Reverse culture shock.....going home
What happens when the party is over?
As an ESL teacher you more than likely have been given advice, both well-meaning and strident, about adapting to life in a foreign country. In fact, here at my school in China, it’s been one of our main responsibilities.
We take it upon ourselves very early on in the application process to introduce teachers to cultural differences abroad, forewarn about the realities on the ground and best prepare our candidates for a new adventure.
But what about returning home?
Many teachers have written blogs or published well-edited vlogs. There are plenty of ESL online teaching groups and expat forums where advice is always plentiful and forthcoming. However, one thing which is rarely spoken about is what happens when the party is over? When you intend to repatriate your newly acquired skills or simply visit home for an extended period of time? Is it all plain-sailing and ticker-tape-parades?
Well actually, many experienced expats and teachers who have lived abroad for some time will tell you otherwise. Reverse culture shock is very real and comparable to travel burn-out.
So how can we resolve these two realities? How can an ESL teacher adapt to life back home or make the most of a planned visit without shrinking into a thousand-yard-stare or ponder an existential breakdown?
A minor celebrity of sorts?
Let’s talk about the good things first. A planned visit back home or a long-term relocation tends to be accompanied by visions of hugging relatives and close friends at airport arrivals, unearthing exotic gifts from your suitcase and enjoying some sorely-missed tasty treats.
You’re going to be the toast-of-the-town. Friends will gather round and eagerly hang on your every word when you recount your wild adventures. It’s going to be fantastic, you’ll be a minor celebrity and the envy of your peers. You’ll never have to pay for another drink in your hometown again…. right? Possibly.
Certainly in more diluted and short-spanned moments this maybe the case. BUT, more often than not, these moments never quite reach the explosive heights we envisage when we’re packing our bags to venture home.
The reality tends to be a lot more different.
Your friends have gotten older and become more distant. They try very hard to feign interest in your stories but they have their own lives, their own problems and their own success stories. They don't want a question-mark hanging over their choices in life. Buying the house, having children, yearning for that promotion were the right choices for them, maybe not for you, but for them, it’s what they wanted.
Displays of posturing and tale-telling won’t always be welcomed. Yes, you may have lived on the other side of the world, trekked up mountains and eaten raw octopus but you don't know what’s happened in Eastenders nor know the winner of America’s Got Talent.
In fact, you're in danger of having no common ground. The stories you once shared are now redundant and carry less weight. That holiday you had together in Magaluf ten years ago doesn’t carry as much kudos as backpacking around the Philippines for a month.
This can leave the returning adventurer in somewhat of a dilemma. You can’t simply forget or put away your experiences. They need to be processed, actually, you need to talk about the time you’ve spent away. Otherwise it’s not uncommon to experience displacement anxiety, feelings of emptiness and loss.
It’s important to remember that there is genuine upheaval involved, and upheaval can manifest itself traumatically. Unless you’ve put the groundwork in, mentally prepared, planned your reacclimatisation, you can leave yourself vulnerable.
It’s near impossible to fully articulate your experiences to friends and family, you should choose your council wisely. Don't alienate yourself by demanding ear-time from the hard-of-hearing or preaching to the unconvertible. So your mental well-being can be a little delicate for quite some time on returning.
Short visits back home normally don't incur as much mental processing, it’s all quite jovial. Pleasantries and gifts are exchanged with a sincere “see you next year”, “take care”.
A different culture
It’s also the habits formed abroad which can be a major part of reverse culture shock.
We develop dispositions to behaviour in our adopted country which might be considered social faux pas back home. Eating, smoking, drinking beckoning waiters, driving, paying, are all considerably different in China for example.
You don't want to find yourself in the local Pizza Hut in Birmingham loudly beckoning the waiter over as in China, you’ll invoke some curious stares from fellow patrons. You can’t drink alcohol on the streets anymore or hail a taxi down in the middle of a junction.
The volume of everything back home can seem quieter and leave you with a vague tinnitus in your ears after years spent in China. Staring at fellow commuters can lead to confrontations in London but excessive glancing is part of the course in China. Your home country can all seem very very… foreign.
You're now a stranger to the familiar. You’ve changed so much, but your family and friends can’t see it. What can you do about it?
Well, there’s nothing you can do to change other people and why would you want to? You were the one who left and underwent transformations… no-one else asked for it.
Therefore, it is you alone who must shoulder the burden of adaptation AGAIN. Are there any preventative measures you can take? Is there a way of voicing your experiences without sounding self-congratulatory? Is there something you can do to let people into your world-perception and join the realities together?
Preparation is key
Firstly, keep busy. have plans, objectives and engagements arranged BEFORE you arrive back. “Stopping everything” can be disorienting and leave you thinking, reminiscing and dwelling too long.
Get a plan together for the first 6 weeks of your return. Include people you need to visit, items which need to be purchased and appointments which need to be made.
Secondly, set boundaries to your conservations. Limit the amount of waffling and “Well , this one time i was in…”. statements. If your friends are genuinely curious they will probe further, let them control the dialogue.
It’s a good idea to stay in touch with other expats you met abroad. Meeting up for regular coffees or meals is a good way to validate your experiences together and reduce the feelings of unreality and isolation.
If you’re in a fortunate position whilst in China, invite your friends and family to visit you. This will give you some common ground on return and your loved ones will gain an important insight into your ‘other life’.
When it comes to employment, it’s a good idea to start early. Start looking while you’re still abroad. Be proactive. Feelings of being at a ‘loose-end’ or ‘treading water’ will only exacerbate uncertainties.
Finally, medical check-ups can fine-tune your well-being. If you are having anxieties combined with feelings of dread and loss, it’s perfectly reasonable to consult a medical professional. You may not have been on service deployment in Afghanistan but you’ve challenged your perceptions of the world to their limits, it’s OK to ask for help. Your world will calibrate eventually.
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"They don't want a question-mark hanging over their choices in life. Buying the house, having children, yearning for that promotion were the right choices for them, maybe not for you, but for them, it’s what they wanted. "
So true. My mates back home in the UK have become so boring. I try to go back for a short visit every summer. But usually, I can't wait to get back home to Bangkok! I miss the freedom we enjoy here.
By George, BKK (9th January 2020)
Interesting read, and the part about few people really caring or being interested in what you consider to be your travel adventures is something I have often read about in reports on the "expatriate" experience, and is also something I experience each time I have gone back home.
I have worked in Asia, in teaching and other jobs, for over 20 years and I for sure feel some reverse culture shock whenever I visit back home, but when thinking about returning home, I figure it would take me 3 or 4 months to adjust, but I feel sure I could adjust. After all, I have adjusted to many different cultures when working or traveling in countries which are culturally very diverse.
I have enjoyed my time abroad but do not rule out a later in life return "home."
Life abroad can be really interesting and professionally rewarding, as can living in one's home country. It is all about what you make of your choices.
By Jack, LOS or theres about (8th January 2020)
The problem with living in Asia is, to those who are susceptible it's as addictive as gambling or alcohol. Giving it up won't be easy, but the short term pain will be worth the long term gain.
By James, Kaohsiung (8th January 2020)
Moved back to UK after 6 years abroad between Thailand, Italy and Spain. Worst choice ever.
Reverse culture shock hit me like a freight train upon returning to the same dull hometown I'd left years before promising myself I'd never return to but there I was.
I couch-surfed for three months before finding a small apartment in a dodgy area of town, nobody cared about what I'd done (even if they pretended to) and I found my worldly TEFL experience was worth a lot less in the eyes of UK employers than expected and I was years behind my friends on the corporate ladder.
I struggled to find meaningful work till I ended up in a corporate office with a boss years my junior, staring between the computer screen and the rain soaked window, longing for my old life of sun, sea and students.
Took the plunge two months ago and moved to Vietnam. Have no plan to return to the UK.
By Jey, Vietnam (7th January 2020)
Great article. After five years back "home" in Europe following a decade in Bangkok, I still feel a bit like I don't fit in. I am actually thinking of moving back to Thailand, even though it seems everyone else is going in the opposite direction...
By Michael, Europe (7th January 2020)