Reverse Culture Shock

Hi friends and readers.  Sorry about the disappearing act; I wish I could explain it all, but I have neither the time or the inclination to share everything with the internet world.  Suffice it to say, the past two months have been quite stressful.  Thankfully, (some) things are starting to settle down.

To start with, we are back in America.  This was quite unexpected and has been a very difficult transition for us.  We spent the past few weeks living with my in-laws, who are wonderful people, but it is always stressful for me to not have my own space and be able to nest.  As of this weekend we are finally in our own place, lovingly (and freely) furnished by friends.  I have a kitchen again, which means there will be more recipes forthcoming.

In the meantime, I want to give you all something to read.  I wrote this recently for some of our family members and friends to help them understand a little bit of what it is like to return to one’s home culture after a significant period away.  This is an often-overlooked and unexpected aspect of the expatriate life that is important to be aware of.

Reverse Culture Shock

One of the most difficult aspects of returning to America for people who have spent extended periods of time overseas is dealing with Reverse (Re-entry) Culture Shock.  Although most people generally expect that someone will feel disoriented and uncomfortable when entering a foreign culture, there is little awareness that those same feelings are common and often even stronger when he returns to his home culture.  This has been and continues to be one of the least-understood problems for expatriates when they return to the “home” culture, which, for many, no longer feels like home.

During their time overseas, expatriates experience many changes not just in their environment, but also in their values, attitudes, behaviors, and perspectives, and when they return to their home culture they are faced with the feeling that they no longer understand or fit in to society the way they did before.  It can be difficult to communicate these new ideas and beliefs with family and friends who have not shared the overseas experience and have not gone through the same transformation process; additionally, people in the home culture often do not seem interested in hearing more than superficial details about the expatriate’s time overseas.  Consequently, the transformations experienced by returning expatriates may affect relationships with those closest to them, who don’t necessarily comprehend the subtle changes that have taken place, and may not always accept them.  Expatriates who adjust best and bond most strongly with their overseas community will often have the hardest time returning and adapting to their home culture.

The way in which a expatriate left their overseas context can also play a major role in their home culture re-entry process.  Although most people in the home culture will expect the expatriate to be overjoyed about returning, the expatriate often feels a deep sense of loss and sadness over the people and places they have left.  The expatriate may be experiencing feelings of failure or guilt if he believes that the return to the home culture was unnecessary or somehow against his wishes, or that his work did not turn out as he hoped.  The need to grieve the losses caused by re-entry can also exacerbate the lack of understanding and patience exhibited by family and friends.

Here is a list of some of the most common symptoms of Reverse Culture Shock:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Sleep disorders (insomnia or excessive sleeping)
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Personal/ethical dilemmas
  • Feelings of inferiority
  • Alienation
  • Shyness
  • Trouble making (or reconnecting with) friends
  • Relationship problems
  • Sexual problems
  • Work/academic performance difficulties

The length of time it takes to reintegrate to their home culture varies person to person.  It can be influenced by the amount of time the person spent overseas, the level to which they adapted to and bonded with their overseas culture, the patience and understanding exhibited by family and friends, as well as by situations happening in the foreign community of which the expatriate was part.

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11 responses to “Reverse Culture Shock

  1. I can imagine that things are very stressful; I went through this experience on two occasions in my life, and it was not pleasant; finding an occupation to get your mind off this stress is the only advice I can offer.

    • It has helped that at least the past few days we have been busy moving, and now I’ve got furniture to arrange, art to hang and this week’s meals and groceries to plan. Something to keep my mind and body occupied–not sitting, musing, all the time–is an important way of helping to reacclimate.

  2. I remember this from when I returned to the U.S. after a year in England. Life was not all that different in the UK and still the reverse culture shock was bad enough. Your analysis of the different aspects of returning is very clear. And it’s all worse if one didn’t “fit in” in the first place! Hang in there…it will probably take a while.

    • Yes, it always does take some time. I think we (Hungry Husband and myself) can get impatient and feel like we have done this enough that it should not phase us anymore…but the truth is, it is difficult and different every time we come back to the U.S.

  3. So glad to have you back! Hang in there! It takes a long time to get your sea legs back….

  4. I can understand some of what you’re going through. Although it’s not the same, I’ve had to adapt to many different cultures within “Western” parts of the world. It’s not always easy, but with time I hope you are able to appreciate the good things about both places and readjust to being back home.

    • It is true that even within the Western, English-speaking world there are plenty of cultural (and linguistic) differences to create culture shock. In some ways I wonder if that wouldn’t be even more difficult, as there would be less expectation of the differences? But thank you for the good wishes. Yesterday was an encouraging day and I am hopeful that we are moving in the right direction now.

  5. I know how stressful this can be. I experienced the same thing years ago when I returned to the US. In many ways I was incredibly judgmental. Ultimately I threw myself into my career to relieve it.

  6. I had a similar experience when I went back to Canada for a year. It was rough, especially with all the expectations and lack of understanding from friends and family.
    They just couldnt get why I wasn’t overjoyed to be there.
    Good luck, and wishing you all the best in this transition!

  7. I don’t usually do this… like go ask bloggers where they’ve been… but I’m a bit worried about you. Are you ok? is everything fine? I pray that you are doing well

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