I felt like a foreigner again. Except this time it was in my own country.
At one point in my life, I thought reverse culture shock was only something I read about in psychology books or thought was an issue with military personnel, after they came home from the battlefield and had to reintegrate back into American society. It wasn’t until recently, after being out of American culture for over a year, that this became a real phenomenon in my own life, and I gained a new understanding of the effects of reverse culture shock.
While living in Asia, I remember saying goodbye to my Western expat friends as they left, one-by-one back to their home countries: England, Ireland, Scotland, or America. I assumed this would be a joyous experience to return home to everything they were familiar with, but over time their tones changed from happiness to depression to struggling to re-navigate what normalcy feels like again.
I thought they were being dramatic and not appreciating the wonderful experience of coming home. I mean, how hard can it be? You get to see family and friends and unashamedly binge on all the Western food you want.
After buying my own plane ticket home, I imagined the layout of my home town: the streets, the restaurants, the places I frequented, the culture, my friends. Everything seemed brilliant. The anticipation, the excitement. My mind would imagine all the comforts and the joy of consistently taking a hot shower or driving my car again.
I remember the day of my flight home and finally saying goodbye to Asia, not knowing if I’d ever return. And then it started, the hugs, the family, the friends, the people excited to see me and hear my stories. Eating everything for the sake of eating it. Foods I would have never touched before leaving the country the first time: chocolate shakes, cheeseburgers, soda, everything that wasn’t Asian food. Oh, and let’s not forget, the absurd amount of authentic Mexican food – a prerequisite of being a Southern California native.
I felt like a child going to Disneyland again after years away. I was freshly awestruck by the beauty of the once-familiar places that were considered home to me. But this time it felt different.
I started noticing this annoyance that I couldn’t avoid. I was annoyed with all the clothes I had, I was annoyed with the excess, I felt annoyed with what people were consumed with, I felt annoyed with politics, I felt annoyed with family members.
My senses were overstimulated. I didn’t realize all the silent gaps I experienced over the past year living in a culture that didn’t speak English. Then, to be surrounded by English speakers all the time felt like language overload. I would get overwhelmed by the slightest thing.
I even felt like I was retraining my brain to speak more. All the times I sat in silence or had to mime what I wanted to people overseas when I didn’t speak the language. It felt like I needed practice keeping up a continuous conversation with English speakers, as I stumbled to find descriptive words.
I felt agitated, critical, judgmental, easily overwhelmed, and full of anxiety. I had to apologize to family members about how “weird” I was being, but I couldn’t pinpoint what I was feeling.
I knew this wasn’t me. This wasn’t the person I was or wanted to be.
I came to the place of realizing that my job was to love others despite how I felt or if I was struggling to connect during my re-integration process.
But as time progressed, it tapered off. I started feeling like myself again and everything began to equalize. I was no longer feeling overwhelmed or anxious by my surroundings. I came out on the other side stronger and with a deeper understanding of what people feel when they change cultures for long periods of time and need to readjust again. It’s a real thing. I’ve been there.