The very idea of reverse culture shock sounds laughable. Frankly, it sounds a little like something a traveling yuppie would make up as an excuse for not having their life together when they return home from wandering abroad. I may have read a total of two articles about the topic before coming back to San Diego after two years in Prague. I don’t think a journal-full would have prepared me for the arduous process of taking the person you’ve become and assimilating them back into the place belonging to the person you once were.
But I’m getting there and, more importantly, others have gotten there already, which gives me hope. It took me the whole summer and several weeks into a new semester, with multiple trips around the USA, to figure this all out. Honestly, my Kimmy Schmidt-esque stories of rediscovering a culture I left for 24 months could fill several blog posts, but I’ve gotten lazy so we’re condensing this into six basic stages of reverse culture shock.
Jet-lagged, weary and inexplicably hungry (if you’re me, you’re always hungry), you stumble out of the airport in a blur of vaguely familiar sights and sounds. Some things stick out like finely stenciled pictures – the palm trees you never noticed, the size of the masts looming out of the shipyard, the feel of the new seat covers in the family car. Others play out before you like a foggy, black-and-white film. The bend in the road you’ve driven over a million times or the creak of the back gate leading into a softly lit patio. Home.
People and faces, voices, sounds and space all take on a new life and in your travel-tired stupor, they seem like strangers.
I remember the first night back in my own bed. It didn’t feel like mine. It was uncomfortable and unfamiliar and I missed my bed tucked away beneath a slanted wood roof somewhere in Prague. Homecoming is not what you expect it to be.
If going to sleep on a strange bed in your old home is hard, waking up to your childhood room is heart-wrenching. Immediately, two kinds of loss sink deeply into the conscious layer of your beating heart: what you missed and what you’ve left behind. It’s not like you expected life to stand still while you were away, but you hadn’t really intended for it to take off without you either. It did. And instead of being able to take comfort in the things around your room, suddenly you feel out of place. Your thoughts will drift to safe spots in your other ‘place’ and you will think of what you’ve just left behind. Forest paths to your home in the village, friends to drink coffee with, quilted blankets and familiar sunrises.
As the haze begins to disappear and the days turn into weeks, you’ll feel more acutely the loss of the world you left behind and catch glimpses and shadows of the life you missed.
That first morning, staring at the blue walls covered in papers and posters my youngest sister had put up in my absence, I swear I felt my heart ripping in two pieces as it tried desperately to be wholly in Prague and wholly here, at home. And, of course, it couldn’t.
Expect to be surprised every day by something completely ordinary. Expect to have a thousand questions about things that have changed in the months or years since you’ve been gone. What is Uber? Who the heck is Ariana Grande? Exactly how long have fleeked up eyebrows been a thing, and what does “fleek” mean anyway?
Some of this will be rediscovery. Yes, water is free in restaurants. No, you don’t have to take your shoes off every time you walk inside. Being able to drive yourself places will be liberating, having to buy your own gas again will feel like a death sentence. Pandora? Netflix? Hulu? Little Caesars? Real Mexican food? Heaven.
The radio hasn’t lost its magic yet. I’ve been home for four months and every song on the radio still sounds new to me. I’ve been getting down to Uptown Funk like nobody’s business. It’s a brave new world.
As the shimmery layer of sparkle wears off your newly rediscovered home, you begin to see things you hadn’t noticed before. Things like the entitled attitude your friends or neighbors have about things like owning cars or getting an education. The narrow views and set ways of family members regarding political issues will drive you up a wall. And when you walk past your fourth unused drinking fountain in a day, covered in spider webs and gunk, you want to shout out, “you have to pay for this stuff in Europe! Free, clean drinking water right here, folks! They’ll walk all day to find water in Africa and here it comes out of a spout!”
But no one will listen, because no one has been where you’ve been or seen what you’ve seen. You’ll be lumped in with every other traveling yuppie who has ever come home and said, “they do it better over there.”
Two weeks after I got home, I was people watching at the food court in the mall and it struck me how confidently Americans take their seats. They walk and talk and sit and stand like they own whatever ground they’re touching. And while they occupy that plastic chair, it is their throne. Europeans do not come close to exuding this air of confidence and control. I think that’s when I realized how hard it would be to ‘come home’ all the way because I no longer identified with my own people. Folks were going to think I was nuts. Who would ever understand the mental battle I was fighting every day just to make sense of the home I used to know? Just to keep things together.
This may be the worst part, and honestly, it may not come in this order. You may feel alone the day you arrive home or a month later when you finally realize why things aren’t clicking the way they used to. But eventually, the frustration you feel at your own culture for their blindness to their faults and the welling sense of loss toward wherever it is you’ve left will isolate you. It’s like a breakdown in communication. Because people around you can look at the same situation and not see it the way you now do. You will feel disconnected and alone.
It’s discouraging to be back around family and friends who should know you better than anyone, but suddenly they can’t seem to grasp why you feel strongly about water fountains or why you sometimes have to stop in the middle of what you’re doing to process a painful memory.
I came home right before our family reunion. I got to hold my nephew for the first time ever. I went out for a night on the town with my brother. I got ice-cream with an assortment of siblings in an illegal takeover of an abandoned baseball field. But the people who made me feel most at home were the random friends who would come up to me out of the blue and ask, “how is it being back? What can I do? Want to get coffee and talk about it?” They were the ones who’ve been there and back. They’ve all had a ‘place’ and left it to come home again. They knew. And they reached out with human connection and empathy, and it helped me move on to Stage Six.
At some point, you have to accept that life is moving quickly and you need to jump on the train or get left behind again. Working back into crazy American eating patterns (so much grease, so much store-bought food, sooooo late at night) or re-learning how to drive a car (which I was never very good at to begin with) will come with time. Eventually, you’ll stop waking up every morning wondering what the weather is like in your ‘place’ and the hole left by the friends you miss so dearly will begin to fill with new people.
And the scariest part about the adjustment phase is the thought of losing your experience. So let me be clear. Moving on does not mean forgetting the past. It does not mean abandoning your friendships, erasing your memories or sinking back into old ways you’ve grown out of. It just means adopting this new person you’ve become and making a space for her in your old world. Both you and it have changed and the fit may not be perfect yet. But that’s how you’ll continue to grow. You’ll be challenged. You’ll be tested. You may be lost for a little while. But, believe it or not, that’s the road we’re all on, culture shock or not.
Congratulations. You’ve caught up to the rest of us. Now, onward and upward.