Dealing with reverse culture shock

You’re returning home after living overseas. Perhaps you’ve been gone only a few months… or perhaps you’ve lived in a foreign culture for a number of years. It’s possible that you became fully immersed into that host country and culture. Now, you’re facing repatriation back to your home culture.

Sometimes, people experience what is known as Reverse Culture Shock when returning to their original homeland: it’s a surprising mixture of bewilderment, loss, isolation and confusion. Your home country may no longer feel like home, and you may not feel like you belong there. Preparing for successful “re-entry” often depends upon applying skills of adaptability, change, and flexibility to ease transition back into one’s home culture.

Recognize that you are a different, new person.
You’ve probably changed significantly by living overseas. Viewing our old home from an international perspective may reveal new — sometimes scary — insights into our home culture, other societies, and ourselves. Your new attitudes, cultural sensitivities, global awareness, and broader viewpoints may or may not be in sync with the folks’ ideas back home.

Maybe you’re not even sure where home is anymore, or maybe you feel more connected to your host country. It’s ok to feel confused. Another name for this feeling is “personal growth,” and this is just a growing pain.

Remember that your home country has changed, too.
Changes — big and small — happened while you were away. If you were back for home leave or a short visit, you may have already observed some changes. But even tiny alterations in fashions, products, advertising, customer service approaches, bank fees, and political attitudes may combine to create an entirely new, strange environment.
The longer an expatriate is away, the more potential there is for shock upon returning. Changes that become subtly integrated in society while you were away can contribute to a feeling of surprise and unfamiliarity. Again, it’s ok to feel confused. Remember that, in the same way you may have struggled in your host culture for a while, you may struggle in your home culture for a period of time, too.

Jump right in, socially.

When people do ask about your travels, keep it positive and share a few key details to start.

Get involved in new things as quickly as possible. Join new clubs, take courses, visit a church, and meet new people even though you may feel foreign. Although difficult to find, seek out activities with other expats — people like yourself who have repatriated. Reach out to foreign nationals who are now experiencing life as an expat in the USA. Don’t dwell on the old days. It’s fine to think about them, but avoid mooning over them for extended periods.

Pro-actively reconnect with old friends.
You may not have too much in common any more, but it’s worth a try. Rebuilding an old friendship can be worth the effort, especially when loneliness or alienation come to call. Hopefully, you maintained some contact with old friends, even if just through Christmas cards or the occasional email. Now it’s time to find out what they’ve been up to. Invite them for lunch to catch up on their activities. Pick up the phone; don’t wait for a call. Often these reconnections aren’t exactly equal give and take; it may be up to you to offer much more “give.”

It’s somewhat counterintuitive, but while it’s tempting to share all your exciting experiences with someone, your old friends may view you as different (which you are, and they are too). This is a good time to utilize those broadened people skills you’ve acquired overseas, and be a good listener even if you can’t relate to some of the conversation. Also: be flexible — if invited, go along to a friend’s reading group or quilt-making meeting, for example. After all, maybe this will be part of your new, home culture.

Save detailed accounts of your overseas adventures for only your closest family/friends.
This stems from the tip above. Tread lightly in recounting too much detail and sharing photos of your travels, especially with new acquaintances. Even if they ask, many people may be quick to lose interest in your adventures.

When people do ask — keep it positive and share a few key details to start. Many expats learn to deflect questions about international travels before they even arise.

Make your old house into a new home.
If you’re moving back into your same old house, it’s only sort of like being back home again. Neighbors may have remarried or moved. Maybe the kids are in high school or have moved on; perhaps the yard’s play gym is no longer necessary. Consider new plants or a garden. If a renter lived in your house, new paint, carpet and curtains can do wonders.

Your memories from life before overseas are a good starting point, but adjust your lifestyle and expectations to your new needs. A good way to help remember and embrace The New You is to hang some art or photos from your host culture in your old house. Familiar things can make tough adjustments smoother.

Rent before you buy a house in an unfamiliar neighborhood.
Alternatively, if you plan to buy a house and are moving to an unfamiliar town, give yourself a few months to learn about the local real estate market before buying. Many companies will pay to store your household goods for a period of time before delivery to a new home. If you have to pay a couple extra months’ storage out of pocket, to give yourself time to really learn about the new area, it could be a wise investment.

If you get a house-hunting trip to the new location prior to the move, use this trip to find a furnished, short-term rental — and to get started photographing and thinking about potential schools, homes, Main Streets. This gives you the flexible option of easing into a new place before committing to buy.

Expect “Retail Overload.”
Maybe you’ve been living in a place where you bargained for food in open-air markets, or in a country with canned goods in different languages. Shopping in a western grocery store again can be an overwhelming experience for the expat. Western goods, availability, quantity, variety and choices can be daunting.

Take rice, for example. In your overseas host country, perhaps someone weighed out a pound of rice on a time-honored scale in an open market, and off you would go with a neat little package in some recycled paper. Contrast that to the myriad shelves of rice selections — white or brown? Jasmine or Basmati? Wild, long-grain, instant, long-cooking… hundreds of brands and products, all colorful and screaming out, invite you to pick them up… where to start? There’s no bargaining, just confusing price variations… And this is just rice. One way an expat can ease this overload is to visit smaller grocery stores. Initially, it may be smart to avoid mega-warehouses, like Sam’s or Costco. People in the midst of repatriation re-entry have been known to flee mega-stores in tears — and empty-handed.

Finally, allow yourself the cultural confusion.
Understand and acknowledge the unique nature of what you’re feeling. Give yourself transition time. Try to appreciate that your perspectives are in metamorphosis, and your brain is trying to create a new sense of normal.

It may be tough to avoid altogether, but Reverse Culture Shock can be enlightening — or at least broadening — in itself. Through anticipation, utilizing transition skills from earlier moves, and by adapting to local challenges, one’s repatriation re-entry can evolve into a fresh, new definition of “being home.”

For further information about reverse culture shock, consider reading Homeward Bound by Robin Pascoe, and The Art of Coming Home by Craig Storti.

[Image credits: Luke Robinson, FriskoDude, and (flicts)]