Why Reverse Culture Shock is a Real Thing

Hands Coffee Daegu Museum

I’ve experienced it. My friends have experienced it. Matter of fact, most of us don’t get over it until it’s time to do it all again. I’m probably going back home next year, we’ll know I the next few weeks. And I remember how lost I felt after moving back from South Korea and Germany. Reverse culture shock is real, it’s tangible and its effects are immediately felt.

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Reverse Culture Shock is Real

I remember how lost I felt after moving to South Korea. Reverse culture shock is real, it’s tangible and its effects are immediately felt. You are immersed in an environment that is not only out of your time zone, but it’s also out of your comfort zone too. But then something in you clicks.

You become curious and everything around you becomes a puzzle that becomes your reason for living. The pieces sometimes come together with ease and other times not. And like putting a puzzle together, you start with the outline– the edges, moving inward slowly and purposefully. Every day opens to an opportunity to explore your adopted country, the people around you and yourself. Every day more and more of the puzzle becomes clearer.

Moving abroad is one of the best learning experiences you can have. Time passes, you meet new people, find a job, welcome new friends into your life. And suddenly, you realize, it’s time to go–again.  

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The Challenges

The return home can be equally challenging. After living in Germany for three years, I couldn’t imagine the idea of going back to living a 24/7 lifestyle. But I had no choice. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go. And honestly, the first year back home sucked. I hated my new life. So I tried to incorporate the things I’d fallen in love with in Germany. I wanted the familiarity of the laid-back lifestyle I had cultivated over the last three years.

But it wasn’t the same. We moved back to Virginia and I resisted loving it too. I missed my German home. Sure I grew up in New York, but Baumholder had become more familiar to me. It had become the town where I found myself. And it didn’t matter that I didn’t speak the language, know the customs or too many people. I found a freedom I hadn’t experienced in America and I wanted more of it.

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Transitions

If you’re facing a similar situation, you need to realize that leaving your adopted home doesn’t necessarily have to be the end of the world. But you should be prepared for a few challenges.

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Expect to Feel Lost

When I visited the US I felt exhilarated. When I moved back to Virginia, I felt out of place. Reverse culture shock is real people. It was really hard to get back into the rhythm of things. I was overwhelmed. You can expect to feel a little lost, and that’s okay. It just means you experienced some growth, you experienced a new way to live life. It all seemed foreign to me when I first moved abroad, but it took no time to revel in the culture, the festivals, the language, food, and people.

I was overwhelmed by the size of the grocery stores, the price of wine, the number of cheap and accessible fast food restaurants, etc. There was no way I’d be able to go back to life before Germany. I had been changed forever. Your experiences will distinguish you from your peers. Don’t fall back in the same routines. don’t crash in front of the TV, revert to frozen dinners or spending hours roaming the aisles of Wally World.

Now is the time to continue finding ways to expand your comfort zone, find people/ groups that have similar interests and bring what you learned abroad home.  

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You Will Crave Your Previous Life

You will crave the simple things that brought you so much happiness. And miss things like buying fresh bread every morning. Or having new wine delivered to your doorstep. As well as the nightly walks in the park on Sunday when everything but the restaurants are closed. You will desire a simple life. And the excess of choices we encounter in the States fogs our daily life. You’ll miss that you had no choice of salad dressing or that stores closed on Sunday. Crave smooth and the open borders of the Autobahn. So bring back some of those things with you. Slow down or make it a habit to set aside some quality time with family and good friends.

It’s about creating a quality of life and balance that is both sustaining and prolonging.  

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You, Will, Come Back a Different Person

Therefore expect to be told that you have changed. Certainly, you’re not the same person anymore. And be happy for that. You haven’t changed, you’ve grown. Don’t be surprised that people don’t share your new insight or appreciate your “new take” on the world. Know that some people will dismiss your adventures, perspectives, and observances as idle talk or braggadocio.

Don’t take it personally, living in a different country forces you to remove the cultural biases we are naturally inclined to possess. You see the world from the standpoint of another culture. You get the news from new sources. Chances are your new neighbors will have completely different life experiences. You will see your country without blinders and patriotism or rose-colored glasses. You’ll see it through the eyes of your adopted country. And sometimes that’s not always positive, but it’s always valuable. 

Living abroad should encourage you to approach problems more unbiased and nuancedly. We all experience some form of these symptoms to a degree. However, take comfort in the fact that this is normal. And as a result, you experience something many people only dream about. Then take your experiences and new skills, and create a life of endless possibilities.

Comments

  1. Gracie

    I feel you! I lived in South Korea for a year and when I went back home to Philippines, everything was so different! Then I lived in the UK, and when I went back again here in the Philippines, it took a month for me to go back to how I used to live as a Filipino especially the time! XD

  2. 9buckcrossing

    I understand this too well. I grew up a military brat and every deployment to a new home was an adjustment. Thanks for letting others know more about the transition and shock that occurs.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Well we are Army Brat sisters then. I loved my life growing up. It made me who I am and it must be an okay life because both my Army Brat kids joined the military. One is in the Navy and the other is Air Force.

  3. Erin

    It’s so refreshing to read these tips! I have always been petrified of going to countries where English isn’t the first language. We’ve considered Russia and Japan but feel like it would be impossible without speaking the language. I couldn’t imagine actually making the move, but I guess, like you say, once you get there the puzzle starts to come together!

    1. duffelbagspouse

      So true, but don’t let language stop you. I have friends who taught in Russia and they were actually happy when their contract ended and wasn’t renewed. They “said” it was too limiting. But Japan, on the other hand, is an amazing place for expats and you’ll find that you can live comfortably without knowing Japanese as long as you hook up with someone who does.

  4. mira pstr

    I changed a country 2 times in my life, honestly i did not experienced the Culture shock my be because the countries that I moved to have an universal culture, but it was hard regarding the language but If we decided to learn and merge in the new culture of the country that you live in it will be less tough , thank you for this article 🙂

  5. Michelle Catallo

    Every time I would get back from deployments I always felt like packing up my bags and going back. I would come off as cold and aloof to many but, I just wasn’t comfortable. I am still not to this day comfortable around crowds, loud noises and a couple other things. Driving was the most interesting…. not in a good way either. Very well written and am hoping your eventual transition goes smoothly.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      The longer the deployment the worse and to the Middle East. I can’t imagine, you also have to build back relationships with family and friends. My husband and I never talked specifics, he said I didn’t want or need to know. But the last one he came back from did affect him and it took a while for us all to readjust. I ended up signing us up to run the Paris Half Marathon to train together so we could build that bond to one another again. It was the best AND worse three months ever because he is NO fun to train with. lol Thank you for your service and for sharing your feelings too.

  6. Author Brandi Kennedy

    I’ve never had the experience of living abroad, so I can’t say I can relate to this. I wish I could, in some ways – life abroad is such an experience! But I’m glad you’re adjusting to being back home again, too.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Personally I love living abroad, but I love it as an American citizen. Thats’s a HUGE caveat. I don’t know if I’d like it as much without my little blue passport and I am glad I will never find out either. The world has some wonderful architecture, languages, foods and customs to explore and immerse yourself in. And there are literally thousands of things I’ve learned over the years that I incorporate into our daily lives that weren’t created, imagined or born in the United States. But at the end of the day I love coming back to what is familiar, warm and safe. I love hearing English and understanding every word of a conversation. I love mind numbing reality TV shows and salt and pepper shakers on the table at a restaurant. I love the American Flag, it is truly one of the things that the founding fathers got right. There is a HUGE divide in America, its been there forever and it may never ever go away. Americans THINK they have it pretty good, but I KNOW we do.

  7. R U S S

    I know how you feel. It is difficult because you’ve already gotten used to a lot of things and I guess you’ve sort of embraced this other culture. But y’ know, remember to look at the brighter side of things & I’m sure they won’t disappoint. Give yourself time.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Very true. Its all good. Every culture I’ve lived in has contributed to the way I live… my whole families lives.

  8. Wanderlust Vegans

    Our reverse culture shock situation isn’t as bad as living in South Korea or Germany but we’ve been living in the UK for 2 years. Now we are moving back to Canada and very uneasy about what it will be like so I can relate to this.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Thats true, but you’ll still have some readjusting to do. The UK has a few customs I’m sure aren’t everyday in Canada.

  9. Rose

    I have never visited or lived in a other country. I have however been in the military and that’s a shock and adjustment in its own way. Basic training with its rules to conform, then moving to a different base with a different climate is unnerving.
    I will have to look up the Richmond wine fest. It sounds bigger then my local one. I have never visited Annapolis either sounds like a nice day trip too!

    1. duffelbagspouse

      We have a lot of military, but there is a huge teaching population here to that has to adjust. There is some adjusting to different regions of the US too, lol. Thank you for stopping by, I hope to have something you can relate to better next time.

  10. Gareth

    Really enjoyable post and I couldn’t agree with one of your opening statements “most of us don’t get over it until it’s time to do it all again.” I don’t know how many times I’ve left somewhere only to look back on it with the knowledge that I spent my entire time there floundering and that truly is an exhausting experience. I have recently made a concerted effort to slow down my travel (not an option for you, I know) but it really is something I would recommend. Anyway, great post

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Thank you so much. Lol, I can totally see it. It never fails in the military that just when you get settled, its time to move. You think you have time to adjust and you husband gets a promotion they close a base, the mission changes, etc… We live in a state of hurry up and wait that I truly wish I could take your advise are than I we are able. But that day is on the horizon…

  11. LC

    I’ve just come home to Australia after almost three years abroad. It actually isn’t as bad as I thought it would be “shock” wise – I’m mostly having issues coping with the oppressive heat!

  12. Christine

    Great post. This is often overlooked but when you go away, you just have to be prepared to never be the same person you were before. and that’s ok. It is not always easy for the friends and family that stay behind and might have a hard time to relate to you. You have to be prepared to find new friends and meet people that understand you. I am French, lived in the US, in China, in Singapore and in the Netherlands and I just don’t want to go back to France. I did for many years in between but I felt like I could not relate anymore with everyone. I now have a different relationship with my country. I see its faults but I also see what’s great about it. What you have lived and experienced in other countries changes you forever, and that’s ok. You just have to be ready for it and accept it. it is great that you are finding ways to continue to expand your world.

  13. Gessa C

    Well, as a person who has no permanent address since birth (not until mom and dad decided to build a house of our own in the province where mom grew up), it’s really frustrating to adapt things that easily. It’s just that the only difference between my experience to yours is that I only live in different cities of our country. hahha I haven’t tried living other places except for Manila and Cebu of the Philippines. So I don’t get a culture shock but I felt you sentiments over a new place, new culture, and new people around you. Anyhow, glad you are making a way on how to deal with it.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      The US is so big, you have probably experience the culture differences even in the US because there are many regional differences too like food, dialect and habits. I hope to get to the Philippines next year.

  14. steph

    I just returned home to Canada after time in Tanzania. With such diverse cultures, it is hard to acclimatise. When I first got back I felt like I was straddling both worlds at times and it’s hard because people who don’t travel or live abroad cannot totally understand what you are going through.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Exactly. This is exactly what I was thinking when I wrote this post. Not that one is better, that you can’t eventually acclimate, its that living abroad changes you and its hard to fit back into the life you had before you left. On a side note, living in Tanzania must have been quite the adventure, I hope to see that country one day too.

  15. Global Brunch

    I know the feeling all too well! I’ve lived as an expat for 6 years in the UK and it took moving there to appreciate some of the traditions and ways of life I was so used to in Germany, but as you say, moving back to your home country isn’t any easier. In fact I felt like it was harder. I had spent most of my adult life in the UK and didn’t have a clue on how to tackle certain things in Germany. Now I feel like an “inbetweener” and think of myself as a European citizen as supposed to German or English. Thanks for sharing your experience, it’s always interesting to read the journey of others.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Oh wow, thats interesting. Its not like we can’t eventually assimilate back into the country, its really why would we? Living in other places is a blessing and helps us to be more well rounded and able to get along with a more diverse group of people.

  16. Vyjay

    I can understand the feeling. When you are away from home for a long time and have got used to the lifestyle, it does take some time when you are back home to tune in. You have a strange feeling that stays with you for a long time that makes you feel like an expatriate in your own home.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Exactly, but its not like you can’t eventually assimilate back into the country, its really why would you? I love my home nation and I will never give up on her, but I find that traveling around the world, people are more progressive and America isn’t interested in adapting.

  17. Marissa_Travel Greece, Travel Europe

    Great post and can relate on many levels as an American expat currently living abroad. I know this experience has changed me forever. Coming home for a bit, I can definitely feel the differences. It’s great that you found positive ways to adjust to it all! Life is a journey! We should make the most of every moment.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      That’s true, you can see it in a visit. You talk about your experiences to friends and family and you can see the changes you’ve made internally.

  18. Sheena

    As someone who has lived & travelled abroad for the past 10 years, I can definitely relate to this. I feel reverse culture shock a lot more than moving to a new country. You describe it well, with excellent tips of how to handle moving back home. I’ll try to remember these when I return home again next year 🙂

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Although I’m not sure, we will probably return home next year as well. If I didn’t have some personal family issues, I wouldn’t go back yet. I visited home for 3 weeks and felt ansey the whole time, not feeling comfortable and speaking and feening for my life at “home”.

  19. Jurga

    This is a post many expats will definitely be able to relate to. Culture shock is a real thing, and indeed it doesn’t only hit you when you move abroad, it hits even more when you move back home. Try to see the positive side of it and embrace the things you like the most! You’re so fortunate to have lived in other countries and have experienced other cultures!

    1. duffelbagspouse

      I feel blessed and looking for the silver lining is what I hope to find. Thanks for your insight, I agree completely.

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