six months of reverse culture shock

Thursday, September 15, 2011: I am leaving the USA today, 6 months after returning home in March from a year living and working abroad in Korea.  After these six months of trying to adjust to my former life in America, and now after reflecting on my experience back home, I can say without a doubt that I suffered from “Reverse Culture Shock,” that uncomfortable and disoriented feeling you get when you don’t quite fit back into your own country after spending an extended amount of time abroad.  There were many times I felt downright depressed about it and wondered, with much bafflement, what on earth happened while I was away.

close to my apartment in Daegu, South Korea

It’s a strange feeling to have, and one that people who haven’t experienced it cannot understand.  I never imagined I would feel this way, having spent over 50 years living in America.  I figured one year living and working in another country could never make me feel like a stranger in my own country.  Yet.  It did.  There is no doubt.  Maybe it is like the feeling you would get if you died and were able to come back to life after being gone for a year.  You would find, I think, that everyone you knew and loved had somehow moved on without you.  The void that you imagined would exist in their lives would have been filled with other people, other activities, other stuff.  All of you that existed would have been sucked up into a big black hole, never to surface again.  Or, maybe, just maybe, given enough time and enough effort, you could pull yourself back out of that black hole and wiggle your way back into people’s lives.  It is said that it takes over a year to do such a thing, and it doesn’t happen easily.

Some of the signs of reverse culture shock include:

  • You’re only vaguely interested in catching up with your old friends, and if you do, you feel like you don’t have so much in common with them any more. This was most definitely the case with me.  I will discuss this below.
  • Nobody cares about your travels, but you’d really love to tell them. I found many times I’d say, “When I was in Korea….” and people would glaze over, totally disinterested.
  • You find it hard to accept some of the ways people do things at home, and you find yourself questioning habits and customs that have been a part of your life for a long time.  The main way I felt this to be the case was with the American health care system.  After experiencing amazing health care in Korea, I wondered why America’s system is so complicated and so expensive.  When in Korea, I could drop into a small hospital (they were almost on every corner), see a doctor within 10 minutes, pay $7, and get a prescription that I got filled within 3 minutes at the pharmacy downstairs.
  • You wish you were back on your trip or living abroad, and you spend a lot of time keeping in touch with the people you met during that experience, or looking over your pictures from your travels, or reading your old blogs.  Or simply daydreaming about the parts of the life abroad that brought you immense pleasure.  Well, that goes without saying.
  • You might feel depressed and anxious.  I did, UNTIL I started teaching my NOVA ESL class!
    my sister and I used to be close…. 😦
  • You encounter people who are possibly intimidated that you have experienced something they haven’t, or maybe they’re just plain irritated that you have done so.  Possibly there is jealousy or just plain disinterest by other people.  Whichever the reason, you find people just don’t know how to engage with you anymore. And neither do you know how to engage with them.  Or maybe, just maybe, nobody feels like making the effort because you seem to have become a non-entity to them and them to you.  Even my own sister, who never made any effort to get together with me when I was home for the summer wrote: “I think that is why calling you is hard.  You have so much to talk about with all u have been through. My life has been relatively uneventful in comparison.  Other than my kids accomplishments, I have a pretty mundane life.” I don’t understand why that would bother her when I have lived the same mundane life for over 50 years!!  But I think her statement says what lots of people were thinking.  Maybe??
this should be home sweet home

Most people don’t imagine that you could be experiencing such a thing.  But it is very real.  I don’t think people really are sympathetic to someone who talks about suffering this reverse culture shock, when they all imagine you have been living this exciting, adventurous life.  And you certainly can’t tell people that they seem close-minded or are making no effort to try to get reacquainted with the “new & improved” or just the “changed” you.

They say that reverse culture shock can last a year, or even longer if you can’t find your place back in your old world.  Since I was only home for 6 months, I was still feeling it when I left home.  Because of this, when I left, I was very happy to get away again.  I wonder if I will become one of those people, like many expats I have encountered, who remain abroad for the rest of their lives.  I hope that won’t be the case because I will still want to be close to my children and hopefully, one day, my grandchildren.  But, I can definitely see the appeal of staying abroad.

In my particular case, though I was excited to be coming home to my family and friends, my excitement fizzled when I saw how these people had changed (or sometimes, not changed) and we had grown apart.

Ed and me at my going away party in February 2010

When I left for Korea in February 2010, I had a close group of friends who ventured out between two horrible blizzards in Washington to throw me a going-away party.  Of these friends, the one I saw the most when I was home was my friend Ed from the State Department.  I saw one girlfriend 3 or 4 times, but things seemed strained.  One of my friends had begun her MFA at George Mason University, and the few times we got together, she felt compelled to bring her new MFA friends along.  Half the time she never responded to my texts or Facebook messages.  One friend from my GMU Master’s program invited me to happy hours and dinner at her house.  But overall, most of my friends had moved on to other activities, other friends.  I wondered what I could have done wrong, but then I realized I couldn’t have done anything wrong.  I was GONE for a year!  What could I have done?  It was hurtful to say the least.

my GMU buddies at the going away party

One time when I was in Turkey, a man told me that when he found someone who didn’t care about him, they became like salt tossed over his shoulder.  I finally came to accept the fact that these friends had moved on and, in my mind, they became like salt thrown over my shoulder.

In my case, I fell right back into the same old routines I had always had.  Everything seemed bland and mundane, too predictable, once again.  I still had to run the same old errands to the same old places.  I still went out, periodically, with friends to the same old haunts.  I had to sit in my same old car in the same old traffic.

adam, me and alex at deep creek lake in august

On the plus side, I got to hang out with my children and with Mike, and I enjoyed that time immensely.  I got to know my boys and my daughter one year onward in their lives.  I got to eat some great food at favorite restaurants, and after Korean food, I could hardly get enough of that!  I got to drink red wine, a rare commodity in Korea.  I got to watch a lot of great movies, in the theater and through Netflix, which I missed while away.  I got to buy some new clothes, which I rarely did in Korea because the styles were so atrocious there.

ballooning in cappadocia ~ something that is always in my dreams 🙂

But, while home, and even now in Oman, I still get flashbacks to little snippets of my life in Korea, Turkey, Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and India.  I still see the bright textiles hanging in shops throughout India; I see the little purple train and the bamboo forests and the immaculate designer gardens in Kyoto; I feel the crisp autumn air  while climbing the Great Wall in China.  I hear the sharp and energetic beats of Korean girl bands and feel the exhilaration of climbing to Gatbawi with Myrna.  I stand in the midst of ornamental grasses swaying in the breeze at Suncheon EcoBay in Korea.  I see and taste and feel the glitter of Turkish lamps, kebabs and feta cheese, the cool walls of the Antik Cave Hotel in Turkey.  I see the skyline with Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.  I float with over 40 colorful hot air balloons over the moonscape of Cappadocia.  I taste the steamed fish in banana leaves in Cambodia, feel the rocking and swaying of the junk on Halong Bay in Vietnam.  There is no end to the pleasures I had while living abroad my year in Korea.

There are recommended strategies for dealing with reverse culture shock.  Some of them are as follows:

  • Keep in touch with friends overseas and encourage visitors. I still keep in touch through Facebook, following especially my friends Anna and Seth and Myrna, and keep in touch with my Korean co-teacher Julie. I keep in touch with friends from Turkey and India.  Facebook has made it especially easy to communicate with friends all over the world.  I would have loved to have visitors, but no one I met from abroad came to Virginia to visit.
  • Get involved with anything multicultural. Celebrate your experiences by cooking or eating foods from different cultures, by watching movies and reading books from the countries you lived in or visited, or have dreams of visiting, or by displaying photos and souvenirs in visible places. I went to a Jewish film showing, drank wine to Brazilian jazz in the Sculpture Garden, attended two belly dancing shows, watched Bollywood films, saw Arab films, watched scores of French and Italian movies, read books set in Turkey and Morocco and Oman. I ate Spanish tapas, Lebanese meze, Mediterranean food, and plenty of Thai food.  The best thing was teaching my ESL class at Northern Virginia Community College, where I taught 9 Koreans, 2 Chinese, 1 Vietnamese, and 1 African.  That gave me more pleasure than almost anything else I did while home.
  • Make a big production out of a small trip.  Plan short trips from your hometown and rediscover places you haven’t visited for years. I took a lot of small trips to visit my daughter Sarah in Richmond, my father and my old high school friends in Yorktown, and a family trip to Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland for a week.  But I had traveled a lot over the year and was mainly content to stay at home, especially once I knew I would be going away again.  If I had stayed home longer, I would have tried to venture to Philadelphia (which is surprisingly close to Washington but I have never visited), to Boston, to Virginia Beach, the Outer Banks, Santa Fe, Boulder, Colorado…. the list goes on.
  • Help out friends with travel planning. I didn’t get to do much of this, except with the case of Myrna in Korea, when she asked me a couple of times how to get to the tea plantations in SW Korea (it was already in my blog) and when she was planning her trip to Cambodia.
  • Find a way to make another trip abroad and revel in planning it. The anticipation and the planning of trips is something I get as excited about as actually doing the travel.  I love to dream about a destination, read novels set in that place, read travel books and look through travel guides and the internet.
  • Take a course that keeps you in touch with other cultures – learn a language, or find a cooking class for a cuisine you love to eat.  I never did this while home, though I had intentions to study my Arabic before I came away again.  With my ESL class and then preparing to get ready to leave again, I just didn’t have time.  But if I had stayed longer, I would have considered taking a belly dancing class and a Lebanese Taverna cooking class.
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14 thoughts on “six months of reverse culture shock

  1. As an American expat teacher living abroad I am getting ready to go back ‘home’ in a couple of days and am feeling really stressed about the reverse culture shock what I thought were broken friendships back there. This blog entry is so helpful, I know what I am feeling is now normal. Thank you for the tips. 🙂

    1. I’m glad you found it helpful Jennifer. It really does take a long time, maybe a year, to get back to feeling like you belong back home. I never felt it when I went home for 6 months after Korea. But I’ve read from other expats returning home that it takes that long. Good luck! All will be fine, I’m sure!

  2. It happens to me everytime I go back home, have been living abroad for the last two years or so and going back for few days every 4-6 months I expierence the same things you wrote about, people you considered friends just move on with their lives and are not interested in your travels tales, some of them also asked me what’s wrong with me since I don’t want to live there? If I consider myself somehow better than them or things like this… can you imagine? But I don’t care, I love to travel and will keep doing it, no matter what people think or how they react to it…
    Anyway, loved your post! Everything is so very true…

    1. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who feels this way, although I think it is quite common. Since I’m only here for a month this time, I’ll barely have time to get acclimated to home….

    2. Thanks autumninbruges for your thoughtful comments. I think most people who live abroad experience this; at least that’s what my ex-pat colleagues tell me. It is really weird; it’s as if people can’t stand it that you’re doing what they dream of doing. They just don’t realize that when we’re living abroad, there are many difficulties and loneliness that we have to face. It’s not all a bed of roses! I’m like you; I also love to travel and will continue to do so. The people who understand and care about me will show interest; those who don’t, well…. I won’t chase after them!! As Wu Tang says: “Do not chase people. Be you and do your own thing and work hard. The right people who belong in your life will come to you, and stay.”

  3. I really enjoyed this post. I noticed the same things over the years when I went home to Italy. But I must say that even though I “lost” many friendships by staying away, the two that are still existing are still going strong. I got to the conclusion that the lost ones must have not been very deep friendships in the first place. With my 2 friends I don’t even have to make an effort throughout the year to maintain frequent communication: as I get home, it’s like I never left. Maybe it’s because I have too little time to spend there (I always go for a short 2weeks vacation time) so we try to make the best out of little time :-).
    I also think that once you know to expect these reactions, disappointments, loss, etc., it becomes easier to cope with them.

    1. I think you’re right, marina. I think knowing what to expect helps a lot; this time around I’m much more prepared for what I find here. My best friends from high school now live all over the country, so we won’t be able to get together this time. But the other friends, who haven’t even kept in touch with me in the last year, well, I’m not bothering to make the effort. I’m focusing on my children and spending quality time with them. As I’ll only be here a month, there just isn’t enough time to forge those connections…. 🙂

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