Change Yourself…Change The World.

A Post On Coming Home- Reverse Culture Shock
December 21, 2009, 3:02 am
Filed under: Travel Tip, USA

Dear friends,

As I’m about a month behind on my South American stories (I have yet to talk about Chile, Peru, and post pictures of these places and Argentina), I thought now would be as good of a time as any to give a bit of a travel advice post on dealing with Reverse Culture Shock.

First off, some of you novel travelers out there might ask what ‘culture shock’ means, before even questioning ‘reverse culture shock.’ Culture shock, as I’ve aptly described in this post about Paraguay (where I experienced a bit of culture shock myself), is when a traveler first enters a foreign country that is very different from their own, and has sudden feelings of isolation, discomfort, depression, tiredness, nervousness, fear, and other such emotions. These can range from merely uncomfortable to very intense.

REVERSE culture shock is after you have BEEN in a foreign country (or more than one) for a period of time and have adjusted to the food, language, customs, and culture- and then you come BACK to your original country. When you come back to your home country and experience feelings of isolation, discomfort, depression, tiredness, nervousness, fear, etc.- this is reverse culture shock.

Some novel travelers may question why or how someone could feel reverse culture shock. Haven’t we lived in our home country our whole lives and are accustomed to our own culture, food, and customs? Yes. However, it is after being OUTSIDE of this home country and completely expanding our minds to fit in other cultures, languages, and customs, that we see our own country and culture in a different light. ‘Coming home’ can be challenging in many ways because a traveler may have grown accustomed to a different style of living, only to be up-ended yet again- even if our culture is the same as before. It is especially intense if a traveler comes from a developing country where they don’t have modern conveniences, to suddenly being back in the developed world.

I have experienced reverse culture shock four times now- (once from India, once from Thailand, once from Bangladesh, and once from South America). the first time I came home, from India in Spring of 2008, was the most intense. I had been living with a homestay family in India where I had lived in a two bedroom house with six people, using a squat toilet, taking bucket baths, eating completely different and varied food, and living out of a backpack. I remember coming home and absolutely freaking out over a shower, and I marveled at how much water I was wasting. I felt severely uncomfortable using a Western toilet, and I remember the first time I got back to the United States how strange I felt about using toilet paper. From eating rice and dahl back to heavy US food like pasta, was really difficult to handle on my stomach. I remember one night ordering pizza, eating about three slices, and then throwing it up all over the pavement outside of my apartment because I felt so overwhelmed with being back in the United States that I couldn’t even stomach it.

What’s more difficult are those who have NOT had the same experiences as you (such as family members, roommates, and/or friends), who don’t understand how difficult of a transition reverse culture shock is.

So, how to counter reverse culture shock? After my fourth experience with reverse culture shock in the past two years, I think I’ve gotten down a decent method. Here are five steps to counter reverse culture shock:

1) Jet lag. Don’t let it get to you. Whether you’ve been halfway around the world on a different time schedule, you MUST go to sleep on the same time schedule in your home country, even if you’re dead tired and have to wait all day to go to sleep. This is the first and most important step.

2) It is OKAY to take time to marvel at the luxurious things that you hadn’t had when you were traveling. When I used to come home, I would feel an immeasurable sense of guilt that I had a hot shower, soft toilet paper, and an air-conditioned house. I’ve realized that feeling guilt does nothing except exacerbate reverse culture shock. Also be patient with yourself, as these things take time to get used to, and don’t feel guilty when you become accustomed to them again.

3) When I used to come home, I would throw all of my bags and packages in one corner of my room and let it sit there for days, not bringing myself to unpack. Just as I posted before that a step to counter culture shock is to ‘settle in,’ it is equally important to ‘settle in’ when you have reverse culture shock. I’ve found that things become a lot easier when I’ve unpacked and put everything away within the first day or two of coming home.

4) Be upfront with those around you on how you’re feeling. My family and friends would get angry with me when I would come home and sulk- this made them feel like I didn’t want to be around them or be home. To just be honest and say that you’re going through a difficult time and that you need some space at least gives them the message that it’s nothing personal against them. Another good tip is to not push new things you have learned onto friends and/or family. For example, I couldn’t believe how much food my family and friends waste in the United States after being in India for three months. When I got back to the US, I started to always eat EVERYTHING on my plate in order to counter food wastefulness, and encouraged my family to do the same. This made them feel annoyed that I was suddenly judging them for something that I had once done the same. It’s hard to remember that others haven’t had the same experiences at you or seen the same things, but don’t push new ideas and/or expectations on people that aren’t receptive to them.

5) Whenever I come home, I suddenly find myself with oodles of time that I hadn’t had while traveling, and I’m not quite sure what to do with that time. I like to come home and do projects to keep myself busy. For example, I have been cleaning and simplifying my room for the past two years since I started traveling. Every time I’ve come home I’ve gotten rid of more and more things in my room, whether donating them to Good Will, giving things away to friends and family, or selling things. Right now I am in the process of scanning and uploading a ton of documents onto my computer to make more space in my room. Setting little goals for yourself is a good way to keep yourself busy.

All of these little things have made adjustment back to the United States much easier for me every time I come home. While reverse culture shock is difficult and it takes time to acclimate back to your old life, I hope that these tips are helpful.

Of course, the best tip I can give is when you get back home, start planning your next adventure!

Best of luck fellow travelers and until next time,


4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Thanks for your feedback and great information. Not enough training and attention is given to reverse cultural shock. Friends and family won’t understand. When I came back from West Pokot Kenya and Sudenese relief camp I felt overwhelmed by California and took me a couple of months to reorient. Sadness, depression, disbelief, intense feelings. Maybe even anger. I was surprised that I cried several times. Melatonin is my favorite sleep supplement to adjusting to different sleep patterns.

Comment by Rod

Thanks for reading Rod! I totally understand how you feel. Reverse Culture Shock is actually incredibly difficult and I don’t think that people give it enough justice. I remember the first time I came back from India after living with a family for six weeks who had absolutely NOTHING, I absolutely flipped out being back in the land of modern conveniences. I definitely understand on some level how you felt. Thanks for the tip on Melatonin, I’ll look into it when I travel next time.

Comment by brittanygoesglobal

Great post Brittany!I’m currently undergoing the reverse culture shock after returning home from the UK (my home country is Trinidad and Tobago). I’ve been home over a week now and my bags are still unpacked. Will certainly take your advice, as I need to get up and get going on with my life.

Comment by Diana

Thanks Diana- best of luck, I know it is tough!

Comment by brittanygoesglobal

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