Bouncing Back: Managing Reverse Culture Shock
Updated: Aug 9
Why are you nervous? It's your family, your friends.
Jorge meant well. He really did. But that didn't help my anxiety. I was going home after living my first adult years abroad and I was terrified.
Abroad for me was literal. I moved to Madrid when I was twenty-two and, apart from a blip year home to finish school, Madrid has been my home ever since. I'm now twenty-eight. For others my age, abroad isn't necessarily international as it is out-of-state, but the idea's the same. At the end of the day, we've still got a solid plane ride back to our family homes.
So why do we do it? (Move abroad, I mean). Broadening horizons. Widened minds. That old chestnut.
I kissed Jorge goodbye at the airport and I was off. I drank three wines on the flight. Would I still fit in where I'd grown up? (Where most of my high school friends still lived; had set up lives?) Would my family make time to see me after I'd left them for the better part of five years?
I'd broken the cardinal rule in the South. I'd left.
So what is it like? Coming back-- for an extended visit, for good.
First, what is it?
The US Department of State's definition is pretty broad: "the psychological, emotional and cultural aspects of reentry." That's because it's also very subjective. Your, his, her, their, our, my experiences can be completely different.
Then, how do we manage it?
I asked a few folks to weigh in and this is what they had to say.
1. It's normal to feel a bit, well, sad.
Sad might not be the right word, but there's definitely a sense of discomfort, anxiety, and maybe a bit of disappointment you just can't place. And it might come as a bit of a shock. Having the privilege to start somewhere new comes with some anticipated anxiety. But coming home, at least for me, didn't.
Enter reverse culture shock.
"The first few weeks were hard. There was the hype of me finally coming home after living in ********* for three years, my friends and family saw everything with rose colored glasses. All they could see or comprehend was fireworks and a big welcome home party-- which of course I would love. What they didn't get was that I was making a big change, diving head-on into uncertainty. I think because I was moving home they didn't expect me to feel any jitters. But coming home as an adult was like seeing my hometown through a stranger's eyes. Because I'd changed so much, the city was completely new to me. I didn't know where I fit in it. And on top of that, I felt like I had to be on all the time. 'OMG YOU'RE HOME! ARE YOU SO HAPPY?!' made my skin crawl." --anonymous
Solution: Don't judge yourself for feeling however you're feeling. Just step back, acknowledge it for what it is, and ask yourself how you can help yourself. Maybe that means just letting it flesh all the way out. Whatever it means for you, don't put extra pressure or expectations on yourself. You're feeling what you're feeling. That's. Okay.
2. Things will probably be different. But that's okay. Different is just that, different.
Solution: Similar to before, just let yourself notice and reflect on these differences without judging them nor your reactions to them. Once you take that pressure off yourself, you'll be more free to respond in a fruitful way. Ask yourself: What does this change mean to me and my daily routine? How do I want to respond to it (if at all)?
Apply that same lens to yourself. How have you changed? Is it all good? Is it all bad? Is it too early to tell?
3. Alone time will come in spurts. So will being social.
At first you may feel like you're booked solid (when will you sleep off the jet lag?!). But then the chaos will die down and you'll find yourself with a lot of alone time. Like... a lot. Unless you came back with a job set to start upon your arrival, you'll find yourself in a Wikipedia black hole. Suddenly you know how many siblings Isabella Rossellini has (6...Why? Couldn't tell you, but now it'll be in the back of your mind every time you watch that episode of Friends). While your friends and family are at work, you'll contemplate why you have so much free time, probably spend one day getting extra fit only to UberEats it away the next, and then cry about how you spent money you don't have on UberEats.
Solution: Lean into both the alone time and the social time-- in a good way. Make it work for you. Take a deep breath when you feel like you're about to pop from too much stimulation and be thankful you have people that take time out of their day and want to see you. Be there, be present. Then, when you're about to careen into a Netflix blackhole, breathe again. Stop yourself. Get into a productive routine that still lets you relax. Workout, read something you wouldn't normally read, try to learn a new language (DuoLingo is free), polish off your resumé, embrace the things you relish doing on vacation. This won't last forever.
Why has the cosmetics section at Target moved to where the underwear used to be? Why can't I remember the fastest way to get from downtown to the airport? Why does everyone leave their car running at the drive-thru, at stoplights? Why doesn't anyone recycle? Why isn't anyone else blinking an eye at $5 for a cup of coffee? Arghghasdfjasdfa
Solution: Stop-drop-and-jot your frustrations down in your phone (or a notebook if you prefer ink to paper a la Jane Austen). Write down the situation and how you feel. Come back to it later once you've cooled down and try to pinpoint the why and the so what next. Once you figure out why those things set you off, you can make a game plan for what's next: how you're going to handle those things in the future. Sometimes the what's next is as simple as "Accept it", and that's just fine.
You're falling into a nice routine. You've seen people, you've slept off the jet lag. It feels reminiscent of being home for the summer semester in college. Part of you feels so relaxed and at home, but a small part of you starts to nag... What are you doing?
Solution: Be present. Like before, realize this is temporary. Take advantage of your time to perfect your professional website or LinkedIn. Search for free online courses in things you'd never think to do, or have time for before. Jealous of your software engineer friends? Try codeacademy.com to try to learn to write basic code. Or just school yourself in graphic design with Youtube; try a Master Class or udemy.com for specialized classes in Marketing, Writing, you've got it!
Is this what you're supposed to be doing with your life? Move back home? Set up camp like your high school friends and start having kids?
My friend's husband is freaking out about being a dad before he turns thirty. I'm...not there. At all. Yet those moments of doubt start to creep in...
Solution: Get out your handy dandy nooootebook (any Steve fans? Blue's Clues? Anybody? No? Good, because he turned out to be a creep. But I DIGRESS...) Again, write these feelings down. Don't worry about organizing them into pros and cons. Just getting them out can make you feel loads better. Once you've had some time to sit with these feelings, and they're not so out of your mom's lush herb garden (when did she start gardening?) fresh, you can sort through them and better decide what your next move is going to be.
I'm still in it, can't tell you how things will turn out-- no one can. But I think the trick is just to relax (that's what my Calm app says, anyway). Be present, take advantage of the time, relax and enjoy. Other than that, I'll keep jotting down frustrations in my handy dandy notebook and try not to think about how creepy Steve got.
If you've moved away and come back, I'd love to hear about your experiences!
What were the biggest setbacks, shocks?
Things you love, things you want to drink about?
Let me know and we can commiserate together, be present and whatnot. If not together, what are we doing anyway?