Reverse Culture Shock

You know what it feels like to come home after two years of travel to a place like California?  Almost like an alternate reality in which you no longer fit.  It feels like visiting a Stepford-type movie set, but its all real life and the “actors” are your friends, family and neighbors.  WOW, they totally have it all together, and I could not be more of a Miss All Over the Place.

Everything is just as you left it (well, almost everything).  The sky is the same shade of blue and the stoplight down the street still flickers the same way it always has.  Your favorite restaurants and bars still serve your old go-to’s and your ex-gym still hosts the same old tank-top-wearing muscle men.  Hi John.  Yep, I’m back.  Good to see you, enjoy your meal prep and leg day.

It’s all just as I remember it.  Home.  Sweet.  Home.

But why does everything feel so different to me now?  

Why does it feel less like home and more like a place I’m visiting, but happen to know very well?  It feels familiar and comfortable, of course, but without the sense of belonging I used to think I felt here.  It feels like I just don’t fit in anymore- but I’m okay with that because I’ve come to learn that “fitting in” is as good as being “normal” which is as good as being boring.

I am MORE than okay not fitting in.  I spent the last year living in South Africa, after all.  I am just relishing in the epiphanies that keep hitting me right between the eyes.

Now that I am back home, I don’t feel a sense of belonging because there isn’t one to be had.  And I don’t feel at home anymore, because my home is no longer tied to a pin on the map- my heart doesn’t need an address (or a person) to feel whole.  I’ve reached a new level of freedom.

My eyes have been altered and I have been changed, internally and externally- and now I’m experiencing the aftershock.  It was bound to happen, right?  All the build up of the last two years has come and smacked me square in the face…in a good way.

Change is inevitable, I know this by now.  It is also painful, at times, and a longer process than anyone likes to admit.  I summoned change onto my own life in epic proportions by making life-altering choices; ie. quitting my job two years ago to travel, selling almost everything I owned, getting into a relationship abroad, etc..  The decisions I made are ones I would never take back, even though they have made my life exponentially more difficult in the long run.

Now I am back home picking up the pieces and restarting- and it’s not as easy as I thought it would be.  Everyday I find myself struggling to find common ground with new and old people.  Is it me?  Or is it them?  I think it’s probably a bit of both.

My tight-knit immediate circle keeps me sane, but I struggle amongst strangers who seem to be on autopilot with a one-way ticket to their white picket fenced destiny.

I always knew American people lived in an impenetrable bubble, but I did not realize the extent to which it placates them- until I left the bubble myself, only to return and experience reverse culture shock.  I’ve returned with an international perspective, not just an American one, and I’ve noticed that reverse culture shock is a REAL thing.

A simple example?  

Starbucks charges $5 for my favorite drink and all I can think about is the five day’s worth of green curry that would buy me in Thailand.  

And a more complicated one…

Coming back essentially jobless without health insurance.  (This is not a political blog so I’ll leave it there, but I think we can all agree the American healthcare system is totally f**ked and brings on a major headache when you think about it too long.)

Another simple form of reverse-culture shock? 

Commercials.  Holy hell, we watch some horrible programming here, and the commercials keep us all on the hamster wheel that is The American Dream.  “Buy this house!  Get this mortgage plan!  Invest in this retirement program!  And don’t forget your anti-depressants!”  You notice these things in great detail after you’ve been without them for this long, and it’s disturbing.

American Dream

American Capitalism: It’s all about money, honey.

No More California-Sun Shades

Everything I knew to be true before I left home two years ago has been questioned at some point or another since then, and I can’t go back to my own blissful ignorance, no matter how much I may want to.  I no longer see through “California rose colored glasses,” and trying to connect with people who still wear those shades is more difficult than I ever considered prior to my leaving.

People here generally don’t seem to care what’s going on in third world countries or how some cities in Asia are actually more advanced than ours.  Or how animals are mistreated in the parks they wish I’d have visited and brought back pictures.  Sorry Tim from Starbucks, but NO I didn’t get a picture with a drug-induced Tiger while in Thailand.  Now can I please drink my iced coffee in peace?

Life in a small (conservative) town after two years abroad is interesting, to say the least.

People care about the rest of the world, sort of, but not really.  Otherwise, they’d have used their giant (compared to the rest of the world) American salaries to visit and see for themselves, right?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  What I do know is this: Defining myself as a “Traveler” comes with a whole set of misconceptions and separates me from almost everyone else- especially in my hometown where many people never leave and end up marrying their high school sweetheart.  I used to want that too, if I’m honest, but instead I discovered a path that has taken me on one hell of a ride, and I have no regrets being the “Black Sheep.”  Compared to many people here I look like a wild child Millennial with some website thing called a blog where I post pictures and share too much of my personal life.  Which leads me to my next revelation…

You can share your travel tales with people back home, but not too much.

People want to hear about your travels, but not for too long.  And after you told them about country number five, you start pushing the boundaries of bragging (and nobody like a bragger).  So instead I downplay what was the most intensely amazing two years of my life and try to change the subject before it gets all “Me, me, me.”  Enough about me, Janis!  Tell me more about your latest Tinder match and the NBA Finals you’re pretending to care about!  

The words substance and quality (over quantity) are always on the tip of my tongue waiting to get me in trouble.  These are two ideals you have to fight for- especially here in California, The Land of Kardashians.

Recently I was lucky enough to connect with another Traveler Returned Home to California and it seems I’m not alone in my reverse culture shock or lack of “fitting in.”  She explained, almost verbatim, the thoughts I struggled to put into words.  “My friends back home are just not what I made them out to be in my head while I was gone, and I’m coming to terms with that.  Things change.  People change.  And then some don’t change at all.”  

She hit the nail on the head.  Sometimes you glamorize your past, at the expense of your present.  And sometimes you take different paths from your friends, forcing a wedge between you and them.

These lessons we’re learning aren’t just for international travelers, though.  They’re for anyone who’s recently gone through something that changed them and forced them to grow, only to realize they no longer jive with their circle.  It happens all the time.  The term “growing pains” came from somewhere, didn’t it?!

So….what happens after the dust from the backpack settles you ask?

I’m here to tell you…

Coming back to California after two years abroad is cozy, beautiful and sunny, but it ain’t easy (and the $1 green curry in Thailand is screaming my name).

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3 thoughts on “Reverse Culture Shock

  1. Anna French says:

    Hey Heather,

    This post really resonated with me because I know the feeling of reverse culture shock all too well. I was living abroad for 3 years before coming “home” and I endured a very similar experience with my friends and family. To be honest, I don’t know if I ever fully-recovered, because that feeling of being disconnected and changed from people and places that use to be so familiar never really goes away. Even when you start to assimilate back to western society, the feelings have a tendency to resurface.

    Anyway, best of luck assimilating back to California life.

    -Anna x

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  2. Moniqueique says:

    We have just returned home after 2 years on the road and I’m really struggling with these things too. Melbourne (Australia, my hometown) has changed a little, but I have changed a lot. I no longer want to be defined by my job title, I want more sunshine and less moodiness, I don’t care about what I am wearing to the same extent that I used to and that everyone else here does. I still LOVE this city, but I don’t think I can survive here right now.

    Like

  3. Astrid Vinje (@WanderDaughter) says:

    I had a similar experience coming home after spending two years in the Peace Corps living and working in Togo. For me, I came back to Seattle, and really had a hard time reconciling all the consumerism that permeates American culture, with the poverty that I saw in West Africa. It’s been over twelve years since I came back, and while on the outside it looks like I’ve adjusted, there are still moments when I think, what is this world that I’m living in? Hang in there. You will eventually find a way to readjust.

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