Coming to Terms with Reverse Culture Shock
No one ever talks about it. How was I supposed to know it was happening to me? I’ve always felt out of place and alone, but there was something different about this. This was crushing, nearly debilitating. This made me sit at my computer while I attempted to write, something that had always been therapeutic for me, and gaze into nothingness while my fingers rested still on the keys. This was ‘reverse culture shock’.
I had never heard of reverse culture shock until my mom gave me a Lonely Planet guide to volunteering internationally. I had just returned home from a two-year stint volunteering overseas, and was quietly struggling with the adjustment. While casually flipping through the book hoping to see amazing photos of exotic destinations, I came upon a chapter about this very serious, very common but not very well-known condition.
After two solid years of traveling, I hit a wall. I had been traveling internationally as a marine conservation volunteer; globe-trotting with a carefree passion, meeting foreign people in intoxicating lands, discovering new ways of life, learning about cultures I had read about in National Geographic as a little girl, all the while volunteering for a cause I was very passionate about. I was living; I felt alive. But eventually, I became tired. I was tired of sleeping on couches, tired of saying goodbye to people I had come to love deeply in such a short amount of time, and tired of being so alone, yet always surrounded by people.
How was I to explain what I had experienced to someone who hadn’t had the same, or similar, experiences? I didn’t. I couldn’t. How could I convey the wonders of Italian history or the harrowing sorrow of seeing Libyan refugees on rafts afloat in the Mediterranean?
So I decided to move home to Bellingham, Washington State, and attempt to conform to the societal norms of a woman in her early thirties. As is common with any honeymoon phase, I was blissfully in love with life, with being home and surrounded by my friends. Yet as time went on and the novelty of being stationary wore thin, I realized that I was struggling to connect with the people I had always known, the people I had known in the life I lived before I started traveling. How was I to explain what I had experienced to someone who hadn’t had the same, or similar, experiences? I didn’t. I couldn’t.
How could I convey the wonders of Italian history or the harrowing sorrow of seeing Libyan refugees on rafts afloat in the Mediterranean? How could I put into words the paralyzing horror of standing at the Cove watching the ocean turn red with dolphin blood (as depicted in the documentary, The Cove)? I didn’t. I couldn’t. I kept it inside and hid the fact that I could still hear dolphins crying in my mind every second of every day. I denied my PTSD, smiled through the internal pain and wondered what was so terribly wrong with me that I could no longer connect with the people I loved most. I couldn’t share the magic and romance of walking hand-in-hand with a man I loved through cobblestone alleyways in Barcelona while he sang to me because, really, how could I find the appropriate words for something like that? I couldn’t share the soul-touching charm of living in Japan, which has a beauty that can only be known through experience.
When I moved home, I became painfully aware that when I would share my stories of adventure and travel, people were either ambivalent, jealous or were so intrigued that they claimed I was living the life of their dreams and treated me like a demi-god. I strive to advocate that it’s possible for anyone to live the life of their dreams. And while I’ll admit that my life did seem romantic, and often was, I also felt heavily burdened by the challenges I’d faced. I had sacrificed a great deal to become an international volunteer: I gave up my financial stability and my marriage. Although I feel that it was worth it, I also felt so very alone, all the time.
Once I realized how much of a struggle being home was, I learned to hide the crushing, life-sucking feelings that were happening inside me. I hid the tears and the sorrow, the longing for the beautiful world, because I couldn’t properly convey what I was feeling without sounding like I was desperate to escape the stable life that I had chosen to return to. Yet everything in my life was so frustratingly unfamiliar: I would forget which side of the road I was meant to drive on, which currency was in my wallet, whether I was supposed to greet someone with a handshake, a hug, a kiss on the cheek or a bow. The things that had always been so easy and familiar were now monumentally difficult.
Eventually, I integrated back into the community and those feelings of confusion subsided, if only a little. The longing, craving and overwhelming desire to witness foreign lands, however, has never ebbed. Nor will it ever, I don’t think. Once you experience the world, you can never forget it.
When I would share my stories of adventure and travel, people were either ambivalent, jealous or were so intrigued that they claimed I was living the life of their dreams and treated me like a demi-god
Reverse culture shock is very real, and my research shows that it’s more devastating than culture shock because you come home to a place you loved, to the people you loved, and realize that everything has changed. You’ve changed. My time overseas reprogrammed my entire being; my soul was awakened by the experiences I had and it was now impossible to be satisfied with a fortnightly paycheck, a sports-shifting Subaru and a downtown apartment. My tolerance for mindless submission to the American Dream was now non-existent. Those first years being home were the most challenging of my life, and yet knowing that there’s a wide, magical world out there waiting to reveal its secrets when I’m ready for them again gives me the hope that I need to keep going. This world is stunning, and reverse culture shock, while a very difficult thing to experience, is something that should not be allowed to ever tamper your wanderlust.