How to Embrace Reverse Culture Shock (Sunny Side Up)

I began in Nicaragua, in an isolated fishing village (population: 500). From there, I took a bus, a taxi, a plane, and then suddenly descended into the chaos that is Los Angeles International Airport. I walked off the plane, mouth agape, and stumbled into the bright lights of baggage claim, drove out into a throbbing spider of freeways and into the warm, welcoming home I had left nine months before.

Hello, reverse culture shock.

After processing the life changes that accompany immersion in new cultures, many travelers return home to find themselves at odds with their native culture ”” that their view of normal has shifted. Although sometimes frustrating, these unique first moments after arrival ”” the moments of culture shock ”” can be incredibly valuable.

Instead of curling up in a ball under a fluffy comforter and counting the days until your next departure, or hiding in the shelter of past trip memories, allow the reverse culture shock to be, well … shocking. Use your fresh set of eyes to notice the peculiarities and norms of your native culture that you may not have been able to see before. Take advantage of the shock to take stock of your life at home and, perhaps, to do something about how you live in relation to your ”˜new’ world.

Lost Souls, Uruguay
Lost Souls, Uruguay © Vince Alongi

Note Things at Home That You Took for Granted Before””That You Love

At home, I smile at strangers I pass on the street and say hello, how are you in elevators. As a foreigner wandering around Nicaragua, I couldn’t so much as make eye contact with strangers on the street, lest I be interpreted as hitting on a male or ”˜staring-down’ a female. It took me months””and many a catcall by an ”˜encouraged’ male””to quash my impulse to make eye-contact with another being passing on an empty street, and instead learned to keep my eyes down. Now, I smile at everyone and enjoy friendly grocery tellers who, even if they don’t care, ask how my day is going.

Because the town I lived in was so isolated, on errand days into the ”˜big city’ of Rivas, ice cream cone in hand, I’d sit on a bench in the plaza and just watch all the people go by. I observed the nuances of a culture just by watching people interact, talk, walk alone, rush or meander. What first struck me as I wandered around my big city airport was how many people there were””and how many different kinds of people. Quite apart from racial diversity””something I always took for granted and now love, the very existence of Asian-Americans, and African-Americans, and Armenian-Americans””there are just a lot of people. There are fat and skinny people, tall and short people, blonds, red-heads, the freckled and the non-freckled, people with big eyebrows and people with no eyebrows. And so I relish the opportunity to watch all these people, meanwhile gaining insight into my own culture.

Also, I missed granola dearly, and I appreciate it with a new zest every morning.

Note Things You Took for Granted Before””That You Don’t Like

$4 specialty iced lattes. Relish the indignity of prices: “That’s 80 córdobas, for goodness sakes””no I will not buy your medium sized coffee beverage for what, last week, I could have bought dinner for. I’ll make it at home, thank you.”

In most places in the word, if it’s hot outside, it’s hot inside. Right now, it’s June, the sun is shining, and I shiver inside a coffee shop, wearing jeans and a sweater, while the air conditioning roars above me. We over-climatize the great indoors, so that in the summer I layer up to go inside and in the winter I peel off layers in front of a hiked thermostat.

Appreciate the Things That Work

Electricity””no thrice weekly blackouts!””bus schedules, any schedule, the internet, the ice maker, ATMs, real service in restaurants ”¦ to name a few.

Politics. Yes, politics. In the midst of media analysis, it’s easy to become cynical about your country’s political process, to resort to sighing ”˜they’re all the same, nothing ever changes.’ But, after witnessing first hand the blatant corruption of a Nicaraguan election””bags of ballots found in a city garbage dump and the murders of several candidates””I appreciate first-world politics. I relish the luxury we have to bicker over our differences and then cast our vote with the faith that it will be counted.

Get Lost in Your World, Maldives
Get Lost in Your World, Maldives © notsogoodphotography

Note the Things That Don’t””and Change ”˜em

I love the simplicity of life in the third world. In the absence of material goods and electronics, people value face-to-face conversation. Perhaps the biggest culture shock for me was the omnipresence of cell phones. At lunch, they sit idly at every table like a third wheel; they bleep and usurp the conversation””especially when, scandalously, they are answered. Because I lived without a cell phone for nine months, I tend to forget mine at home, and get restless in conversations over five minutes. I relish the freedom to wander around without constant connection, and I make a concerted effort to replace phone conversations with face time.

In Nicaragua, I lived without a car, initially a huge adjustment, so I either walked or took the bus. Now, in reverse, I find that life with a car makes me cranky, that I can tolerate waiting thirty minutes for a bus but not sitting in traffic. And so I seek out public transportation, and enjoy the challenge of trying to navigate my very car-based city as a pedestrian.

Notice Absurdities””and Appreciate the Humor in Them

I was washing my hands in a public bathroom and was unpleasantly startled and confused when I accidentally set off the electric paper-towel dispenser. I recovered from my shock and couldn’t restrain a laugh: what a nifty device!

Appreciate Un-conventional Beauty

When we travel, we seek out beauty, whether it’s the raw beauty of natural wonders, or man-made beauty manifest in art museums or architecture. Returning home, it’s easy to remember that beauty and think it’s the only kind (the kind you pay a museum entrance for or that extra bit to be directly ocean front). But, remember how you seek beauty, and do the same at home, even when you dismay at freeways, traffic, and congestion.

I arrived home pining for my nightly Pacific Ocean sunset as I sat on a grey asphalt road, my view of the horizon obstructed by tall grey buildings. However, that very pause at sunset, missing what I had while traveling, heightened my senses to be able to notice a long, golden pink shadow on the west side of a white concrete office building and appreciate its beauty amid a pulsing city.

27 Responses

  1. Craig Zabransky

    The reverse cultural shock can even be more difficult; sometimes you are not sure you even wanted to return from traveling.
    A few of my favorite shocks include.
    -Speaking English. On the road I speak Spanish or use English to communicate. But to a non native speaker you must be simple to be understood. “Glass of Water. Please.” When back home, it is more formal, “May I please have a glass of ice water” i always find myself talking in text message form instead of using any impressive vocabulary.
    -Diversity. You touched on this, but landing in NY, I noticed all creeds, races, etc..I’ll never forget after a month in China I saw the most beautiful blue eyes walking the streets of Manhattan. The beauty enhanced by months of brown eyes only.
    stay adventurous, Craig

    Reply
  2. Mikeachim

    A much-neglected topic, this one, and a fascinating one. Enjoyed this – thanks!

    I always see reverse culture shock as a result of internal change. You go on a foreign adventure, you shrug off the “real world” and you revert to a more honest, more true You, without all the contextual cultural baggage that you deal with every day at home. You strip everything away – and discover what the things are that you really Need. You also discover what things are missing from your normal life.

    …then you come back home, and it hasn’t changed, but you have, in lots of little ways – sometimes permanently, as the article mentions. But sometimes these changes are more towards the real You, the core You.

    And when you’re back home, you can truly *see* all the things you don’t need and, deep down, don’t want in your life. That’s the real shock: realizing that in some ways, home isn’t enough for you, and never was.

    That’s when you get addicted to travel. ;)

    Reply
  3. melissa & malakai

    After spending the summer marveling at the strangeness of the unknown world on our first backpacking trip, we’re now back in the midwest and are dealing with a lot of readjustment ourselves. Noticing that we’ve been getting quite cranky during the transition, we’ve taken to planning our next trip (and yes, we are counting the days!), but also preparing ourselves in advance by trying a new language so that when we arrive maybe we’ll be in a better position.

    Mel&Mal-
    myspace.com/melissaandmalakai

    Reply
  4. Nora

    What a wonderful way to embrace the harsh realities of coming back home. In my own short visit home to Canada, I made similar observations. I found joy in the little things, like the native urban wildlife (raccoons and squirrels) and the names we have for our coins.

    Reply
  5. Dave

    It has taken me several weeks since returning back to the US from Colombia and my RTW trip to feel at home again. In some respects, it feels like that is too little time to once again slip into familiar habits and routines, but on the other hand, I definitely appreciate my mom’s home cooking, fluently speaking the local language, and the greater degree of peace here at home.

    I recently posted 10 tips on How To Survive Reverse Culture Shock based on my experiences the last few weeks:

    http://www.gobackpacking.com/Blog/2009/08/18/how-to-survive-reverse-culture-shock/

    These ideas have helped me keep a positive frame of mind despite the desire to still be traveling.

    Reply
  6. megan

    I’m so glad I finally found a name for everything I had been feeling. I lived in Britain for 2 years, came back to Ohio for a year and just got back to Britain. It’s not the same as Central America but I’ had this severe resentment towards America, so much so I had to get out of there again. I’m glad this addresses how to sort of reassimilate and basically let go of the bitterness you almost acquire. So glad to knwo I’m not alone and look forward to properly getting back in touch with American culture when I return. :)

    Reply
  7. Kelly

    Thanks so much for posting this. I was in Costa Rica, right below Nicaragua, although I visited Nicaragua as well. As the cultures are similar, everything that you said resonates with me..

    I’ve been home six months…and am still missing my study abroad times. The beautiful sunsets and wildlife, the laid back lifestyle, the kindness and openness of the Ticos, the beautiful people I met, increased attention from the opposite sex, and the lack of electronics..billboards.. and materialism that is so readily apparent in the U.S. It has made me want to do nothing but either return or join a hippie commune in the center of a forest since I have been back.

    Lately, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about what you mentioned.. taking what you have learned and applying it to life back at home. I recall many of the things that I did there and attempt to apply them to my American life… relishing in the beauty of simplicity, taking the time to relax, living in the moment, appreciating and being in awe of those around you. Why must only a different environment be the trigger of these things? I have been making an effort to recall my abroad mentality and apply it on a daily basis. Take notice of the milky blue skies, the warm hug from your friend, the moments spend sipping tea on the porch in the morning. Doing these things and not letting them get swept away in the fast pace of your American life as well as appreciating the ways that you have changed is a daunting, but rewarding feat…

    Reply
  8. matt

    I have now experienced both this feeling in a foreign country and in the state of Colorado as a native from Los Angeles.

    When I came back from Costa Rica, I couldn’t help but J-walk everywhere I was going……(oops my bad)…

    and after my visit to Colorado, I had a rediscovered appreciation for the racial and cultural diversity of LA just as you mentioned.

    great work, keep trekkin’!

    Reply
  9. Niki

    I’ve been home for six months after living 6.5 years in Asia. I miss Asia immensely. I feel like it is part of my soul and the person I was there (the person I liked being) is stifled in the US. Sometimes I fell like lashing out at people. I feel like my world-view was widened exponentially, while people here are stuck in this backwards time warp.

    I am trying to become re-patriated. I’m going back to school. I have a part-time job. Yet, at some point everyday, I think “This is not my life.” I feel like I am going through the motions for someone else, and the real me is lost somewhere in Asia.

    It constantly weighs on me how long I will have to wait before I can afford to return “home” to Asia. I have to stay in school for two years. Then I will have to work for, likely, another two years in order to reduce my student loan debt to a manageable level. Then I’ll work one more year so I can go back to Asia with money in my pocket. So five years before I can go back.

    Not to say that I am miserable all day, every day. I like my water fitness classes. I’ve mastered making bagels and decent from-scratch spaghetti sauce ( no canned tomatoes). Ibuprofen is available in liqui-gel form everywhere. And I can find clothes in my size.

    Still, what I wouldn’t give for buses and subways. I miss that free time now that I have to drive everywhere.

    Reply
  10. David

    i loved this. i searched on Google to find help with reverse culture shock and this popped up. i will be heading back the U.S. after 2 years in Cambodia. so almost everything that you wrote, i can completely agree with and understand. thank you so much!

    Reply
  11. Shirly Not?

    So you experienced two political murders first hand? No wonder your trip home was so abrupt!

    Reply
  12. Tatevik

    I was also looking for some inspirational piece on reverse cultural sock and stumbled upon Megan’s post.

    After two years of study in the U.S. I am back home to Armenia. I expected to overcome reverse culture shock quickly but I’m still going through a transformation of self after being back for over 6 months. Most of the times I think reverse cultural shock is about viewing how we changed from within and re-evaluating the attitudes towards the world around us. Takes time, patience, love…. more emotions than perhaps reasoning.

    This is a really nice article – I see the sunny side going up :) Thanks also to all who posted their experiences.

    Reply
  13. Flora

    Great piece and great comments, too. I’m dealing with settling back in to life in California after living in Singapore for a year and a half.

    It’s not that things back here have changed, it’s that I’ve changed.

    Reply
  14. Kiri

    The initial culture-shock is part of the fun, part of the reason I travel. I enjoy separating myself from my “reality” and experiencing someone else’s version…. but coming home is HARD. Harder yet when I wasn’t exactly ready to be back…

    Your piece is exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you.

    K =]

    Reply
  15. Alice

    Well, i have a reverse culture shock coming up in 2 months. After 6 years china working in a respectable position speaking the language now and coming to be quite adapted to it. The idea to loose all this seems quite dreadful to me.

    At home i wont have a job, dont really have money, no appartment, no friends and i actually dont like our “culture” very much. To top this in my City there are currently Muslim Extremists Rioting….

    So well, i guess some are in for a harder time then others.

    Alice

    Reply
  16. I’m Going to China! « MissAdventure

    [...] know I’ve only been home for several weeks, and while the most visible effects of reverse culture shock have dissipated (it’s real, folks), I couldn’t help looking into job prospects again. And the [...]

    Reply
  17. Lucas Guimarães

    Hello, Megan!

    My name is Lucas, i’m from Brazil, and i’m developing with some friends an university newspaper here at FEA-USP (University of Sao Paulo’s School of Economics, Business Administration and Accounting). I’ve been writting about Culture and i pretty much liked your article.

    I would like to know a little bit more about your story and difficulties you’ve been through. I think it would be very enriching for our paper.

    What do you think about it?

    Thank you!

    Lucas

    Reply

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