Coming home is something that the majority of digital nomads will do, whether it’s for a visit or to repatriate into their home country. The first time I returned home after moving abroad was very disconcerting. Now I know that I was experiencing reverse culture shock.

Ballard neighborhood
Shopping in Ballard. Photo: Where In Washington / weibo

After picking me up from the airport, my friend drove us to Ballard for lunch. Ballard is a hip, Scandinavian-settled neighborhood in Seattle. It seemed as different from Beijing as it was possible to get. Streets in the city were huge and (relatively) empty. Stores were Pinterest worthy samey-samey. Everyone was so dang white.

Lunch Isn’t Just Lunch

The simple act of eating lunch was a yo yo of feelings. I can read the menu! Why is everything so expensive? Craft cocktails and gourmet pizza, get in my belly! Understanding all of the surrounding conversations is distracting and disorienting. America is the best! I miss China, why did I come home?

So, What is Reverse Culture Shock?

Reverse culture shock is often not discussed and not prepared for by expatriates who return home to visit or permanently reenter their home country. However, symptoms are severe enough that the US Department of State provides information and resources for their foreign affairs workers. Reverse culture shock  is when an expat has difficulty readjusting to their home country. It can actually be emotionally harder than the initial culture shock.

Home is meant to be familiar and comfortable. What happens when it doesn’t feel as familiar and comfortable as before? When you’ve changed so much and people back home haven’t changed? Or they have also changed, but in a direction that made your relationship more distant than it was before you left?

Honeymoon

Expect to go through several emotional stages upon coming home. Feelings of love and euphoria come first. In many ways, navigating life at home is easier than navigating life abroad. Catching up with friends and family, checking out new restaurants, and being reunited with almost forgotten possessions feels great. Depending on personality and circumstance, the honeymoon stage may quickly or slowly give way to crisis.

Hutongs in Beijing combine old world style with hip bars, cafes and shopping
I still find myself “homesick” for Beijing. Photo: Anna

Crisis

Symptoms and severity of reverse culture shock are unique for each person, but there are trends of experienced difficulties. Expect to run into one or more of the following:

  • Lack of Audience for Sharing Experiences

The main issue I heard when working with a group of 40+ other expats in China, and then running a hostel in the Philippines, was that going home was hard because there was so much to share but no one wanted to hear about it. Experiences that were exciting, difficult, life-changing were brushed aside by loved ones* in order to discuss the latest home town gossip.

  • Homesickness for Foreign Home

It’s easy to romanticize past experiences. It’s even easier when that experience was foreign. Expats often have a more critical view of systems and values in their home country when they return. They’ve learned that their way isn’t the only way — and patience for people with a more “limited” world view can be in short supply. Struggles with materialism and familial disconnectedness are two of the most common complaints of westerners returning from a non-western country.

  • Alienation

Returnees can feel like they no longer “fit” in their home. Relationships that were once easy and natural have changed. Misunderstandings from communication style and values differences arise. Life at home can seem very fast-paced compared to life abroad, causing feelings of being left-behind or separate from daily flow.

“those who expect and prepare for the stresses encountered during the crisis period are able to recover and adjust more quickly”

This list is not comprehensive. Other issues can, and do, arise. Depression, irritability, and hostility present themselves as expats wrestle with reconciling who they are now with their changed view of home. Typically, those who expect and prepare for the stresses encountered during the crisis period are able to recover and adjust more quickly than their counterparts.

Recovery

As time passes it’s easier to process and cope with changed perceptions and expectations. The memory of the foreign home becomes less raw. Imperfections in the home country become less glaring. Day to day tasks take less effort.

After living in a province in the Philippines for months I came home for a two month holiday visit. Trying to shop in a Fred Meyer was overwhelming. Recovery, for me, was going from “Everyone is so rich, but they don’t know it. They’re so spoiled. American materialism is killing the world.” to “It’s interesting that there are 20 types of ketchup for sale. I hadn’t noticed that before. It’s  unnecessary and there is a negative side to such flagrant capitalism. However, it’s also nice that our country is doing well enough that most people take it for granted that they can buy their favorite type of ketchup.”

During recovery, thoughts and emotions are still working overtime. The process of familiarizing oneself with home is in progress. Thought and emotion are still put into routine acts, but less so than during the crisis period.

Deception Pass Bridge, Oak Harbor, Whidbey Island
My appreciation for the beauty of my home, Whidbey Island, has grown since spending time abroad. Photo: Anna

Adjustment

A new established routine is a big marker of adjustment. Energy levels return to normal as exhaustion that can accompany reverse culture shock is gone. Expats are able to have a balanced perspective on time abroad and realize that each country has it’s pros and cons. They have retained the new critical lens through which they can view their home country, but appreciate aspects of the culture and lifestyle.

Preparation

Understanding reverse culture shocks and taking steps to prepare for it can smooth the transition back home significantly. Before leaving your foreign home try to get closure. Collect physical tokens for remembrance. Visit favorite places and people one last time before you leave to say good-bye. Journal about your experiences there. What did you learn? What did you love? Struggle with? What excites you about going home?

Once you’re home, finding an outlet to connect with other travelers and share experiences is a great support during the transition. Some ideas are writing a blog, hosting couch surfers, or participating in a meet up group.

General stress and anxiety coping methods assist with the depression, irritability, and hostility, experienced during reverse culture shock. These include: a healthy diet, exercise, meditation, goal-setting, and journaling.

*This is not the case for everyone. A huge shout-out to my family and friends for being attentive and curious listeners. If you’re the friend or family of someone returning from abroad please know that taking even 10 minutes to show interest in what they’ve been through can make a significant impact in how their experience is when coming home.

  1. We experienced this many times returning to the states from living in Germany for years. Our daughter had s tough transition to college after growing up in Germany. No one at all who could relate to her experiences or places traveled. I can remember standing on the grocery store paralyzed trying to choose shampoo. The number of choices were overwhelming. This is a great article Anna.

    1. Hi Candi,

      Thank you for the compliment and for sharing your experiences. I think the internet is a big advantage to travelers now — it’s easier to find other people to relate to.

  2. Reverse culture shock is so real! Anyone who has traveled for a long time knows how much harder it is to re-adapt to home than to continually adjust to the new places we see on the road. It’s good to see that this is a shared experience, so it doesn’t feel as lonely!

  3. This was an awesome and reassuring read!

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