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.
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
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
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
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
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 🙂