Reverse Culture Shock: what you never expected

I’m not making it up, I promise. Ok, I admit, until I go to Boston/Cape Cod in LESS THAN THREE WEEKS, I don’t have an entirety of actual destinations to write about. But reverse culture shock is a topic that I’ve wanted to talk about for a while, because until I was hit by a big fat bout of it, the phrase may as well have been as made up as it sounds.

Reverse culture shock is described in a few ways, from “the psychosomatic and psychological consequences of the readjustment process to the primary culture” (Wikipedia – sorry, it’s a habit) to USAC’s “confusing reactions or feel[ing] distant from family, friends, and peers”. Basically, it blows. But we’ll get on to that.

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Well aware I would be terrified going to Australia, I figured once I left, I would be sad but ok with London life. How very, extremely, inevitably wrong I was. You know how when you come back from holiday, you want everyone to gush about how tanned you are while you nonchalantly flip your sun-kissed hair over your shoulder and reply, “Ohh, I just walked around in the sun a bit”? That was me all over, and then some. I wanted it to be noticed that I had become a better person too, and I truly believe I did. My view on travel, the world, people, and all the beautiful little intricacies, contrasts and quirks it keeps up its crafty sleeve had changed for the better. But I fell on my bum (to put it in the polite British way) with an almighty bump. I thought I could come back and share my new world and experiences, but reverse culture shock took a tight hold of me.

My friends in Australia were a part of my life every day and I had made them my family. Suddenly, they were asleep when I was awake and missing them, just as I was asleep when they were awake and (hopefully) missing me. What surprised me was I didn’t feel that way about some of my friends back in England. I felt confused about my friendships, a little ruffled. Shouldn’t I have been excited to see them all? I had all these stories, and some friends seemed so disinterested. And here we come to an aspect of reverse culture shock: the people at home haven’t been personally involved in your experiences while you were abroad: they didn’t share that with you. Just as I hadn’t shared their new experiences with them. Adding to that, university is a bubble. It’s intense, you hardly know what’s going on in the outside world. Your weekly drama about someone having overheard something ambiguously bitchy becomes the equivalent of a whistleblower’s next move after revealing government secrets. These different wavelengths don’t match. I found myself not caring for what I thought of as trivial matters, and I know they didn’t care for why I considered the Gold Coast tacky, how much I loved Byron Bay and should I have gone to New Zealand? (I should have.)

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My family were amazing the whole time I was away, but being back at home was difficult, too. The reverse culture shock symptoms presented themselves, much to my surprise, in a ball of frustration. Why was I so quick to temper? I had just had this enriching life experience… what was going on? You’re dealing with a new you in a different environment. You’ve just thrust yourself (involuntarily, in my case) back into a place with your new perspective, with people who understood the old you. It takes everyone some time to adjust to that. Thing is, I had changed… but not even I really knew how at that time. The more frustrated, lonely and sad I got, the more I felt my new self was slipping away from me. I was desperate to hold onto that, it was a part of me, a part I cherished and loved, a part I was proud of. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t happy.

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I referred to private jokes I had with my friends in Australia… no one got them (obviously). I then tried to recreate incidents where those kind of laughs I had then could be transferred over, back in England. No one found them funny. Of course, I may just be utterly non-funny and possessed a lack of wit where the Australian friends were happier to indulge and humour me, but I (hesitantly) don’t think so. Australians are a lot more blunt than the British, anyway. I started becoming confused at the British reserved mentality. I felt physically inhibited: in Australia I could run about and move – on the beach, on the grass, in the sea. England’s rubbish weather didn’t help, I didn’t feel as free.

Whereas in Australia, I had other international students to lean on in our adjustment, they couldn’t help me in the same way now; we were all spread around the world, going it alone. I had basically lived with the boyfriend I found in Australia, and now he was back in America – we didn’t know how to help ourselves, let alone each other (not for lack of trying, of course).

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Still travelling and being silly together all this time later

Still travelling and being silly together all this time later

Coming back to what you thought was your familiar country is an ordeal, and sometimes a traumatic one. Things aren’t how you expect them to be. Just like you’ve changed, things may have moved on back home, too. Or maybe they haven’t and that’s the problem. But I do believe the people who really care are always there for you, and will always make an effort to understand. I had my family and it was the period I saw which friends I wanted to surround myself with – and which I didn’t.

But the beautiful thing about reverse culture shock is that you’re applying exactly what you had just learnt to do abroad: you know you can thrive even when things are hard. You’ve been through something everyone’s been telling you you’re so brave to do, and this is where you show how strong you are and how much you’ve grown. It may royally suck at the time, and I personally had a rough time of it, but hang on to that person changed by travel, because it’s an inspired, courageous one. And I’m pretty sure nothing can knock that stubborn fighter down.

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