Thursday, February 26, 2015

Reverse Culture Shock- What No One Tells You

Living overseas for any amount of time has its challenges and its rewards. You know that you are in for culture shock when you move overseas. What you don't know, is that coming home the reverse culture shock will be equally as challenging if not more challenging as the initiaul culture shock you experienced.

 Reverse Culture Shock- What No One Tells You

 1. When you first leave home to live in another country, you have a base reference point. That place where you feel all the customs and foods are normal and predictable. You know what is comfortable and the things you like. After you have gone through culture shock and experienced the fullness of its five stages, (see more here) you reach the independence stage in the new culture. You see the new culture in a realistic light. However, your tastes have changed along the way and your thinking has become more culturally integrated. I would argue that your entire base reference point has changed. You no longer have a base from which to process everything; everything needs to be digested on its own. You no longer simply accept status quo, because you have learned how to integrate different cultures and customs into your worldview. This is a good thing, and it should be celebrated. However, it can also be incredibly isolating. Your reasons and rationale don't so easily match up with your families' and friends' as they used to, and when you return home, you discover this difference quickly. 

2. When you live in another country, you put on hold some "American dreams" you had wanted to achieve. The house, the spouse, the start of a retirement account, the career. Many people sacrifice one or all of these things when they live overseas. No one ever tells you that when you return, you will feel perpetually behind for at least the first 4 years if not longer. You are playing catch up. It is hard not to look with envy at what your peers have achieved. You have to continually remind yourself of what you gained instead of what you lost.

 3. Another challenging thing about reverse culture shock is you forget the cultural norms in your home culture. In fact, I remember my first social experiences re-entering the US more vividly than I remember my first social experiences in China. The re-entering social setting was a murder mystery meal. Wearing the costume helped me feel less out of place since everyone was pretending to be someone they were not. Only I was pretending to be someone else pretending to be someone else. I tried really hard to fit in. I watched others for social cues; I didn't want people to know that I had just breezed in from Asia and had no idea what the social norms were here in Minnesota. My first few months I continued to ask people how much money they made and how old they were. I felt awkward. . . a lot.

Since returning from China I still cannot remember what is the social norm for opening gifts in America. Do you open the present right away or wait until the person leaves? Should you give a small gift or a large one? Is it okay to give money or is it considered to be unthoughtful and impersonal. For the life of me, I cannot remember.

 Dealing with Culture Shock:

 Each person deals with the culture shock in different ways. Some of my friends have dealt with this reverse future shock by seeing a counselor to help them deal with re-entry and reverse culture shock. Other people have dived into similar ministries as they were doing overseas here in the states. Still others have since returned to the country they left, feeling more at home there than in their home country.

The way that I have dealt with reverse culture shock is to stuff it down and keep busy. My husband recently asked me why I haven't shared more of those experiences with him. The truth is that I can hardly share without feeling a deep longing for China, for my friends, for the culture, and the people I left. It is crippling to live in longing for another place, so I try to forget and create my own reality. It has worked in that it has allowed me to be here in the US, but it has also left a deep sadness within me that I have only recently started to pay attention to. I don't know what to do with it, but writing about is helping it come to light.

What about you? How have you death with culture shock or reverse culture shock? Are there any helpful resources out there for people like me?


Rachel Addington said...


I think there are some positive things about culture shock and reverse culture shock. I've realized that though I feel homeless, unsettled, misfit, 'behind' as you have said -- I belong to God. He is my home. I'm settled in him. I fit with him. I am rich and even 'ahead' in the the kind of capital that he is counting.

This doesn't help much with practical living as a reverse culture-shocking person, but it does help me to have peace, confidence and hope in my heart though my life is seriously wacky.

Carol said...

Well said Portia, very insightful. I have experienced reverse culture shock myself, and now the foreign culture is my new frame of reference, feeling much more comfortable in it than in the "original" culture I grew up in. I do understand about the deep longing for a place, it's customs and its people... and if you ever want to catch up and tell me about your experiences in China, it'd be fun to hear and learn and be there for you. In this age of globalization, more and more people are experiencing what you describe. Sending you a big hug my friend!