I heard about it when I first started traveling. I heard about it when I took classes to become an ESL instructor. Everywhere, people were warning me about culture shock. But what no one told me was that when the culture shock really hits is when you come home. “Reverse culture shock,” they call it.
Sure, there are a lot of times when you’re traveling when you feel like a fish out of water. You don’t understand the language, the customs, the worldview of the people around you. But feeling out of one’s element is a big part of why we travel. After all, if everything was the same, and there was no “shock” then we might as well stay home. Other travelers are usually witnessing the same things and you can process your observations with them.
Coming home it ain’t so easy. Culture tends to be invisible until you are outside of it. It’s just The Way Things Are. However, once you’ve seen that things don’t have to be That Way you begin to question why. Sharing your questions, confusion and observations with friends who haven’t left home, doesn’t go over very well. They just can’t relate. If you are someone who really loves traveling, this reverse culture shock adds insult to injury. It’s sad enough that your adventure is ending and you have to return to “real life.” These are a few ways I’ve found to soften the blow:
- Go “home” to the wrong city- I once traveled with an American who was flying back, not to his home, but to the city that was to be hosting the convention for nominating its party’s (decidedly the wrong party from my point of view) candidate for the presidency. While I wouldn’t choose a political convention, I like the method of not going all the way home. Flying into another city in your home country to visit a friend, attend a festival or just continue traveling allows you to feel that the adventure is continuing as you ease back into your own culture.
- Go into conversations with a plan- Talking to people when you get back can be tricky. Surprisingly, a lot of people simply aren’t interested in hearing about your trip. Others ask questions that are so general (“So, how was it?”) that you won’t know what to say. Likewise, having been gone means that even if you want to, you can’t really participate in chit-chat about happenings on the latest reality TV show.
Think about which experiences you can share which will easily translate. For group settings, I usually go with stories that will get a laugh. Adventures-in-eating tales work well. Or sagas of the airport- something everyone relates to.
For friends that are interested, you may want to host a small gathering to share stories and photos. Just remember not to expect too much. Your experience may simply be too foreign for them to be truly engaged. If you have insights you’re burning to share, you might consider offering to do a presentation at your local library. That way people who do have a genuine interest can self-select into your audience.
- Identify people you can debrief with- While everyone can laugh over tales of mistranslations in a Chinese karaoke bar, only some people will get it when I say that after months of using only chopsticks, putting a sharp metal object (fork) in my mouth, seems gross. I’ll lose a few more people when I say that using squat-pot is clearly a better, cleaner way of releasing your meals later. So I save the big revelations- doubts about my own country’s child-rearing practices or a new awareness of how my viewpoints were shaped more by my culture than by my own free thoughts- for people who have traveled a bit themselves, or at least for friends who I know to be exceptionally open-minded.
- Bring pieces of the culture you’re leaving home with you- If you tend to miss the places you’ve visited, think of ways to bring the essence home. More than just photos, I find music and food from the culture I explored but had to leave behind can be especially comforting.
- And the best method for avoiding reverse culture shock…
Don’t go home!