Reverse Culture Shock Hit Me Like A Brick

January 24, 2014 | By | 7 Replies More

Traveling to a new country can be exciting and stimulating. However, a sudden change of environment can cause feelings of anxiousness, nervousness, sadness, confusion, and disorientation when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life. The language barrier, food, how people interact, communicate, how fast or slow things are done, the overall foreign environment. It can be overwhelming and make you want to go back home. This is culture shock.

Prior to setting off on a trip, you can expect that everything you may be accustomed to will be different.

Reverse culture shock happens when you come back from being abroad and feel out of touch at home. Things that where once familiar in the place where you’re originally from are different and no longer the same.

Your hometown may look the same as you left it. Friends and family might still be doing the same things. The reality is that while you were away, you have grown. You saw new things, broadened your experiences, adapted to a different way of living, and personally transformed. Re-entry back home can actually be more difficult than traveling abroad.

José María Córdova International Airport

José María Córdova International Airport, Medellin, Colombia

Going home for the holidays

This past holiday I went to Chicago to visit my family and take care of visa paperwork for a volunteer project. I had been traveling for 8 months and 4 days in Latin America before flying back for this pit stop. While I technically haven’t integrated back into my previous life, I hit a dose of reverse culture shock on my short return home.

Holiday decorations in Envigado

Holiday lights in Envigado, a suburb of Medellin

The truth is that I didn’t want to come back the U.S., at least not yet. I wasn’t mentally prepared. I was enjoying the holiday festivities and warm weather in Medellin. Heading back to a sub zero winter in the Chicago wasn’t something I was looking forward to. I was set on staying in South America and taking care of my volunteer visa in Ecuador. My dad gave me a guilt trip of disappointing my mom if I didn’t come home for Christmas, which is why I booked a last minute ticket.

The night before my flight I was on the balcony of my room, looking up at the stars, and thinking that I don’t actually have to go to the airport. I could just forfeit my flight. I’d lose money, but I thought I would be happier where I was at. I had feelings of frustration, anger, and defeat. My personal goal was to be on the road for over a year and I felt that if I returned to the states, I failed. I don’t think my family understood how much this meant to me, but I put their happiness before mine.

Arriving back in the U.S.

It was nice to hear English around me and see things that were familiar. I was able to catch up with a few friends. I didn’t tell too many that I was coming home because I didn’t want to run around and see everyone due to the amount of energy it takes, nor did I have time to organize a gathering. My focus was to visit family and get my volunteer visa.

After being away for so long, one of my best friends I met up with didn’t really ask about how my travels were. My parents and sisters didn’t seem too interested to see photos. A few friends who have traveled extensively and volunteered in the Peace Corps told me that this may happen.

Freezing in Chicago

Me, freezing in Chicago

One day I was standing outside in the freezing cold catching a breathe fresh air, feelings of sadness and depression hit me when I realized I was “home”. I was thinking about how warm it was in Colombia. I knew that I was in town for a short period, but the thought bothered me.

Michigan Avenue

Michigan Avenue, Chicago

I walked around downtown and it looked like nothing much has changed. People Christmas shopping on Michigan Avenue with a hot cup of coffee in hand, a culture of over consumption, the rat race. It felt strange that this was the place I use to live, but no longer identified with it.

When I went to the convenient store to buy something, the clerk gave me my change, I slipped and said “gracias” instead of “thank you.” I had been accustomed to speaking Spanish for several months.

I actually kept Pesos in my wallet to remind myself that I was going back to Colombia. It was like having a totem, an object to remind me (a reference from the movie Inception), if I was in reality or a dreamland. While living abroad isn’t a dreamland, long-term travel had this effect on me.

Weather in Chicago and Medellin

Temperature difference between Chicago and Medellin in December

Too many changes, too quickly

Warm to cold weather. Spanish to English. Different lifestyles. This has been the longest time I’ve been away in my life. While the transition was only for a few weeks before I would be on the road again, reverse culture shock hit me on my short visit home.

What has been your reverse culture shock experience?

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  1. Amy says:

    Great, honest post Mig; I’m sorry to hear you had a tough time back home over the holidays and I can see why you didn’t want to go back so (relatively) soon into your trip. We are heading back to the UK in the summer for a visit before flying back out to Taiwan to work. Although I’m really looking forward to a visit and feel like after 15 months of travel I’ll be ready for it, I’m also a bit nervous about reverse culture shock. I’m sure that, as you mention, it will feel strange seeing familiar faces and places when I’ve experienced so much and my views and plans have changed so radically since I last lived there. It must have been hard to deal with the lack of interest from friends and family about your travels, how did you deal with that?
    Amy recently posted…Thoughts on Bad Tourism and How to Travel ResponsiblyMy Profile

    • Mig says:

      Thank you. In regards to lack of interest, I’ve been selective on sharing stories and with whom since not everyone wants to hear them. Articles online explained that this would happen during re-entry. I just talked to friends who travelled extensively who were interested in hearing my stories and understood. My volunteer colleagues were ready to go home for a visit so reverse culture shock wasn’t so bad for them. It’s different for everyone, but something to be mindful of. As much as traveling can be fun, reverse culture shock is all part of the journey.

  2. Samantha says:

    I can absolutely relate to what you are saying in this post, when I went back to the states after being in Costa Rica for 8 months, I holed up in my house for a week until I felt like I could go out into the world normally. Odd how everything looks the exact same when you go back and yet you feel completely foreign almost. It’s hard, especially when you go back to the land of snow and cold weather!
    Samantha recently posted…Manuel Antonio National Park Wildlife and Nature PhotoshootMy Profile

    • Mig says:

      I like your strategy to hole up in the house. Adjusting to culture shock to transition back may be like diving where you have to come up slowly to prevent getting the benz. The freezing cold was a shock in itself.

  3. Stevie says:

    Hi Mig! You describe the funk so well. It’s odd to go back home and see so much the same while your own perspective has changed so dramatically. What you have written here is a great reminder about the power we sometimes inadvertently give others, especially in our important relationships. I’m curious about the part where you heard that family and friends might not ask about your travel or be too interested in your new perspective. I’ve experienced that. Were there reasons given as to why this is so?
    Stevie recently posted…Short TED Talk on Success by Richard St. JohnMy Profile

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