"Reverse" Culture Shock


We’ve all heard of culture shock. It makes sense that immersion in another culture is emotionally difficult. Coming home must be a great relief – a return to our comfort zone. What could be easier? Or so it would seem! In truth, many travelers suffer similar issues when they return home… a sort of “reverse” culture shock. Why is this, and how does it manifest itself?

The most common reaction, one that even occurs after a short trip, is mild depression stemming from the letdown that accompanies a return to the ordinary. Travel to a foreign land provides a steady barrage of the new and different. Sure, the new and different can be frustrating, but they bring with them a richness that we miss in our daily lives. We escape the numbing repetition that causes days to blend into one another. Our senses are heightened, each moment has meaning. We become addicted to the new.

But how long can we bear this sensory overload? We rebel against it without being aware. What we find when we travel is a tendency to create a new normal, new habits. Maybe we sit at the same table at breakfast, go to the same spot on a beach, walk down certain streets. We crave the comfort of the known.

I was once traveling through South and Southeast Asia for months, constantly moving on to a new city or country. Finally, I took a boat to a small island off the coast of Malaysia. Nothing but thatched huts, and a small restaurant. No roads, few people, nothing to do but hang out. I felt like I needed a rest, but I was fooling myself. In truth,  the island provided a stable, unthreatening environment.  Everything could be seen in a single afternoon. Within hours it was no longer new or foreign, it was comfortable. Its attraction lay in this. Well it also had beautiful white sand beaches, turquoise water, a reef. It wasn’t the worst place to hang out. Still, what made it so difficult to leave, was the thought of returning to the discomfort of the unknown.

The traveler gets caught in a paradoxical situation of seeking out the familiar while being addicted to the new. The return home satisfies the former, but the addiction will take time to fade. This is the predicament that the traveler faces. There is however, another type of travel, one with different repercussions. What happens when we stay in one place for a long period of time?

The disruption to our daily lives that takes place when we move to a new place is traumatic. We need to be “broken in” by the place. We might cling to our old ways, but with time most of them will lose out. Certain rare individuals take on the challenge, determined to embrace the new culture. Others go kicking and screaming, sometimes literally! In either case, some level of acculturation will take place.

Once broken in, we are no longer the same person that we were before our travels, but we return home not knowing this. We expect the return to be comfortable: friends, family, food, music, television. Those were the things that made our former self comfortable. Now, however, we have just left a culture where our new self was created with so much difficulty. The people back home don’t know this side of us, they know the old “uninteresting” us. A sense of alienation, of isolation, is inevitable, and will remain with us for a long time. If we have friends that traveled with us, we will gravitate towards them, reliving those experiences that we share, and commiserating on our loss.

These feelings will fade with time, but it is not uncommon for the traveler to seek out the first opportunity to return to the adopted home. Careful. If we wait too long, that home too will have disappeared. So travelers, be aware of what you are going through.  Try to approach your situation with some perspective. Understanding the root of your discontent is the best you can do.

Common Symptoms

- You find people back home cold, unfriendly
- You're overwhelmed by the wealth, excess and waste back home
- Things seem too clean, antiseptic
- There's nothing to look forward to. The future seems boring: back to school or work

The end of "The Wizard of Oz" sums up the nature of reverse culture shock so well. Dorothy returns home by repeating "There's no place like home." Returning home has been her goal throughout the movie. But what does she return to? A black and white existence where no one understands the world she's visited. In fact, they don't even believe her. Sure, there are no witches or flying monkey's at home, but the color has gone from her life.

By Kevin O'Neill


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