Let’s Talk About Reverse Culture Shock

What is it? 

While most are mentally prepared to see a world different from their own when they step off a plane in a foreign country, few people are prepared to see a different world when they step off the plane ‘back home’ in Canada. Often, they start to notice things they didn’t before, like the long line-up at the airport Starbucks for overpriced coffee, or the ‘luxury’ feel of the 2007 Pontiac they ride home in, or the many, many, many clothes in their closet. Then they start to feel alienated, frustrated, bored, negative and guilty. Sound like your experience? These are all symptoms of a process called reverse culture shock and it’s quite common, especially after traveling from a developing country back to a developed country. Simply put, you are not the same person who left Canada – you’ve seen things and your view on the world has changed. Now, you have to readjust to life at home. And since most people don’t expect to experience culture shock at home (“I’m home – everything should be normal!”), it can be even harder to deal with than initial culture shock.

When I came home after living in the Marshall Islands for eight months, I didn’t take reverse culture shock seriously. I had traveled a lot before and thought I would somehow be immune. I was so completely wrong. I experienced reverse culture shock for almost two years. After seeing the poverty of some of my students, and comparing it to the wealth that the vast majority of Canadians enjoy, I felt guilty about absolutely everything. I didn’t want to buy anything or spend any money. I became very vocal (to the point of being rude) about consumerism and selfishness. I stopped hanging out with friends because their ‘first-world problems’ like slow wifi and a bad hair day made me angry. I felt completely alone and I isolated myself. It took a lot of time and talking with my parents, who had similar experiences after our family lived in Egypt, for me to realize that I wasn’t alone that there were things I could do to help myself readjust.

So, what do you do?

Everyone reacts to culture shock and reverse culture shock differently. But here are the lessons I learned and the steps I take for dealing with the transition home.

Step 1: Be patient.

This is the most important one – remember that adjusting to life at home is a process and you are going to have ups and downs. There will be good days and bad days. Ride it out and remind yourself that coming home isn’t as easy as stepping off the plane.

Step 2: Find a support network.

Talk to people who can understand your new point of view. Not everyone you used to hang out with is going to ‘get it’ but don’t just give up. Seek out people who have similar experiences and/or mindsets and talk to them about how your adjustment is going. They will be able to listen the way other people might not be able to.

Step 3: Stay in touch with the people who traveled with you.

Your teammates are now your international family. They went on the same trip as you and (probably) had very similar experiences to yours. They will be able to understand your struggle without the long, explanatory preamble of the circumstances. Rely on them – talk to them and check in with them. It’ll help you adjust and it’ll help them, too.

Step 5: Forgive yourself.

I found this one to be the most difficult. I had to learn to forgive myself for my privilege. One of the things that hurt the most was knowing that I was now living my privileged, Western life, with three meals a day, a warm house, a functioning car, a university education and money to spend on movie nights and froyo while my students were walking without shoes, missing meals, failing school and repeating the cycle of poverty. Beating yourself up over the life you were born into won’t make their lives any better and that was a struggle for me to realize it. Once I overcame my guilt and shame, I was ready for

Step 6: Take action.

Make some changes in your life to reflect what you’ve learned by being abroad. If you’re troubled by poverty, support NGO’s like A Better World and local organizations like The Mustard Seed. If you’re troubled by inequality, join a social justice movement. If you’re troubled by pollution, advocate against climate change and reduce your carbon footprint. Don’t let the lessons you learned fade into the background – you will subconsciously feel like your positive impact is also fading. Get active and keep the positive changes coming.

None of these are cure-all solutions, but they helped me and I hope they help you if you or someone you know is experiencing reverse culture shock. Do you have any advice for reverse culture shock? Email me at cwelch@abwcanada.ca and let me know! I’d love to hear from you, and if you’re needing more help readjusting, just drop me a line.

– Cheyanne Welch