Ever had an incredible adventure in another country only to come back home and struggle to get back into normal life? You might be experiencing reverse culture shock.
15 Sep, 2017
There’s something special and exciting about experiencing a new culture, discovering how other people live and deciding to be fully immersed in the adventure.
Then you arrive and suddenly the reality hits you. Your thoughts swirl from feeling out of your depth--‘This is too much for me’--to shock--‘how can they live in such conditions?’ to guilt— ‘I own way too much stuff’. These thoughts bombard your brain, and suddenly the immersive experience becomes overwhelming and you find yourself back in your hotel room with only your thoughts to keep you company.
My very first encounter with this experience was when I was visiting my family in Southeast Asia. I remember the first time we landed there. I was about 16 years old, and I was lying on dad’s lap, feeling so overwhelmed as I was surrounded by what had to be the filthiest train station I have ever seen. There were rats the size of possums walking along the train tracks covered in human faeces, because toilets on the trains would just be a hole in the floor. I remember looking up at dad and saying, “I want to go home.”
Visiting my cousins, aunties, uncles and basically everyone in the village was an incredible experience; they were all so happy as they came from their mud brick homes wanting to meet the little white kid with a ‘Space Jam’ shirt on (best kid’s movie ever). There was livestock everywhere in this small village of people, but despite all of that it felt like home; it was the strangest feeling.
Returning home, even at the age of 16, I felt so challenged within myself. When I went to school the following week, my friends were talking about their school holidays and how much fun Wonderland in Sydney was (it was a theme park, ah the good old days). But when it was my turn, I was a bit dumbfounded. I found it hard to share what I had just been through. I was trying to tell them how amazing the trip was but how difficult I was finding it to adjust back into 'normal life’. This feeling that no one really understood what I’d experienced was reverse culture shock setting in.
Some of the other signs or feelings of reverse culture shock can include:
- Negativity towards your country’s culture: When I saw how little my family overseas had I was so upset at the amount we waste and how materialistic my own culture can be.
- Feeling isolated: I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about my experience, that no one could relate.
- Changes in goals, attitudes and priorities: I felt challenged to live simply.
- Restlessness: I wanted to keep experiencing new cultures and seeing how others lived.
- Frustration: It disturbed me how my family was living, and I wanted to help.
- Boredom with your daily life back home: It was so exciting to be in another culture that going back home to what seemed a ‘white picket fence life’ was boring.
Last year, I felt the same way after visiting a few homes of children in Compassion’s program in Indonesia and seeing how some of the children live. It was so heartbreaking to see the conditions of this little boy’s home. The whole family shared one room, there was hardly any furniture in the home, and their beds were on the ground. But the joy they had, the way they welcomed us all into their tiny home, it was probably the most challenging thing I remember. The strength of hope they carried and the pride they had as you could see their sponsor’s letters and photos decorating the walls. Each time I returned to my hotel, I felt challenged: I was surrounded by luxury in comparison to what I had just experienced.
Maybe you’ve been in a similar situation? Returning from one of the most incredible experiences you’ve ever had, yet not knowing how to process what you’ve just seen, deal with feelings of guilt, or being frustrated when your experience is met with confusion and disinterest by others.
Well, my friends, I thought I’d share with you six tips on dealing with reverse culture shock.
1. Give thanks
Be thankful for your life and what you have, but also be thankful for others and their lives. Showing deep gratitude gives you an opportunity to humble yourself amidst the situation. As we acknowledge this step, it makes a way for us to give thanks to God for every blessing He has on our lives and the lives of people we met on our journey. Taking this step helps us show love and grace rather than judgement and confusion about our experiences. It’s important to remember, too, that material poverty is just one form of poverty. Many in Australia are surrounded by wealth but don’t have the true riches that come from God.
2. Share your experience
This step is vital to processing your thoughts and emotions. But first you need to understand that people might not want to hear about your journey, and that’s okay. Try and choose one story that gives an insight to your experience. And make sure you find the people in your life that would like to hear your whole journey and don’t hold back. It will absolutely help you to process in a healthy way.
3. Write about your journey
I find that whenever I journal or blog, it declutters my thoughts almost instantly. And the greatest thing is you don’t feel the experience is lost forever; it’s kept somewhere that you can come back to or share with family and friends. Don’t be frightened of the word journaling, it’s good for the soul and to be honest the words you put on the page don’t need to make sense. If you feel at peace afterward, it’s achieved the goal.
4. Don’t forget the people you’ve met
You made some special connections, and met the most interesting people. One of the best things you can do to help process your thoughts and emotions is to keep the conversation going with those people we’ve travelled with or met along the way. Maintaining healthy conversations around the experiences you’ve shared together is really important for effective debriefing and managing culture shock. I remember one time abroad I made a great connection with one of our tour guides, it literally felt like we were brothers from afar. I made sure to get his email address so I could do just this.
5. Keep moving forward
This is one of the hardest parts in the journey of dealing with reverse culture shock: don’t get stuck but keep moving on with your life. Take what you’ve learned from the experience, apply it to your life, and keep moving forward. It’s so easy to get bogged down in the memory of the adventure, and constantly trying to relive these moments in our minds. This is why journaling is a really important step in the process, it helps to encourage you into this step.
6. Start again
Treasure the moments and adventures you’ve just had, share your stories and write about your experiences. But remember we live in a big world covered in lots of culture and adventures just waiting for you to experience them as well. Reverse culture shock isn’t dangerous but knowing how to navigate it can teach you more about yourself and God’s heart for the poor. I am so thankful for my family being dotted around the world as it’s encouraged me to open my eyes and let go of my pride. Honour the adventure you’ve just experienced and look to the future.
Words by Michael Cauchi
Sources: USAC Reverse Culture Shock; Discipleship Journal Issue 135 by Ramon Presson