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Reverse culture shock

28 Jan

Apply Gidley is a self-proclaimed “life-long global nomad [who has] never repatriated”. I recently read a piece she wrote for the UK telegraph on the culture shock experienced by those returning “home”, something we often call “reverse” culture shock. Since I recently posted about culture shock, it seemed appropriate to address the other side of the coin. Also a good follow on from recent posts on helping kids say goodbye.

Expatriates and repatriates experience equal doses of culture shock; the distinction is that the latter often don’t expect it. Forums are provided for the expatriate but not always for the repatriate.

Even expats who know about the reverse culture shock phenomenon can be surprised by the strength of it when they return “home”. One woman I know returned home after 6 years abroad with her husband and children. She had heard about reverse culture shock, but honestly didn’t expect it to affect her. She thought their annual visits to their home city were enough to stave off culture shock upon their permanent return. However, a lot had changed in 6 years – everyday things that weren’t apparent on short term holidays.

Repatriation brings about a lifestyle change that can have many repercussions from unsettled children, to jobless spouses and hugely increased expenses to just not feeling at home, at home.

The sense being “different” is common to both the expatriate and the repatriate. When you first move to a new country, the culture is obviously different to your own – you expect things to be different. Upon the return “home”, however, there are two sets of changes.

Firstly, the home culture has changed. The repatriate has missed shared country-wide events, like a natural disaster or change of leadership. Their emotional resonance with such pivotal events in the history of their country will be very different to that of other nationals. The repatriate is also behind on pop culture – something that can greatly affect TCKs going “home”. They aren’t familiar with the same TV shows, movies and musicians that their home country peers are. These missed events and others make the repatriate feel disconnected.

Sometimes it seems as if “home” has changed, or maybe it hasn’t. Maybe it is just that we have changed, grown to incorporate, often without realising, elements of our life abroad.

The overseas experience has also changed the repatriate. They have seen and experienced things their home culture peers have no understanding of. They may speak another language, be accustomed to different food, or enjoy different social activities. Even a year, or even less, spent abroad can widen a person’s horizons so far that they no longer fit in the same “hole” as before. The Mr Roundhead story is a cute illustration of this concept, especially pertaining to TCKs.

New words, often foreign, have joined the family vocabulary that members of the extended family back home have no notion of; and do not understand the reflective mood and quiet smiles those words might bring. They feel shut out, and indeed they are, though not intentionally. Just as we are not excluded intentionally from conversations revolving around the last family get-together, the one we missed because we were climbing Kilimanjaro or maybe just surviving in an alien environment dealing with new schools, new hospitals and so on.

It’s important to remember that this feeling of being left out can go two ways. I lived in the US for two years as a teenager. Upon my return to Australia I talked about what it was like to live in the US. This was natural, since all my experiences from the previous two years happened overseas. Sharing stories is a great way to build familiarity and grow a friendship, but my none of the people I was talking to could relate to my stories. Instead of building closeness, they alienated people.

The repatriate often feels left out, and wants someone to take the trouble to get to know them and their different perspective. It’s important for the repatriate to understand, however, that part of the burden falls to them. They must also try to understand how their home-culture friends see the world.

It takes time to adapt back, just as it took time to adjust to living in a new country. We might be back in the home country but we are looking at it through different eyes and have to allow the same adjustment period as when we expatriated.

It takes time. Just as culture shock is a process that takes time, so is reverse culture shock. The adjustment period will be different for everyone – factors like daily routine, length of time away, and age will all play a part. Each individual will work through it differently. It takes time, and grace, but it doesn’t last forever.

For those working with TCKs, helping them prepare before their return – warning them of some of the struggles they may face, and equipping them to cope – can go a long way in reducing the impact of their reverse culture shock experience. This is especially true of TCKs who go overseas (especially to their own passport country) to attend college; going away as an individual, without the presence of a family sharing the same experience, can make the readjustment harder.

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1 Comment

Posted by on January 28, 2011 in Expat Life, TCKs

 

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One response to “Reverse culture shock

  1. Joel

    February 2, 2011 at 10:50 am

    Ha, reverse culture shock is for real! Some of our own adventures with that are here.

     

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