by Jill Robinson with Greenheart Travel
It was about a week after returning home from a life abroad in Scotland and England that I began to notice a change. I would suddenly panic while driving, second-guessing myself about being in the correct lane; my emotions would roller coaster depending on a certain smell, song or picture, and I grew bored with the Midwest accent. At the time I thought I was losing my mind. The real culprit was reverse culture shock, and I had fallen into a slump that is common among many travelers.
My experience with the shock involved a lot of pacing and agitation. Where were the pubs blaring World Cup soccer matches from their dimly-lit interiors? How would I survive my constant cravings for döner kebabs? How many more times would I accidentally pay with quarters instead of dollars, my mind still stuck on the soothing weight of English pounds?
Reverse culture shock can be just as difficult as the awe of initially finding yourself in a place that speaks another language or boasts a population with millions more than your hometown in Iowa (population 8,000 vs. 7.56 million in London). Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware that this shock existed and struggled for a few weeks at adjusting to life back home.
In preparing for studying abroad or a long-term travel adventure, we find plenty of warnings of the inevitable culture shock we’ll experience. It’s the return home that leaves many of us at a loss. Where are the helpful hints for when the jet-lag wears off and people find your faux accident annoying? It was a lucky find when I discovered Megan Kimble‘s article”How to Embrace Reverse Culture Shock (Sunny Side Up)“. She gives some great advice for the ups and downs of returning home.
One of Megan’s suggestions is to look at things in a new light, and embrace what you took for granted before you left. Another tip was to have a new appreciation for the luxuries of being back home. When one Greenheart Travel staff member returned home from Costa Rica, no longer having “ants in the pants” was definitely not taken for granted.
“I was so used to having to shake my clothes before putting them on to get the ants out. When I came home, I’d do it all the time, sometimes forgetting that it wasn’t a problem and sometimes because I was paranoid that I maybe brought some home with me.”
We travel because cultures offer new experiences, but it’s these differences that cause much of our shock. Having a sense of humor in re-adjusting to life at home is as imperative as laughing off your mistakes when you arrived overseas; it completes the package of the entire journey. When another colleague found herself back in the States after living in Ecuador, there were quite a few moments where her routine in Ecuador didn’t quite match up with Chicago’s and she had to shake it off with a laugh.
“I tried to flag a bus down on Ashland [Avenue] instead of remembering that we have bus stops here, and I ordered my first few coffees at Starbucks in Spanish- they do not know what ‘un café con leche por favor‘ means.”
Getting through the rut that is reverse culture shock takes some time, but it’s also an important learning experience in travel. Returning home with a new outlook and heightened awareness gives us a fresh perspective. Picking up habits and knowledge is why we travel. Understanding and expecting the post-adventure blues is one way to ease back into a routine. Another is to embrace some of the new cultural traditions you have collected along the way.
“I wanted to come back home to the U.S., but at the same time I felt so completely integrated and at home in Cote d’Ivoire,” my colleague said. “It was hard to be back in the U.S. and I felt homesick for Africa. You find balance with that, it just takes time. After living in Cote d’Ivoire, I was really used to eating with my hands, sometimes I still eat with my hands in the privacy of my home.”