Everyone’s talking about reverse culture shock

I’ve been living back in Australia for three years now – after spending five and half years abroad – and I’m amazed how often in the course of a day I still get flashbacks to little pieces of my life in Japan, Slovakia or Germany. Like today, for some reason, I kept thinking about the little train station at Amagatsuji in Nara province, Japan, which was my local station for the second year I lived there. So I dug out a photo:

But what really made me reflect on my experiences overseas versus being at home was the complaint from a friend of mine who’s recently returned from a couple of years working in the United States to live in Germany again. She’s definitely suffering from reverse culture shock, something I think I’m almost over now, but is really the least fun part of returning home from abroad.
About two years back, I wrote a piece for Vagabondish called Can You Survive Reverse Culture Shock?, explaining what it is and giving some tips for getting past this strange feeling of not fitting in to your home country. Even now, people still come across this article and comment on it regularly, because reverse culture shock, I think, is something that’s really hard to talk about with people who haven’t experienced it. I mean, you sound kind of whiney if you complain that life is “difficult” after you’ve been abroad having all these different experiences, and of course you can’t tell your friends that you think they’re too closed-minded or not trying hard enough to understand how you’ve changed.
A lot of the readers who commented on my piece mentioned that their experience of reverse culture shock felt like depression; yes, it’s a serious, awful feeling! But I think the biggest problem is most people don’t realise that they’re likely to experience it after they return home from a significant experience abroad. Many are excited to be going back to their family and friends, and really come to a grinding halt when they see how these people have changed (or sometimes, not changed) and you’ve grown apart.
In my experience, I think reverse culture shock can often last at least a year, and longer if you are unable to find an appropriate “place” for yourself back in your old home. I didn’t have too much close contact with my old friends the first year or so I was back, but now I’m close to many of them again; I found my hometown pretty boring at first, but now I’m seeing the good sides again. I was lucky, too, to be working as an ESL teacher, with multicultural students and fellow teachers who often had similar experiences to me. I guess my message is, if you’re experiencing reverse culture shock, hang in there! It will nearly always get better. And if not, you’d better start planning another move overseas.

Comments

  1. Very ture Amanda,

    I think I had reverse culture shock for 2 years after returing from Japan – and I still get hints of it now.

    I don’t think “shock” is the right word though – as it’s not a sudden, sharp feeling, more a slow, prolonged downer.

  2. Yep, you make a good point, it’s not really just a “shock” – that makes it sound like something you’ll get over quickly, like the original idea of “culture shock”. Maybe it needs a new name … reverse culture distress?

  3. Amanda, this is still one of the most popular posts on the site. It’s great (well, sad, actually) to see that so many travelers can relate to it.

    -Mike

  4. Thanks Mike, I was going to say that’s good to hear, but maybe it is a bit sad – then again, I always think that if you suffer reverse culture shock, it’s because you’ve had a fantastic, growing experience abroad, and nobody’s ever told me they’d rather have stayed home, so I guess it *is* a good thing.

  5. I was so very thankful for the piece you wrote on reverse culture shock. I am home for two months and will hopefully return to my teaching assignment in Africa. I miss it dearly. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. Doing anything takes effort. So the tips and the comments are a real help:)

  6. Glad my tips could help you out! Yep, you’re not alone in feeling strange when you’re “home”. Hope you get to go back to Africa!

  7. Anonymous says:

    I was so relieved to find your article last year. I have been home nearly a year now having lived in the States for 2 years. I still see a counsellor for the anxiety I never expected on my return home; I mean, I’m 48 with a grown family etc etc, my homecoming with new husband was supposed to be wonderful and we would settle and make a new home back in Australia. But life back home was not what I had imagined. I am trying to settle, yet the longing to return hits hard about once every 2 weeks and I literally have to distract myself. I am being gentle with myself, as is my husband (who I met over there) but it is a long road. As you have rightly said, only if you experience it can you truly understand. I hope this will pass, because it is such an unsettling feeling to be on track one moment, then desperately wanting to move back the next. At least I know I am not alone.

    thank you again.

    🙂

  8. You’re definitely not alone, Anonymous! It took me a good three years to feel settled again and then only because I had a child, I think, otherwise I don’t know if it ever would have happened! And I still get a bit teary sometimes over missing my overseas life … I guess it would be harder for you with a grown family because you are more free to do what you want and go where you want, so “settling down” can make you miss your experiences abroad even more. Good luck though …

  9. Hi there, I have just returned to the uk after 3 years in Australia – I was very homesick in Oz and didn’t think it would be for life but we had a good time there made lovely friends and our eldest son is still there for another 6 months. 2 months home and I am feeling very depressed – the honeymoon period is over and the grimy bits of UK seem to outweigh the beautiful bits even thought the reality is the other way around. How long can it take to get over this feeling – I don’t really want to go back to Aus but I would love to feel settled in my own country.

  10. Anonymous, I wish I could promise you’ll get over that feeling soon but it can take a couple of years! It all depends what activities you get involved with back home, I think, and also making sure you “make time” for the place/culture you miss – have an Aussie meal or watch an Aussie movie or something, or look at your photos from Australia and chat with your family about the experience. And also try to remember the good bits about the UK too – for example you can pop over to heaps of other countries very easily, something you can’t do from Australia – make the most of it, go to Paris for the weekend or something! Good luck …

  11. Thanks for the article Amanda. I’ve spend 4 years on and off in Japan and presently going through some reverse culture shock after being back in Australia for 3 months. It can be a difficult thing to be on track with life at home, but then have memories and feeling of people and places overseas hit. I’m fond of the experiences I had there, though I’m plagued with being in two places at one time syndrome! Any advice?

  12. Nick, it can definitely be tricky, especially I think with cultures which are so different like Australian and Japanese – I was in Japan for two years and was extremely homesick for it when I left, I’d moved on to Europe then and was bitterly disappointed that Europe was so much like home (Australia)! Hang in there … I think mostly it’s just a matter of time. I always tried to remember that although I loved Japan, I wouldn’t want to live there my whole life and therefore I “had to leave sometime”. Good luck …

  13. Anonymous says:

    Hi Amanda! What great articles you have here! Thank you so much for sharing your reverse culture shock experiences. I recently returned home (US) from living in Germany for two years, and I am really struggling to feel “wohl” here in the US again. What complicates matters more is that my boyfriend is German, and it has been incredibly difficult for me to explain to him what I’m going through, even though he wants to know. Any advice?

  14. You’re welcome, I know what you’re going through! And although it is difficult now, do remember that over time it will get better … with your boyfriend, I’m not sure I have any good advice. Perhaps get him to read some articles about reverse culture shock? I think many people don’t realise it can be a serious issue and can make you quite depressed, so perhaps if he knows that other people commonly feel that way it might help?

  15. Anonymous says:

    Anonymous from 11 July…
    Thanks!! It really helps just to know that so many people have to go through the same thing.
    Your advice is good, I think a lot of the battle is just naming the demon and us both understanding what exactly it is.
    Thank you again for your words of support and quick response! 🙂

  16. Thank you for writing that article on Vagabondish! I have been back home 6 months now from a month long trip to China. I didn’t know what was wrong with me!

  17. So happy to help, Elizabeth! It’s funny you read that today as I just posted about reverse culture shock on my blog today – about how I feel much better about it now (5 years + on – better late than never!). Hope you feel better soon too.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Lived in Singapore from age 4 to 7. Came back to UK remembering nothing of my ‘homeland’. Never really settled. Always searching for roots. At 18 I moved to Germany for 10 years, back to UK 15 yrs, back to Germany 11 yrs now. My adopted town is Lüneburg. A friend said “When people come they never want to leave”. My neighbours come from all corners of Germany, Russia, Turkey and Vietnam. I love the cultural diversity. In quiet moments when those feelings of rootlessness pop up I get in my BMW, drive the 3 hours down the autobahn to Leipzig, have a cup of coffee and drive back home. There’s no speed limit on the autobahn. There is nothing quite as exhilarating as driving past a cop car at 220 kms an hour.

    Ann

  19. I just spent about five months in Australia on a study abroad program, and I’ve been home in the States for a month now. I did not want to return to the States to begin with, I love Oz so much, and I miss the friends I made in Australia more than I can bear (literally, I constantly feel like I’ve had the air knocked from my stomach–it’s been an entire month and I still feel this way). I’m incredibly restless, and I feel like I’ve outgrown most of my “old” life from the States. All I want to do is return to the Sunny Coast of Australia.
    I’m not sure how to deal with all this frustration, other than just plugging along. The thing is, I’m just not happy in the States at all. Anyway, I just figured I’d post because I figure you all understand where I’m coming from, whereas I feel distant even from my own family.

  20. @ Erin, I totally sympathise … it took me a long time to “fit in” a bit. I think it’s really hard to fit back into your old life again, it’s good to try and find some new people/interests/places in addition to your old life I think. Also – I know it doesn’t help much at the moment – with time, everything gets better! Or you can start planning your next trip back to Oz, or elsewhere!

  21. Anonymous says:

    Amanda – and all those who commented – thank you thank you thank you. We spent almost ten years in the gulf and just returned to Oz 3 months ago and I feel more lonely than I have ever felt before. Working hard to keep my chin up but it’s also nice to know we’re not alone in our experience. We know we’ve so,much to be thankful for but we frequently feel as if things are very foreign here and we are Australians!

    • Glad to have made you feel a smidgen better 😉 yes, you’re not alone. Six years back and I still feel “foreign” in many ways, I don’t think I’ll ever catch back up on some things. Yes, chin up!!! It does get better. But I think it will never be the same.

  22. Thanks for your posts, Amanda! I spent a little over 3 months (not nearly as long as you were away) studying abroad in Germany and returned home about 2 months ago. I thought I was over my reverse culture shock, but the past couple days have been rough as a wave of it hit me once again (and I don’t have too many people who could relate). I’ve been looking back at my pictures and blog posts–it’s great I have them to look at, but it also makes me miss my study abroad life/nomadic lifestyle even more. While I was over there, there were many times when I was homesick/lonely an just wanted to go home…now that I’m here, I wish I was back. I’ve been able to hang out with some of my old friends (haven’t started the school semester yet) which is great, but sometimes I still feel disconnected from them. So part of me also feels anxious about returning to school and adjusting back everything. In time, things will get better! It’s good to know that other people have shared the same feelings & that it’s “normal”! haha. Thanks again! 🙂

    • Yes your second last sentence – In time things will get better – is exactly right – but I know it certainly helps to know that other people go through the same thing. Thank goodness for the internet, hey?!

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