Many people have heard about culture shock. But it’s reverse culture shock that can really make life difficult.
Reverse Culture Shock happens when a person lives outside their “home” country for an extended period of time and then return to their old home only to find things have changed and they have changed. Let me share a little bit of my recent experience of reverse culture shock. Maybe some of you will understand what I went through, maybe some of you will be experiencing it soon yourself, and maybe some of you are just curious what the heck it is I’m talking about.
For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been living in the Netherlands for almost four years now. I’ve adjusted fairly well to the culture here and have even learned a decent amount of the language. Being able to ride your bike almost anywhere is awesome, living a ten minute walk from the shopping center, a 40 minute bike or tram ride to the center of Amsterdam, access to hundreds of great museums, being able to hop on a train/bus/tram to get places, and having an unlimited movie card to over five theaters in a short distance from my place are fantastic things to get used to. Although it’s not all peaches and cream. Dealing with some of the food options, learning another language, not being able to get into nature alone, biking through wind and rain, and struggling with cultural differences have been some of the struggles to living here. But overall my time here has been a great and wonderful experience. It’s opened my eyes to see things even more differently than I did living in the United States. And even though I’m living almost 7,000 kilometers away, technology has been great to help keep me in touch with friends and family back in the US while living here. Which can be a good thing and a bad thing.
See I thought things would be pretty normal when I returned for a longer period of time this past Christmas. It’s been great visiting during the summers and winters these past few years. Everyone’s excited to see me and we have a good time together. But being back for three months really highlighted that things have changed. Both with the people back “home” and with myself.
Let me first talk about the struggles of social media while living abroad. See social media makes it easy to connect to people one on one. It can be done whenever. But when you go back, you find out that people have moved on. Friend groups have changed. People’s interests changed. People get married and/or have kids. And some move away because of jobs or family. This was difficult for me. People I felt close to and kept in touch with through social media seemed to not care or make time to hang out. For some it may mean they no longer really care, but honestly for others they were just busy with their lives and I was trying to find a way back into theirs. There was one day I remember going through my contact list sending a ton of sms’ and not getting any response. And when I did hear something, those people usually already had plans. The reason I didn’t hear from others is because they wouldn’t recognize the number. They would delete my US and put in my Google Voice number while I was gone and then didn’t know it was me when I’d call or message. This feeling of disconnection is something many of us moving back to a previously known home feel. Our old friends have moved on, which is perfectly normal because we too have moved on. If we feel needy when we come back “home”, please be patient with us, we’re trying to adjust to being back into a somewhat familiar location.
Another reason reverse culture shock happens is because living in a new place changes you. You start blending two cultures into a person and crazy things happen. Viewpoints on things begin to change and experiences have become unique. This makes it difficult when moving back to an old home. It’s difficult finding people you can relate to, people who have experienced what you have and know what you’re talking about when you just need a listening ear to decompress all that’s going on in your head. This is why expat/international groups tend to form easily and bond really well. For those of us living in Europe, a trip to another historical location in a different country is no more different than people in the US taking a trip to the beach, mountains, on a cruise or Disney World. I have friends who have lived in Asia and they talk about hopping around to different countries like it’s nothing. But to each of our own cultures, having not experienced the different lifestyles, it’s difficult to understand and easy for other cultures to get jealous. So for me, and others having moved back, it’s difficult to not come across as arrogant or stuck up as we want to share our new experiences with old friends. We want to talk about it and decompress all that has happened to us. We really need to get it out. Fortunately I have a couple friends who are willing to listen and ask great questions. Some have lived abroad or traveled the world. Some haven’t. But I’m thankful for all of them. To the rest of you, I’m sorry for talking about my other life so much. But I care about you and want you to feel like you’re a part of it. I’ll do my best not to talk to much about it. Maybe some of you reading this have friends that just need to talk about their other life. Please let them and don’t be jealous of it. Be excited for the experiences they’ve had.
And it’s not only experiences that make it difficult to adjust. The lifestyle of the new home may often conflict with the old home. Reverse culture shock may include comparing how things are done in the different homes. Some things are always better in the other place. Believe me, we talk about how things from America could help improve the Netherlands. But when I’m back in the US, I find myself doing the opposite. Again this is where many of us dealing with reverse culture shock are misunderstood. We’re not saying the other place is better. We’re simply pointing out how maybe the old, or new, home could rethink things to improve on what’s already good. Every culture has it’s sensitive points and feel like it’s the best at everything. But in reality we all could learn from each other. So please, be patient with us as we deal with our “new” surroundings.
So that’s a couple things I’ve found to be difficult about reverse culture shock: getting plugged back into old friend groups and feeling like a part of the old gang, being able to talk about the things I’ve experienced without taking up too much time or coming across as arrogant and cocky, and being able to express how some of the things the other place does could make the new place better. Maybe if you’re feeling some Reverse Culture Shock yourself, this will help and you can know you’re not alone. If you’re not, but have friends dealing with this, please be patient with us as we readjust to a world we once knew but have to figure it out all over again.