Returning from overseas soon? As your smooth move checklist lengthens daily, don’t forget an intangible thing that nags at your return, both before and after you set foot on home soil. We’re talking about reverse culture shock, that feeling that returning to your home country is less than wonderful, and in truth your favorite place to be is the place you just left. It’s feeling the loss of aspects of the life you just left overseas, and frustration with aspects of life in your home country that you find irritating. Reverse culture shock is real and if not addressed, could undermine your and your family’s transition home.
You feel the early signs before you leave your host country. You speak of the many things you’re going to miss about the country you’re leaving: walks through your family’s favorite park, the four Michelin starred restaurants within a 50-kilometer radius, or leisurely lunches hosted by your local neighbors that spill into the evenings. The culture, the history, the mindset, the lifestyle – you’re already bracing yourself for dealing with the absence of what have become foundational elements of your life – and your family’s, if they served overseas with you.
Once you’ve returned, the environment can seem strange and downright distressing. Returning from Europe, the excessive number of stop signs make no sense – traffic circles are much more efficient. A meal at a restaurant is a shocking cacophony of dishes shoved at you before you consume the previous one by an ever-interrupting, jubilant server who gleefully slaps the check on the table before you’ve drained your espresso cup. Adjustments are no less significant coming from Asia, where gracious hospitality and customer service are considered a cultural ethos. You reflect on it as you stand in line at your local stateside DMV, like one would wait in a 1975 bread line in a former Eastern bloc nation.
Reverse culture shock can range from mild to severe. The U.S. Department of State outlines some related factors that many of us who have lived abroad can validate. The length of your overseas tour, how deeply you immersed in the host culture, and how different the culture was from your native one usually correlate with how difficult your reintegration will be. Involuntary returns can be more difficult than those made by choice. Those who previously lived abroad and returned home often adjust more quickly on subsequent returns. Age is also a factor – adults with life experiences usually put the return in perspective more easily than youngsters, though after the initial shock is dealt with, children and young people can be quite resilient in the long run. Regardless of where you or your family members reside on the reverse culture shock spectrum, it’s worth the effort to intentionally manage it.
Plan For It: Acknowledge that disorientation, frustration, and possibly isolation might be on the horizon. Both you and your home country have changed – even your perceptions of your home country have likely changed. Ease back in gently if possible, and don’t worry if you don’t want to fully immerse in all aspects of your native culture. When asked if my daughter and I have readjusted to American culture after 12 consecutive years overseas, my answer is usually “as much as we want to right now.” Engage your stress management tool kit to handle overloads, as they will inevitably happen the first few months back.
Find Like Minds: A typical symptom is feeling like no one in your new environment understands your perspective or your challenges reintegrating. Chat with friends or colleagues who returned home when or before you did. Link up with local groups of people who lived in the same overseas country. If you have none of these options available, visit the Department of State website, which offers significant insight and many coping strategies, or use an interactive workbook like Melissa Chapman’s Returning Well to document and reflect your journey to reintegrate.
Stay Connected to Your Former Host Nation: Continue the relationships that you built while living overseas. Re-create family traditions you adopted there using local resources. If you’re in the DC area, sign up for updates on events at the embassy or cultural centers for the country you left. Get involved in the respective cultural communities and events in your area. Host a Bavarian Oktoberfest, Korean Chuseok, or Venetian Carnivale for your new friends and neighbors.
Discover New Adventures at Home: After 12 years living in Asia and Europe, my 13-year old daughter returned to the U.S. unenthusiastically. Soon enough, however, her stateside experiences – visiting an aunt near Boston who took her to Plymouth Rock, travelling to Colorado for a cousin’s wedding – experiencing a hayride with her cousins in Missouri – soon seemed like a new adventure. Repatriates of any age can find similar ways to discover their home country through a new lens.
Good luck – and welcome back!
“Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all of one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad