‘Reverse Culture Shock’: A Personal Story

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So you’ve done your research and you’ve heard about ‘culture shock’. That uneasy, disorientated feeling people often experience when moving to a place where the culture is so very different from their own. Language barriers, technology gaps, information overload and a longing for home comforts and familiar food are all things that contribute to culture shock. The experience is often described as a roller-coaster ride of emotions in a series of stages:

  1. The ‘Honeymoon’ Period (fascination/excitement)
  2. Homesickness
  3. Enlightenment (understanding/familiarity)
  4. Integration (immersion)

No one person experiences this the same way and it’s certainly something you should be prepared for when moving abroad. But something that doesn’t get a lot of attention and what I’d actually like to focus on today is ‘reverse culture shock’ – the motions you go through after returning home from a long stint abroad. 

It was the summer of 2013 when I set off for a 3-month government placement to the Nilgiri mountains of Tamil Nada, India. Before I knew it, I was subjected to completely different way of life and had to learn so many new customs and conventions. This ranged from ignoring everything I’d ever been told about the importance of queuing (yes, it’s a BIG deal in England) to not being allowed to set foot in certain areas of the village I was based in because I was a woman. I was living in a culture entirely different from what I was used to…

…and I loved it.

There wasn’t one thing I didn’t embrace about my new home and lifestyle. I personally seemed to be stuck in the ‘honeymoon’ period of culture shock, not arriving at or skipping the stages of disillusionment and homesickness. Of course, there were certain things I’d never fully understand about my temporary home but instead of passing judgement on that which was different to my own culture, I saw every barrier or question mark as a learning experience. This wasn’t the case for many of my teammates, who found it more difficult to adjust to the new culture. The spicy food, distinct toilet facilities, language barriers and new cultural norms were overwhelming to them and I realised I was witnessing a more intense version of culture shock. I understood those who needed a shoulder to cry on but one part I could never fully get was how someone could be so devoured by feelings of frustration and irritation about the way things are done somewhere else. Not at least, until I experienced the reverse of what they were going through.

I missed the smell of chai tea, the openness of the people, the way you could sit for hours with someone who doesn’t speak the same language and still spend most of your time laughing.

How I’d feel on my return home was not something I’d thought very much about. I’d spent so much time mentally preparing myself for life in India that I hadn’t really anticipated what it would be like going back to my ‘normal’ life in the UK. As I said goodbye to my teammates at Heathrow Airport, I was overcome with emotion at the idea of seeing my family and friends. We’d only been able to communicate via letters as there was no internet in the village where I was placed so it was all the more exciting to be able to see them again. I was initially delighted to be back home but as the days passed by, so too did my excitement and I couldn’t shake the deep underlying sadness I felt about leaving the village India. I longed to embrace stunning mountain views, the local family I’d spent so much time with, and of course, my friends and teammates. I missed the smell of chai tea, the openness of the people, the way you could sit for hours with someone who doesn’t speak the same language and still spend most of your time laughing. I felt resentful that all of a sudden, I had to drop every cultural custom I’d spent so long getting used to and for the first week or so, I ate most of my meals with my hands (much to one of my friend’s dismay). Looking back, of course I understand why they were shocked but I felt like I needed to hold on to something familiar from my previous experience.

As time passed by, I continued to question so many things about my own culture and became overly critical of everything and everyone. Why are people so unfriendly in England? What’s wrong with dancing for fun – does it always have to be a joke? It’s not gross to eat rice with your hands, it’s just different. Is there a problem with having something spicy for breakfast? It irritated me that people didn’t understand that not everyone does things the same way we do things in the UK. Not long after I got back from India, I had a group of friends over for some drinks and thought it would be interesting to play one of my favourite tunes from Tamil Nadu. Only 20 seconds passed by before someone got up and changed the music, and I sulkily berated them for doing so. It was around this time of inner hostility that I started doing some research about returning home after living abroad. After scrolling through some online forums and articles, I came to the conclusion that what I was experiencing was an intense case of ‘reverse culture shock’. This was something I hadn’t really heard of before and refers to the psychological distress someone goes through after returning home from living abroad; the key stages of which I have outlined below:

  1. Disengagement

This stage begins before you leave your host country, where you already start to anticipate the sadness and frustration you’ll feel when saying goodbye to the friends you’ve made and the place you’ve come to call home.

  1. Initial Euphoria

This is very similar to the ‘honeymoon’ stage of culture shock. While departing your host country, you’re likely to feel a significant amount of excitement about returning home and seeing your friends and family. This stage varies significantly in length and intensity

  1. Irritability and Hostility

This stage is very much characterised by feelings of alienation, anger, frustration and disorientation. You’re likely to become critical of others and your home culture, longing to return to what was your temporary home.

  1. Readjustment and Adaption

The final stage involves gradually readjusting to life back home, feeling more settled and falling back into old routines. Some might never feel like things are fully ‘normal’ again and will develop new beliefs or attitudes towards things. This experience could shape professional goals, ambitions and future aspirations.

Everyone’s experience of returning home is unique and there’s no right or wrong way to feel but there are certainly things you can do to make the transition easier.

Firstly, try not to get resentful when your friends or family aren’t overly enthusiastic when they hear you say “When I was in…” or “They don’t do it like that in…’ It’s normal that they might tire slightly at the amount you talk about your experiences. Of course, they’ll laugh when you tell them about the time you thought you’d lost one of your favourite tops and later found it attached to the notoriously aggressive village cow (true story). But life goes on and the memories that are so important to you just aren’t as relatable to others, and that’s ok. That’s why, although it might sound cliché, communication really is the key. Keeping in touch with those who shared experiences with you abroad will make the difficulties of returning home much easier to deal with. I personally spent a lot of time writing letters to friends I’d made in India and I found this to be very therapeutic. Allow yourself time to relive your experiences. This could be by putting together a photo album, writing a journal or simply by sitting in a comfortable place and reflecting on your favourite memories.

One thing that’s important to remember is that the attachments you have to your host country are unique to you and it’s ok that they’re not appreciated by everyone else. Those back home may never fully understand the depth of what you’ve experienced and the emotional connections you hold with people from your host country. Seven years on, I still regularly listen to my favourite song from Tamil Nadu – the song that I’d danced to most nights with the Indian family who now call me their ‘English daughter’.

Finally, it’s so important that you learn from your experiences abroad and use them to make positive changes in your life. Personal growth comes from questioning and reflecting on why we do things a certain way, it’s not all negative. You will have developed a lot of new skills while studying abroad and this doesn’t need to stop when you return home. Perhaps you started a Scottish Gaelic language course in your host country – why not see whether you can continue with this online? Maybe you tried playing an instrument at the ‘Irish Folk Music’ university society and want to take up lessons.  In terms of personal development, it’s likely that you’re now a more patient and understanding person – you’ll also have more empathy for those who have been through something so life changing. Use this to help others. When your brother, sister or friend returns home from studying abroad, listen, learn and remember how it was for you.

Isabelle Gunn, Ireland Programme Officer