Coping With Reverse Culture Shock

Today is grey outside: it’s not raining, it’s not cold, but a leaden sky hangs heavily overhead. I’m feeling listless and apathetic. I’m hungry, but don’t know what to eat. I could go for a walk, but I don’t know where to go. My blog has become neglected, but I don’t know what to write—I feel like I don’t have anything to say.

The reason for my despondency? Reverse Culture Shock.

It's not always so easy to see the beauty of a grey sky

I have never experienced Culture Shock. When I travel to new and exotic places I always busy myself in the new sights, sounds and tastes. I have made friends quickly and taken the opportunity to explore my new environment. And I have loved every minute. The reason I don’t suffer from Culture Shock is that I go to every new country prepared that it will be different, and I’m willing to embrace those differences.

But I struggle every time I return home

Symptoms of Reverse Culture Shock include feeling restless, bored, depressed and isolated. It is very common for people who have spent an extended period in a foreign country to feel this way once the initial novelty of familiarity has passed. Then it starts…

The ordinary seems so mundane 

Would you photograph the garbage collector in your home town?

There is a famous saying that goes “People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home”, and it’s true: local people going about their business when travelling seems more exciting than when you see it back at home. The vibrant riverside market place in Thailand is so much more alive than the market in your local town square. A traditionally-dressed beggar woman sitting in a doorway in Bolivia will garner more sympathy from you than the homeless drunkard who frequents your local subway station. The rows of familiar labels on the supermarket shelves don’t have the same mystique as the incomprehensible stickers in a foreign grocery store. Instead of being entranced by the chatter of a foreign language all around you on a train journey, you get annoyed with the group of girls sitting opposite bitching about another friend and wish they’d just shut up.

Your friends and family don’t want to hear about your travels 

You've shared it all on Facebook, but who has paid attention?

It’s true. Apart from a small minority, who are either your very best friends or just as interested in travel as you, nobody wants to know. You hope it’s because they have seen your pictures on Facebook, read your blog, and kept abreast of your tweets but then they ask you casually in conversation whether you’ve ever visited X place and you realise that they actually have no idea what you have been doing for the past year. I’m not judging them, life goes on, and to be honest I probably wouldn’t be able to say much about what they’ve been doing for the past year either, but when you travel you see and hear so many things that you can’t help talking about. You become familiar with the sighs of impatience when you start a sentence with “In Colombia…” or “When I went to…” and realise that in order to get on you will just have to act like you have never been away in the first place. You learn that talking about the last episode of X-Factor will generate far more interest than your tales of the Amazon rainforest.

Friendships have changed

You have changed during the year that you have travelled, and your friends might have done too. They may have found a new partner, started a family, been promoted, begun a new all-consuming hobby, even gained a friendship group that no longer includes you. You may not have the same things in common anymore. Or perhaps your friends have not changed, but resent that you have. They may be jealous of your freedom while they battle boredom. A true friendship will work through these differences, but some friendships are only meant to stand during certain points of your life. Don’t hang on to the past, if your friendships have moved on then you must too.

You can’t get the food that you fell in love with on your travels 

I found an empanada in London, but none in Sweden yet.

Travelling is all about trying new things, mainly food. But when you get back home you can’t find alfajores, empanadas, or make a Pisco Sour quite like the ones you loved in Peru. After a prolonged period of eating new food that you completely love, it’s pretty tough to go cold turkey.

You miss meeting new people every day 

Sharing amazing experiences with people you just met on a bus is fairly normal when travelling

When you’re travelling it is acceptable, encouraged even, to strike up conversation with people standing behind you in the bus queue, in the bar, or even just passing in the street. As long as you are speaking the same language (and sometimes even when you’re not) starting a new friendship is easy. But back at home it’s not as simple, if you start speaking to strangers in the street you run the risk of getting locked up in the local asylum—especially here in Sweden. It becomes lonely pretty quickly.

So, how do you BEAT Reverse Culture Shock?

Knowing what is happening is part of the solution. Ten years ago I returned home after a year of living in Tokyo. I felt depressed but had never heard of Culture Shock, I just thought that there was something wrong with me and I struggled with it for a number of years. You may not be able to shake off the feelings completely but there are some things you can do.

  • Explore your local area. Take your camera with you and look at the familiar through the eyes of a tourist. Write a local guide book if it helps, visit the restaurants, research the history at the local library and ask people what they would advise people see in the area.
  • Visit foreign food shops, or the World Food section in the supermarket. Buy something new and try it out at home or find a restaurant of a cuisine that you have never tried before.
  • Look at your friends’ photos, whether it’s a holiday they went on recently, an album of a day out with the kids at the park, or a work party—if you show an interest in their lives, they might show more in yours. Just because they have not been travelling does not mean they haven’t been doing anything!
  • Arrange dinner parties with the theme of a specific country. Download the local music, cook a particular dish and put up photos/artefacts from your visit there. Do it once a month, changing the venue and the host.
  • Find a new hobby where you can meet new people. After returning from Japan I enrolled on a BELA (Basic Expedition Leadership Award) course where I made a new circle of friends, they were more interested in my travels than my usual group of friends.
  • Organise your travel photos. Make the best ones into a photo book, a calendar (great Christmas gift for the people who didn’t look at your pictures), or a video.
  • Connect with likeminded people using social media, then you can talk about other things with your friends and family.
  • Plan your next trip. Planning is half the fun!

Have you suffered with Culture Shock or Reverse Culture Shock? How did you deal with it? I’d love to hear your comments. If you think this post might help somebody else then please share 🙂

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  1. Sarah Wilberts says:

    I like your posting on the reverse culture shock, it definitely rings a bell. good to read I’m not alone 🙂 I’ve spend the last couple of years mainly in Peru volunteering and a bit of travelling in Ecuador and Bolivia. Always enjoy reading your blog, so surely keep going, dont mind people at home dont listen…I know the feeling. well I’m planning to do a bit more of travelling, maybe wwwoofing, argentina, colombia, guatemala… dont know yet. Need to make plans, that is for sure. un saludo!

    1. What kind of volunteering did you do in Peru? I absolutely loved Peru, such a fascinating country. I didn’t make it to Ecuador but I would like to go someday. I need to start planning to take my mind of the Reverse Culture Shock!

  2. says:

    Very good post with so many good points. Wow… I know my trip is far from over, but I don’t want it to end. I am dreading dealing with this. Seriously… it’s scares me. I love what you said about photographing the garbage collector in your home town… of course we don’t its nothing amazing. Now you make me want to go home and explore Houston so much more than I ever have.

    1. I’m looking forward to your pictures of Houston garbage collectors! I am trying to do this in the town where I live now, it’s hard to be enthusiastic about a place that is so familiar to you! Just keep travelling as long as you can, put off the inevitable 🙂

  3. says:

    I hear ya. When I went back home to New Zealand after four years away it was, at first, amazing but then as the weeks went by I started to feel a bit isolated. Everything seemed weirdly more boring than when I left it and I could have sworn my friends and family were getting tired of me saying “When I was in this country…”

    Perhaps we should start a support group for sufferers of reverse culture shock?
    Simon P recently posted..London’s best riverside pubsMy Profile

    1. I love the idea of a support group, I am really struggling with it at the moment! How did you deal with it?

    2. Tony says:

      Couldn’t have said it better…Feels like being on Mars with a bunch of aliens who belong to a club that I’m not invited to.

  4. Steve G says:

    Hi, great blog…can SO relate to this! I moved to Uppsala (from the UK) but straight after 12 months travelling South East Asia / Oz. Talk about reverse culture shock arriving in Sweden in November. Takes a long while but 2 years later, its all good!

    1. Thanks! I think that Culture Shock is especially difficult for a Brit moving to Sweden as the cultures seem so similar on the outside, it’s not until you have lived in Sweden for a while that you realise they are actually very, very different. And of course, South East Asia is just a whole different world so coming back from there is going to seem very dull for a while!

  5. layla says:

    Feeling your pain. I just returned from Indonesia back to Canada where I spent six months doing an internship. I had a great working experience, made great friendships, and fell in love with the country. I think about my time there all the time, and wonder what life would have been like if I hadn’t returned. My head is full of these “what if’s”. I’m having a terribly time readjusting to home life. I can’t shake off these feelings and thoughts, anywhere I go and anything I do, I think, “well, back in Indonesia….”. My can see the “sighs” in my friends when I start talking about Indonesia, but that’s all I want to talk about.

    I’m afraid I wont be able to shake off these feelings.

    1. It is so hard, isn’t it? It’s great to see family and friends again but it doesn’t take long before the yearning to find an adventure starts all over again 🙂

      What were you doing in Indonesia?

  6. Nessie says:

    Glad to have found somewhere to commiserate. I spent eight months in South America, went home to Canada and started looking for work, but then the first job I found was out west planting trees so I went and lived in the forest for three months. I’m home in the city now, but I really didn’t expect readjusting to be so hard. It’s home, after all, and I’ve been in the country for several months now! I guess it makes sense to have culture shock, since I’ve been through a year and two cultures since I was home. Do I ever miss the bush and my planting friends!

    1. I’m sorry to hear that you’re struggling with being back home, it really is a horrible feeling, isn’t it? Are you planning any more travel in the near future – that seems to be the only cure, I find 🙂

  7. Mary says:

    Hi I live in Ireland and I have just returned home after spending a year in Micronesia. I feel like a fish out of water!

  8. Tony says:

    I just learned about reverse culture shock today,I returned to N.Z after 24 years travelling ,working and sailing around the world,some of the other websites I checked out today have confirmed what you say,I’ve made all the classic mistakes without even knowing it,I understand that I have to take responsibility for settling back into N.Z life ,I just have been making all the wrong moves,my feelings have been,depression,loneliness,frustration,irritability and I have also been guilty of self imposed isolation and drinking alone,most of these things I have experienced to a small degree at sometime but they feel hyper amplified at the moment.I have sometimes wished that I had never gone away,despite the life changing experiences I have had ,coming Home? Is the hardest thing I have ever done,armed with the material I have read today I am going to change my ways and implement some of the techniques sujested,thanks for your blog.

  9. Ayu says:

    It’s been 5 weeks since I back from Australia to my homecountry Indonesia and I still can’t cope. I wake up crying every morning, I lost my trusts to family and friends, I don’t have job atm and I don’t feel like I want to, I don’t have much savings, I complain, get angry and end-up crying even when I drive. I just don’t have any supports at the moment, not from family, not from friends. I’m totally fucked up and can’t get out from this zone.

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