Reverse Culture Shock Survivor: Settling In, Five Years On

It’ll soon be five years since I returned home after six years of teaching English, traveling widely and living in three different non-English-speaking countries. The bad news is that I still suffer from reverse culture shock sometimes; the good news is that I’m generally okay, okay enough to label myself a reverse culture shock survivor!

If you’re in a similar situation to me, I hope that I can share some tips that’ll help you also get over the shock of returning to what some might call “normal life” after an extended time enjoying the excitement of travel.

What Is Reverse Culture Shock All About?

A few years back, I wrote about the symptoms of reverse culture shock. After six years travelling through some 40 countries and living in Japan, Slovakia and Germany, moving back to my hometown of Perth, Western Australia, hit hard. For a start, almost nobody was interested in hearing about what I’d done or where I’d been — I soon learnt that was normal.

My hometown suddenly seemed incredibly banal, and I wondered what on earth I would do for fun. My much-expanded tolerance for other cultures, languages and ideas didn’t seem to have a place amongst everyday conversations here. A few people I knew even showed some ugly moments of jealousy and irritation if I mentioned anything about my travels. And, living in the most isolated city in the world, I did wonder if I’d ever get the chance to travel as much as I knew I wanted to.


Lost in the Bamboo Forest Trail in Kyoto, Japan © Agustin Rafael Reyes

Settling Back In After Years Away

Without wanting to dishearten anyone who’s just arrived home, I have to tell you it took me several years to really get over this reverse culture shock — and that’s despite having close to ideal conditions for doing so, since I both lived with a foreigner (my German husband) and taught them (as an ESL teacher) so I had regular daily interaction with other cultures, something that had become really important to me while traveling.

However, I tried my hardest to be proactive about tackling my reverse culture shock. A few of the strategies I used which definitely helped me settle in back home without missing my life abroad too much included:

  • Keeping in touch with my friends overseas and encouraging visitors. Despite Perth’s isolation I’ve had numerous nationalities walk through my front door, and I’ve spent plenty of time chatting and emailing my old students and ex-colleagues from my time abroad, as well as keeping track of the fellow travelers I met. While people used to email me sometimes when I lived overseas and tell me they were traveling vicariously through me, I let it become my turn to be excited by the journeys others were making. And maybe just a tiny bit jealous!
  • Getting involved with anything multicultural that I could. I’ve been to Peruvian dancing nights and Korean food evenings and seen films and documentaries from every corner of the planet. I’ve had parties where our best Colombian friend chatted in who knows what kind of pidgin English to my German father-in-law; I’ve had traditional meals cooked by Kazakh, Japanese and Brazilian friends.
  • Making a big production out of a small trip. Without the flexibility to head overseas on a long, rambling journey, I’ve made the most out of shorter domestic trips by finding unusual parts of Australia to visit, and doing plenty of reading and dreaming before we went. When I picked up cheap flights to Adelaide, everyone insisted we chill out with wine in the Barossa Valley, but instead we hired a camper and explored the incredible Flinders Ranges. A short trip like that goes a long way to recharging my travel deficit.
  • Helping out friends with travel planning. I’m the go-to girl these days for anyone who’s planning a trip: Where should I stay if I go there? Do you think three weeks is too short? Where’s the best place for a white Christmas? I get all the questions and I adore answering them — complete with handy links and copious suggestions on matters beyond the question itself! I’ve found that using my knowledge and experience to help others have a great trip is almost as good as taking the trip myself. Almost.


Walking the Beach in Hormozgan, Iran © Hamed Saber

You’ll Never Be the Same (But That’s Not So Bad)

When I first moved back home, I often felt completely out of the loop in conversations with friends or colleagues because I’d missed a big chunk of pop culture. If you live or travel abroad for an extended period of time — especially in non-English-speaking countries, I discovered — you won’t have a clue about the recent successful bands, singers, TV shows, movies, celebrities, and sometimes not even about basic news items that don’t make it across the border. I’ve stopped being frustrated by this — even if they take up a lot of conversation time, these things are usually pretty trivial — and remind myself of all the other great experiences that are stored in my memory bank instead!

There are a multitude of other ways in which you’ll never be the same again — and the hometown you’ve come back to will never be the same for you, either — but different’s okay, too! So basically, the rule seems to be: if you travel long term, you’ll change, and you’ll have to change how you think about your hometown or home country, if you decide to return there.

I’ve found plenty of ways to feel happy about being home again — not happy enough to never travel again, but happy enough that those initial awful pains of reverse culture shock have gone away. So take heart, take charge and stop those reverse culture shock symptoms from ruining all the positives about being home.

18 Responses

  1. Michelle

    It’s so fantastic to hear other people so perfectly expressing the way that I am feeling! The transition from world traveler to stay-at-home mom has been a 4 year struggle for me, but I’ve done exactly what you’ve expressed has worked for you. In Utah, US, now, my family and I have explored every nook and cranny and very rarely is it the tourist highlights. And nothing on earth makes me happier than helping someone plan a trip and then watching them actually get out there and experience something new. That’s what I grasp onto while I wait for my next big trip to come.

    Reply
  2. Nicole Kane

    Hey Amanda,
    I always love to read your blogs and writings, so keep doing it :) Even though u may wonder does anyone read these, I do lol

    A friend came back from student exchange in germany (fellow smags girl – she’ll know who she is if reading this) – and after 12 month away seemed she didn’t want to be home. Some friends took this personally and thought she might be so excited to be back but to us it seems she was totally bummed at being back in sleepy perth after her many adventures. I think she had exactly what you just wrote about!

    I get this after 3 weeks in Bali , the ho hum of coming home- I thankgod I can get on a plane now and then….travelling is such a fantastic thing.

    Reply
  3. wandering educators

    i love this – and our town is even smaller (pop 800)…no korean night here. we also watch tons of international movies, cook international food, and of course, plan our next trip! GREAT article.

    Reply
  4. Amanda Kendle

    @ Michelle, you’re getting me interested in Utah now! (It’s far, far from here though …) and it’s great that you also like helping people plan trips – it sure helps me.

    @ wandering educators – I’m impressed that you do all this in a town of 800 – well done. I’m not sure how I’d cope with that!

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  5. Amanda Kendle

    @ Nicole, thanks for reading – and yes I know exactly who you’re talking about, she left a comment somewhere telling me she’s *still* suffering from reverse culture shock so you’re spot on :-) Travelling is fantastic but it definitely changes you and your perspective.

    Reply
  6. Peter Schott

    Great article – I lived overseas in the Dominican Republic for 5 years, also spent a semester abroad in Malta during college. The absolute worst time for me was about 4 months after coming home to about 2 years post-return. The toughest part for me is the negative reactions or disinterest from people when you tell them about your experiences…there are some people who flat out don’t want to hear about it..others get a glazed look over their eyes, smile/nod but don’t listen. My wife is from Dominican Republic and she experiences the same thing when she goes home to visit…I guess reverse culture shock and the reactions of others are truly universal experiences no matter what culture we come from…

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  7. Mikey

    I know exactly what you mean about how the people you know react when you return home.

    I live in Brisbane and I was shocked that when I returned after 6 months going walkabout in Russia and NE Europe, very few people actually wanted to know anything about my trip. I’d have a few polite questions, however most people only wanted what I call ‘clip art’ answers and normally started a conversation with “You must be glad to be back”.

    P

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  8. Amanda Kendle

    @ Peter, glad you enjoyed it, I can totally relate to those negative reactions and glazed looks, it’s so sad, isn’t it? I always make an extra special effort to show heaps of interest (and it’s genuine, anyway) in other people’s travels. Sad too that it’s universal but I think you’re right about that …

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  9. Sascha

    Oh dear how right this is! “Never be the same again”. Since I first set feet on Australian soil I’ve never beent the same again and travelled since then. Many people can’t understand how one could not want to have “normal” life. But the travel bug won’t go away. And it could be worse.

    And yes, what I really hate are those questions: “Don’t you miss home? ” or “I could not do that”….

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  10. Nicole

    Great article – I can definitely relate! Going home to Melbourne each year and no one being particularly interested in all of the places I’ve been can make me frustrated, but I guess a lot of people who haven’t travelled can find it hard to relate to this life of wandering. Hopefully the more travel we do will convince them to get out there and try it for themselves!

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  11. Amanda Kendle

    @ Sascha, yes you really have to ignore some of those dumb questions, don’t you!

    @ Nicole, you’re right, I guess people can’t relate, but I’m always surprised, I always feel like travel is a universal enough theme that people might have one or two questions … apparently (often) not!

    Reply
  12. Ann

    Almost 7 years after 1 year abroad, I still get itchy travel feet and want to hop on a plane to anywhere. It is really difficult for my friends to understand, but lucky for me they’ve never known me a different way.

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  13. Donna

    This article was such a comfort to me. We moved back to the States 5 months ago after 3 years in Japan. I didn’t expect to feel the way I’m feeling. Americans seem so hurried and superficial and they don’t really seem to care about anything international. I miss traveling overseas and find life here to be really tame. I like the ideas for being able to talk about my travels. It always seems to get people’s attention when I tell them I was in Japan for the March 11th, 2011 disaster!

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  14. Christine

    After living abroad for a while, I wonder if would ever feel at home again? Lately all I can think about is traveling again :( In one hand, I like my country I want to settle down here, have my own family, finish my major at university have a “normal life” But in the other hand, I cant be bother, my country doesn’t feel like home anymore, I am not the same, I cant stand some cultural things that used to be normal for me! Sometimes I feel like my body came back to my country but my soul is still abroad, and my mind still traveling visiting all those wonderful places that I saw.
    I really didn’t felt at home while i was living abroad, but I don’t feel at home that I am back neither.
    Idk what do I am going to do if i don’t get the chance to live abroad again I want to leave, but If i leave wouldn’t that make things worst? I am afraid that if I leave I will became addicted to this life style and I wont feel at home anywhere :O :O :O

    Reply

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