gear yourself up for the mystery of the adventure that is to come. Your heart races as you step out of the aiport and into a brand new city in a brand new country. It even smells different. The air is heavy and polluted, and your skin tingles with the feeling of complete filth. You have arrived. And then, the crowds close in on you, dark mustached faces surround you, and you are greeted by screams and yells and grabs. Welcome. You are the foreigner.

I’ve experienced this feeling many times, and what I’ve found is that eventually you get used to these situations. For better or worse, you begin to become accustomed to the confusion, accustomed to the grime, and accustomed to being the center of attention in a land that knows you are “not from here”. A big part of me loves this feeling, and a part of me gets exhausted with it. But, over time, the unknown becomes the known. You grow used to standing on the edge of the unfamiliar, eagerly greeting it’s familiar unfamiliarity.

You spend weeks or months in this place, and eventually you no longer feel the culture shock you first felt. What originally surprised you and knocked you off your feet now becomes an accepted part of the way of life in this country. You learn to accept and even embrace things that originally shocked or appalled you. And playing charades in order to buy a cup of coffee becomes an accepted part of your morning routine.

Having spent much of my time in my twenties traveling and moving, I’ve acquired some experience with this. And what I’ve found is that very often for me, what’s more difficult than culture shock is reverse culture shock, which refers to the experience of coming back home to your own country and reintegrating with its values and ways of life after getting used to another’s. This is not to say I don’t love where I’m from, because I absolutely do and am extremely grateful for it. But there is something I be said for these transitions.

When traveling through foreign countries, there are usually others around you who are also sharing the same experience of everything being brand new and exciting. But when you come home, you suddenly may feel alone. Everything looks the same as you left it, everyone acts the same, but you feel very different inside. There’s been an inner shift. Depending on how long you’ve been gone or the intensity of your trip, these affects can range from mild to severe.

I remember after spending five months in Bangkok, I came home for Christmas. I decided to spend the afternoon walking through the downtown area of the suburbs in the neighborhood I’m from. I felt relaxed and peaceful from my time in Thailand. I had fallen in love with Bangkok, and I had fallen in love with the friendly, happy Thai people. I had also fallen deeply in love with their prices! But, as I was in a slow amble through downtown Walnut Creek, I began tuning in and observing people around me. I watched people push each other out of the way as they were trying to buy Christmas presents. I saw people not hold the door open for each other, or greet me with a roll of the eyes or a plastic smile. I saw people all around me, dripping in money and Gucci bags, and yet completely miserable looking. I suddenly felt anger and frustration, and embarrassment over the behavior of “my people”. I left Starbuck’s in a flash and ran to a Thai restaurant I knew existed down the street. I ordered a thai iced tea and took a seat. I took a taste of my $5 thai iced tea and a tear rolled down my cheek as I realized how shitty it tasted, and how much I missed Thailand. I was experiencing a case of reverse culture shock.

Traveling changes you, and most people will agree it’s for the better. It opens up your eyes and mind to new cultures, new ideas, and makes you reconsider what is important in life. That being said, it can also hurt you. Constantly going through transitions can take a toll, but I do believe that ultimately these experiences make you stronger and better equipped for the trials and tribulations of life. I can personally say I’ve grown a lot through my travels, and have also experienced a good amount of reverse culture shock. After being surrounded by people in poor countries, scraping by on a few dollars a day, yet happy and compassionate towards strangers, it makes you reconsider where you come from and your own behavior towards the value of money and treatment of strangers. After seeing people in difficult financial circumstances, yet sitting lovingly with their family and friends, it makes you analyze your own relationships, and tune in to your dinner outtings with friends where everyone sits around the table playing absentmindedly on their iphones. After seeing people face real problems in every day life, it makes you think twice on what you consider to be “real problems” back home.

I have four pieces of advice for anyone who is going through this, or has experience with this in the past. One is to be grateful. Be grateful for your experiences. Be grateful for where you come from, as well as where you have been. If it wasn’t for where you come from, you might have not had the opportunity to have been where you’ve been. Be grateful for your open mind, and for the strength and courage you possess to have left the comfort of your home and thrown yourself into these adventures.

My second piece of advice is to be patient. It’s normal to feel somewhat lost and confused after suddenly coming home and starting fresh, but this will pass and eventually you will feel happier and more balanced because of it. Nothing is permanent, not a situation nor a feeling.

My third piece of advice is to stay positive. Sure there are some bad things and people in this world, but from what I’ve witnessed the good far outweighs the bad. Focus on all the beauty and possibility of life.

And finally, my fourth piece of advice is to take what you have discovered and use it to create the change you want, in yourself and in the world. It may sound like a lot, but it is important for your fulfillment and for the benefit of others. As Gandhi says, “Be the change you want to see in the world”. There is a reason we go away, but remember there is also a reason we come back. Embrace it all.

And most importantly… Travel on, my friend.

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5 comments

  • I love that you pointed out the money part. Why is it that people in other countries don’t fight over money in the same way we do in the States? Money is the number one point of argument in a couple here. Are you back for a while now? If so, we need to meet up.

  • Hello Emily;

    I forwarded this blog to a friend who also travels a lot and here is his reply:

    “Thanks, Roger, beautifully written and so true. Yes, traveling enriches us and allows us to appreciate the way others who are often less materially fortunate than we are manage to find meaning and beauty, and then learn, from them, how to increase our own appreciation.

    Bob”

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