Going back home, in your country, in your city, after a long trip is not as easy as it looks. Very often, we talk about how hard it is to quit your job, leave everything behind and travel the world. It’s true, the hardest part when it comes to long-term travel is actually leaving your hometown to explore the world. But we talk a lot less about how hard it is to go back home after traveling for a long time. The culture shock after long-term traveling is also called the reverse culture shock.
What is the reverse culture shock?
We’ve all heard about the culture shock. You’re going to an exotic place (according to your standards), and it’s a real shock! Everything is sooo different than your usual environment, from your habits (people, the food, the way of living…). You’re shocked, you feel like you’re getting a slap in the face, and you quickly realize immersing yourself in this new culture won’t be easy. The most glaring example is India, where numerous Westerners suffer from the culture shock. The France embassy in India is one of the very few in the world to have a psychological support unit. It happens in India and, to a lesser extent, in Japan.
So what about the reverse culture shock? Quite simply, it’s the difficulty to reintegrate in your own country, your own culture, after spending a long time abroad. It can be after traveling for a long time, but also after working abroad for several years. This is not a myth, the reverse culture shock does exist. But… Isn’t it weird!? We should be happy to go back home, to see our friends and relatives, to pick up your old hobbies… It’s not that simple.
Why does the reverse culture shock exist?
When you spend a lot of time traveling, you discover a new feeling of freedom, with no constraints at all. You always meet new people, you explore new places but above all you do what you want to. You get up whenver you like it, you eat what you want to, you go to the bar if you want to, you stay home if you don’t feel like going out. When you go back to your home country, to your hometown, you feel like you go back to a dull, sedentary, monotous, boring life. Inevitably, the transition is complicated.
How long does the reverse culture shock last?
After going back home, some people are holding up better than other ones. There’s no specific length, it depends on the people. It usually lasts a few weeks but sometimes it can take several months. As I said, the reverse culture shock does exist, I also fell victim to it. I went back to Paris and I had to get used to the Parisian fast pace of life again, people always sulking, the hustle and bustle… Things I didn’t notice before were now blindingly obvious “Everybody’s smoking here, it’s insane!” “Holy shit, living in Paris is expensive!!!” “Why are they all sulking? It feels like the Parisians are only happy when it’s time to go the bar, in the evening after a long day of work!” “Why is everything closed on Sundays???“
Getting used to your old environment again
Hearing people speak French around me was destabilizing for quite some time, I wasn’t used to it anymore. I also kept a few habits I had during my travels for several weeks. My rucksack was always in front of me. I was apologizing when I was paying something costing two euros with a 10 euros bill. In poor countries, it sometimes means for the seller having to run around the whole neighborhood to get some change.
I wasn’t used to have the internet outside on my phone anymore, and for several days, just the way I did on the road, I was checking a lot of things on the internet (with my phone) before leaving home. Like in Japan, I used to bow to greet someone. Oh and the security guys following me around in the stores, I didn’t miss it at all, and it happened just a few days after my return back home!
People around you don’t always understand you. I didn’t have any problems regarding this, but it happens. You still have the travel itch and wish you were on the road, you’re yearning to leave again, meet new people, explore new cities, try new dishes. People around you not necessarily understand you, you should be happy to be back home!
The stages of reverse culture shock
There are actually several stages during the reverse culture shock. It doesn’t occur right after going back home from a long trip. The first few days following your return after traveling are magic. You’re this shiny little thing everyone wants to see, you’re like a star! You’re bombarded with questions (often the same ones) “Did you like it?” “What’s your favorite country?” “Have you ever felt unsafe?” “What are you going to do now?” You see your friends again, you rediscover the local food, the Western comforts of home…
After a few weeks, and after seeing my friends again, rediscovering the same bars/restaurants I used to go to, you realize nothing really changed. Your friends have the same jobs, go to the same bars, live in the same places, and do the same things. I felt like my friends were going out less than before my trip but other than that, they were the exact same people I had left when I started traveling.
The Parisian vibe hadn’t changed. I remembered bars and restaurants names, but I was unable to say where they were located. Or I had a specific place in mind, but couldn’t remember the name! It was weird! Otherwise, apart from one or two babies and a wedding when I was away, everything was the same, as if time stood still during my trip, as if home had remained frozen during my time away.
After the first stage of euphoria, the reverse culture shock takes over. A few details looking insignificant before are now acutely annoying you (the cost of life, the fast pace of life, etc…). You feel boredom and isolation engulfing you, also a little bit of frustation. Sometimes you feel confused, different, out of place. At the same time, you also start to feel nostalgia “I had so much fun…” That’s probably the worst stage of reverse culture shock. During that stage, a friend told me “You often have your head in the clouds…“
Actually, nothing changed. You’re not realizing it, but you’re the one who evolved, intellectually and personally. I’m gonna quote Benjamin Button “It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed, is you“
During that stage, you also realize some friends have little interest in listening to your stories. They listen first, but at some point you see their eyes glazing over. They’re not listening anymore. You’re ready to talk about your travels for hours but the subject is quickly put aside. “Ok for the general outline, but the details we don’t care!” You learn to keep your mouth shut and don’t bother people with your travel stories. Yeah, why would they listen to my time backpacking Southeast Asia while they were packed in the subway like sardines in a can?
You just have to understand some people cannot relate to your adventures, and they just don’t know what to say. Some people can be a bit jealous, others are simply not interested. That’s when you realize it’s harder to come back, than to leave! A real reverse culture shock!
Indeed, you changed! Not your city, nor your friends, but you! Someone told me about a girl who took a gap year to travel the world. She went back home from her long trip on a Saturday, and she went back to work on Monday, two days later! Back to square one! She went berserk, which is understandable! The shock was probably a lot more violent for her!
Slowly, after the nostalgic stage, you finally accept your destiny and move on with your life. As I said earlier, this “readjusting time” varies depending on the people, but we often say it lasts a few weeks. You finally get to see the good sides of being home. It’s cool to be with your loved ones, you’re not constantly moving around, you’re not always responding to the same damn questions all long-term travelers hate “Where are you from?” “Where are you going next?” “How long have you been on the road?“. You have the opportunity to rediscover your city and its new places (restaurants…). You recharge your batteries, because let’s face it, we’re tired after a long-term trip.
The post-travel depression is not a myth, all the people who hit the road for a long time have been through it. Regarding the reverse culture shock, we often talk about a U-shaped curve. At first you love going back home, seeing your friends, etc… Then you hit rock bottom. After some time, you feel better. How to deal with it?
How to deal with reverse culture shock?
- Before going back home, get prepared psychologically, call your friends and family, and announce you’re coming home soon!
- You have to quickly resume a routine, in order to avoid having a breakdown
- Take some time to enjoy the things you missed while you were away (for me, it was the food!)
- Accept the fact that you’re the one who changed, not your friends and relatives
- Don’t constantly compare your home country with the ones you visited, only noticing the worst parts of being home and the best parts of being abroad
- Try to stay in touch with your new friends, the ones you met on the road!
- Meet and talk with people who’ve been through it. You’ll find those people easily at Couchsurfing events, they take place all over the world. Meetup is a good website, too!
- Rediscover your city. Take some time to go to the restaurants that serve food from the countries you visited. It feels like traveling… without leaving home! And it brings back memories
- Set a new life goal! It can be anything like finding a new job, saving money to hit the road again, learning a new language, writing a book… Having a specific goal will help you move forward!
With all those tips, you should be able to deal with reverse culture shock quite smoothly! Have you traveled for a long time, and suffered from the reverse culture shock when going back home? Let me know in the comments!