In talking more about reverse culture shock – yes, one of my favourite topics, because it’s just not talked about enough! – I’m continuing my interview series with teacher and blogger Rachel Elizabeth today. I came across her when she wrote an excellent post called How to Talk to the Repatriated – what an excellent idea, I thought, and if only I’d sent something like that to my friends and family before I returned home each time! Anyway, here are Rachel’s thoughts on her reverse culture shock experience.
How Rachel came to teach English in China
During graduate school one of my professors, who is Chinese, asked if any of us would be willing to come teach English in China. With graduation looming, I thought, why not? I emailed her, and left for China about two months after graduation. I spent 1.5 years teaching English to University students in a city called Hangzhou in eastern China. I returned home, to the United States, in January of 2013.
(Amanda says: like me, and many, many ESL teachers abroad, it sounds like Rachel’s career began pretty much by accident. I think it’s the kind of thing that, if you think about it too much, you wouldn’t do it. But once you’re there, you’re so glad you did!)
How Rachel overcame her reverse culture shock
Talking and writing about my experience abroad is probably the biggest thing that helped me in overcoming my reverse culture shock.
Talking is all well and good, but it is important who you talk to. When you come home, you will be inundated with people with varying degrees of interest in your experience abroad. They ask a slew of questions about every aspect of the trip (although I’d say most people are interested in the same four to five topics–food, where I lived, cost of living, lifestyle, etc). I found myself repeating a lot of information and a lot of stories, which is, in its own way, irritating. I love talking about my time in China, but sometimes talking with people who weren’t there can be exhausting and frustrating. They ask questions that may be offensive to the country you just came from, because they don’t know how much they don’t know about the place I lived. I forgive them for this, and patiently answer their questions, while internally wincing and trying to tamp down that frustration–I certainly don’t want to discourage them from asking questions–how else will they learn?!
This is why I also suggest you keep in touch with people you lived with abroad. I take time to rehash some of what happened, at different times of my reverse culture shock process, with the people who lived through it with me. With them, I don’t need to try and get them to understand every single detail, feeling, and nuance of what happened. They understand, and that understanding can be a balm on some pretty frayed nerves. During some times, I just find myself so frustrated with people who don’t really understand what my life was like, and for all their very patient, sincere, and sympathetic attempts at understanding, they just can’t. They weren’t there. This is not their fault. I met one of my best friends while I was in China, and we have been fortunate enough to be able to continue that friendship past our time in China, with get-togethers in the States. However, sometimes we get in touch with each other solely to rehash some experience we shared in China, because one or both of us have reached a point where we need to process something we experienced; something has triggered China-related emotions and we need to talk to someone who just gets it.
Writing about my experience has also helped a great deal. I did not begin my China blog until the week before I left China for good. I cannot fully explain how fully flushing out, in writing, my experience in China and coming home has helped me readjust to being back in America. But on an even deeper level, writing about it has really helped me process how I have changed and how China has changed me.
You cannot go abroad without coming home a changed person, especially when you travel to a place that really challenges, or is in stark contrast to, your original culture. That is part of the problem of returning home. I have been gone for years. Everyone I left back home has been going through changes of their own, but they have all been around to witness each other’s changes gradually. I, on the other hand, have only been in contact via the occasional Skype conversation. My return was like a meteor hitting a otherwise very orderly world. I was expected to fit into the mold I fit in so comfortably when I left, but that is just not possible. The recasting of that mold is uncomfortable for everyone–friends, family, and certainly for me. Finding how you fit into old relationships takes quite a bit of time; writing about it helped.
Writing the blog helped me to focus on the root of these frustrations, and allowed me to revisit them during different points–highs, lows, new levels of understanding–of my reverse culture shock. Additionally, my friends and family have an understandably limited patience with my constant stories of China. The blog allows me to retreat to a place where I can write about any experience from China that comes into my mind, without having to worry if I am annoying my audience–I tell the story, and people can choose whether or not to read the post. Either way, I have an outlet and an audience for the story.
How Rachel has changed through her experience of reverse culture shock
As I said earlier, travel changes you, in ways you don’t really appreciate until you come home. However, coming home also changes you, and I would say the biggest change in me as a result of reverse culture shock was my personality. Specifically something my BFF from China and I have been referring to as The Fog.
The Fog is this haze that seems to settle over us most of the time, dampening our emotional reaction to events. When I have explained this phenomenon to people not in the throws of reverse culture shock, they say that it sounds like depression. I am not sure if that is what it is as I do not avoid playing with kittens or laying listlessly in my sweats all day (or however the anti-depressant commercials advertise depressive behavior). I have energy, I go to work, I go to the gym, I do my make up, I care about my hair, I do stuff with friends, etc.
However, I am very slow to get excited about things. It’s really hard to make me angry. The biggest area that I have noticed the effect of The Fog lies in fear; I am just not afraid of things and it takes doing something fairly reckless before fear will kick in. In some ways this is nice–no fear and flat-lining it on the emotional scale is relatively peaceful. On the other hand, fear is what keeps you from making bad decisions. The longer I am home, and the more concrete my plans for the future become, the less “foggy” I seem to be. It’s almost like a defense mechanism for dealing with the emotions from reverse culture shock–you just shut all those emotions off. I am not sure if this happens to everyone, but it’s something that I and others have noticed. Again, it has helped to talk to my bestie from China about The Fog, as she has noticed similar effects.
(Amanda says: This is really interesting. I’m trying to think back to my worst reverse culture shock days to figure out if it was the same for me – what I remember mostly is not being excited by things, which is similar to what Rachel describes.)
What Rachel would do differently next time
I think for me, the worst part of returning home was not returning home to a specific “next step”. I did not plan very well when I left China. Therefore, when I first came home, I was doing nothing except hitting the gym and wallowing around in my old bedroom in my parents house. When I finally did start working again, it was at a less-than-ideal minimum wage job. It took me six months before I was back in a school–substitute teaching–and almost a full year until I had my next full time teaching assignment lined up. This mean that I had a lot of nothing to do. Nothing except ruminate on the life I just left behind and drive myself crazy with self-doubt filled questions like: Did I just make a huge mistake? What am I going to do next?
If I were to do this over again, I would start my job search for what is coming next at least a year in advance. It was hard, as I was not sure if I was going to stay in China another year or go back home, to commit to start looking for what was coming next. My advice, however, is to start looking for that job, or start researching schools if you are thinking of going back to school, well in advance. The transition periods between jobs is not fun. I think it is better to cope with the culture shock by (as smoothly as possible) sliding from one job to another. I think I might not have be so adversely affected by reverse culture shock if I were busy keeping busy.
I won’t say I regret this year, living in my parents house, figuring out my life, because I have learned a lot about myself by coming home. But I would recommend doing whatever you can to avoid long transition periods between when you come home and when you begin your next big thing (job, school, another new country, etc). If I had a do-over on this whole coming home idea, I would have made more concrete plans for what was coming next, so that the transition period was not quite so long and directionless.
(Amanda says: I relate to this so very well. While I did have a basic plan – get home, find jobs, find a house to buy, have a family – some parts of this took much longer than expected and that made me really pine for my life abroad again.)
Rachel Elizabeth is a teacher from the USA who is beginning a career in teaching around the world. For more on her recent travels both in China and her new home of Bahrain, check out her blog at A Teacher Abroad.