You become a critic of your home and the people within it. Stores are closed, homes are closed, people are closed and you miss the oneness with all things living you used to feel.
When you realize how many gallons of water it takes to flush a toilet it makes you want to cry. Everything is unjust. You feel like you’ve changed so much, yet everything at home seems to be the same – boring and static. This city sucks the life out of you. People listen, but it’s fake – to no fault of their own. You inwardly withdraw from society and mentally wander abroad – allowing your mind to do what your body cannot.
People travel abroad for many different reasons, whether it is backpacking on a budget, volunteering for a charitable organization, seeing distant family, or experiencing new cultures. However, upon return there’s one thing that plagues the majority – reverse culture shock. Once your heart has been rooted in foreign soil, it is very difficult to accept the realities of life back home.
“Basically it’s a reassessment of their identity, their personal values, and their position in society,” says Tullia Marcolongo, director of programs and development for IAMAT (the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers). An advocate of traveller health, IAMAT works with a network of doctors and mental health experts around the world to provide medical care and information to travelers.
Nobody understands a world turned upside down more than 25-year-old Toronto freelance film technician, Michael Flax. He’s spent two and a half years out of the last four working on 3D Bollywood films in India. His most recent and longest stretch was four months straight without coming home, while working on his fourth movie.
“India is the least western country I’ve ever seen,” he says, “it’s pretty much held together by duct tape and tarps.” Upon return from his trips to India, Flax routinely gets a cab so he can relax and lessen the effects of re-entry shock. “During rush hour, doesn’t matter what time it is, I am overtaken by a sense of quiet. Everything in Canada compared to India is very quiet,” he says.
Generally, people associate the overwhelming feelings related to reverse culture shock with excess; however, sometimes it’s the silence that takes a toll. The sudden change of environment upon return is something every traveler feels. The symptoms are uniform and often quite intense.
Reverse culture shock is not a new concept. One of the first documented experiences comes from the Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo. According to historical programs, Marco Polo set off on a 24-year adventure across Asia documenting cities, cultures, and new technologies. However, Marco’s outlandish descriptions of customs and palaces in the Orient were often dismissed, both at his time and in modern society. His tales were so out of the ordinary that they were literally unbelievable. Despite this, Marco never admitted to any form of fabrication, stating on his deathbed, “I do not tell half of what I saw because no one would have believed me.”
Marco Polo’s last words mirror one of the most consistent symptoms of reverse culture shock – nobody wants to hear.
Dr. Mark Wise has an extensive background in medicine, travel and volunteering abroad. He practices family medicine, as well as travel and tropical medicine in Toronto. He is also the medical advisor for several NGO’s, including CUSO international (an international development organization working to reduce poverty and inequality).
“The people they’re coming home to are busy, so the typical thing is that not everybody is interested in seeing all the photographs they took and hearing endless stories,” he says. It’s hard to explain yourself, especially when you feel like nobody truly listens. In some cases people don’t even bother telling the whole story, and keeping this in can be difficult.
Lyndsay Howitt, a 22-year-old nursing student at McMaster University, understands this pain. She volunteered with Mercy Ships – a non-governmental ship-based organization – and spent six months after high school in Togo, Africa. Howitt shared her hospital-ship home with 400 other people including engineering and medical volunteers from around the world. “They have families who live on board for years at a time too. There’s people who live there their whole lives – it’s just a very interesting place,” she says.
“I think, coming back, I really wanted to share my experience with people, but life just continues on for them and I totally get that,” she says. “But there’s definitely a gap between these things that happened and I want to share but I’ll never be able to explain it fully.”
Howitt explains, “sometimes people want to know exactly how things were, but they want it in a package tied up with a bow on it. You don’t have it figured out though, and there are things you’re still processing.”
Whether you’re returning from a third or first world country, feeling like nobody wants to hear you is a consistent manifestation of reverse culture shock. Galia Amoils, a 26-year-old Toronto classics and philosophy student, went to study law in Birmingham, England. After her studies, she spent seven months riding the UK working class wave. Serving three times a week at an Indie and Motown bar for minimum wage, she got to experience British drinking culture at it’s finest.
After two and a half years there she returned in February 2012 and felt the same as Howitt. “I think people don’t want to listen to you. When you start a sentence with ‘well back in England’ people shut down. It’s almost like they think you’re judging,” she says.
The feeling that nobody wants to listen naturally leads to inability to express yourself – and this can happen to anyone.
Susan Hay, a veteran broadcaster and host of Global’s “Making a Difference,” has worked with World Vision on her many volunteer trips abroad.
“I’ve done a lot of work overseas in Africa and in the last year I went to El Salvador. When you sit and talk with people in the field that are trying to survive it’s the most heart-wrenching, real and best work that I’ve ever done as a human being and as a broadcast journalist,” she says.
One day she found a baby abandoned under a tree – a human life disregarded due to poverty.
It’s scenes like this that make it difficult to describe what you’ve witnessed and how it has changed you to anybody back home.
“When you come home nobody really gets it” she says. “They want to hear but they don’t want to hear.”
KT, a 30-year-old Torontonian who preferred not to provide her full name, spent the past five years in Malaysia and Singapore (except returning home for odd summers). The first time she came back was after living abroad for two years straight, and boy did she had an extravagant ride.
KT accomplished her wildest dream while living in Malaysia, being a radio DJ and MC. “I would get into any bar no cover and line bypass – life was so much easier there, “she says. “Everything is handed to you because you have Western experience.” Working in the entertainment industry she was often recognized by people and was used to getting her way – all the time.
Her life upon returning home, however, was drastically different: “I used to demand things everywhere I went in Toronto and I would get kicked out of clubs, people would yell at me and talk to me like I was so small.” It was hard to handle.
She missed the success and the ease of coasting through life as a public figure in Malaysia. “Now I come here and I can’t even get a minimum wage job, it’s so degrading.”
With immersion comes attachment, so it is not uncommon for people to feel a sense of peaceful fondness for their host country.
“Your days start early and end late. You’re so calm and peaceful because nothing can get you. You’re in project areas, you’re in the heart of disease and dirt and I’ve never been more comfortable. Africa is so in my heart,” says Global personality, Hay.
Feeling quickly comfortable in places with such extreme conditions is truly a unique emotion and when this place that you care for so much disappears, it causes grief. Dr. Wise says, “You come back in mourning for the things you got to enjoy –usually a more relaxed pace.”
Reverse culture shock also materializes through relationships, and the expectations that come with them. It is possible that your friends will see the “wrong changes,” looking at your newfound wants, needs, and values in a negative way. Amoils says, “when I came back a lot of my friends were judgmental because they thought I changed so drastically out there.”
Even her mom asked her who she was trying to fool.
The University of Buffalo Study Abroad Re-Entry Handbook states, “friends may even have a hard time understanding and appreciating the ‘new you’ and all the changes you’ve gone through.” Amoils found a huge discrepancy between maintaining friendships abroad versus maintaining them back home.
The difference? Expectations.
IAMAT’s Marcolongo explains: “expectations are a big thing to navigate through. People back home expect you to pick up where you left.” These expectations seem almost impossible in the beginning.
Reverse culture shock wears you down. It causes feelings of alienation. You come back with the same eyes, but are now seeing your environment through a tainted lens.
The re-entry handbook explains, “all of a sudden your home environment might not measure up to the terrific mental picture you had of it before you left or while you were abroad.” Many returning travelers become negative about North American society, often labeling it too materialistic.
Comparison is inevitable, but you can no longer make sense of the things people complain about because they seem outrageous.
It would be comical if it weren’t actually sad.
According to Marcolongo, a big thing to expect during reverse culture shock is a lack of concentration, and a disappointment in people within your society.
“There are times when I just wish Canadian culture was more focused on relationships, less focused on stress about money and things that don’t matter as much in the long run,” nursing student Howitt says. Although she tries to live with more simplistic values at home, it just doesn’t work in our culture.
Reverse culture shock comes with a string of social adjustment issues that may make you feel like an outsider. Ex-radio DJ and MC, KT, points out the differences between Malaysian and Canadian social norms. “Things girls do here are not normal for girls to do there, like manly things. Even girls that play the guitar – that’s kind of a guy thing.” Even though she grew up in Canada, a sudden change in social dynamics coming back led to a disorientation of standards.
Recently, KT has ran into problems gaging appropriateness in situations. After interviewing at a bar she realized she didn’t know what was enough or too much anymore, at all, whatsoever. “Westerners think outside of the box, so I don’t know how serious or funny to be anymore.” Did her experience abroad strip her of this ability? Absolutely.
Coming home for some, is riddled with disinterest. The re-entry handbook explains that “friends may seem boring and closed-minded, and your interests may have changed.” Law student Amoils found boredom a problem. “The partying atmosphere is very different so I found myself very antsy and bored all the time for the first few months.” Feeling like a mild alcoholic, she says that “going to the pub is such an integral part of English culture, and it’s something I looked forward to on a daily basis.” Adjusting back into a culture that doesn’t place as much importance on going out would be dull for anyone.
One of the most prominent realizations from reverse culture shock is personal change. The re-entry handbook states, “change occurs within almost all overseas travellers. Sometimes, without even desiring it. You may find new attitudes and patterns of behaviour have now become part of your personality.”
KT described an array of personal changes that took place once she returned to Toronto, which even included her sexuality. Being a lesbian herself, KT grew so accustomed to Malaysian culture that she says, “being gay, I think it’s not natural anymore. I know it’s bad to say but I feel like it’s weird, not meant to be. But you can’t help who you are.” Although she doesn’t pretend to be somebody she’s not, she’s less comfortable with herself now. In Malaysia, being a lesbian in her social circle was unacceptable, and after a while it changed the way she saw homosexuality as a whole.
Global’s Hay describes her changes as both professional and personal. “You sit for days in areas where you’re surrounded by orphans who have no one, watching how they’re trying to survive and go into their world,” she says. A passionate woman with a huge heart, Hay’s experiences in Africa changed her daily life.
“The shock is compounded for these travelers because they don’t expect it,” says IAMAT’s Marcolongo. Amoils faced this when returning from England. “I thought that it wouldn’t affect me, I guess I was ignorant,” she says, “you assume that because it’s a westernized country, life would be similar, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
The period of time it takes to fully readjust after returning from a trip varies from person to person.
For nursing student Howitt, the adjustment period was a whole year. She went alone to join her organization in Togo and had no briefing before. Some programs, specifically ones connected to schools, do provide some information on what to experience when coming home. However, for most travelers, that aspect isn’t even considered.
When Hay went on her first ten-day trip to Mozambique, World Vision insisted on safari buffer – A few days to still be in Africa, but to be removed from what you’ve seen – she balked, “don’t waste your money and send me on a safari I don’t have to go.”
It turned out to be the most needed three days.
Her second trip was to Kenya for also ten days, but this time no buffer. Hay described it as extremely difficult to absorb. The importance of a buffer, or at least some informative warning, is undeniable.
Dr. Wise says, “I think that just knowing that culture shock could happen when you go away, people should be a little prepared for life when you come back.”
Since it’s impossible to know how you’ll react to re-entry, you have to expect the unexpected. Marcolongo explains, “You can’t really prepare for when you get back or how you’ll experience things. Just have an open mind that you will be coming back with new perspectives and values.” It’s hard to face some symptoms of reverse culture shock, for example, people being uninterested in your experience. You have to protect yourself emotionally from that.
There are steps you can take to lessen the reverse shock and adapt a little more easily – ways to continue immersing yourself in the culture you left.
Stay in touch. Talk to other volunteers or travelers you met abroad and keep your memories alive.
“Find outlets for expression of your thoughts and ideas of your experience,” says Marcolongo, “try blogging, writing articles, journaling, or making art.”
The strain reverse culture shock has on personal relationships is prominent, but it can be minimized. Communicating with friends and family is key. Marcolongo suggests setting boundaries by “letting people know that this is happening to you and you may not always be up for participating in activities.”
The most important thing is to surround yourself with supportive people and to have an open-mind. Dr. Wise says that it doesn’t come down to therapy for most, but there’s psychological aid available if you need it. Don’t be afraid to seek assistance.
Follow the local news of your host country to stay connected. No matter how hard North American society tries to pull you into its infatuation with consumption and the self – try to resist. Remember the crazy stories, the incredible people, and cultural warmth you basked in.
Reverse culture shock strikes in unpredictable ways, but with experience comes ease. Amoils says that next time she travels she’ll return with a more shock-conscious mindset. “Based on past experiences I’ve realized that the most important thing is to have patience – take it one day at a time.”