Returning from India, while driving home from the airport, I was struck by how clean and wide American streets are in contrast to the pollution and dust in Delhi. “You can eat off the street here!” I announced. My family turned around and looked at me as if I had gotten off a spaceship rather than a plane. Reverse culture shock had already set in.
As summer nears its end, it’s the time of year when many will come back home from their travels to kick off the new academic or professional year. And after the new, challenging, and enriching experiences you’ve had abroad, learning how to re-adjust to your home country may take a surprising amount of practice and time.
If your first international fellowship is coming to a close, or your backpacking trip is almost over, here’s what to expect (and how to cope) when you come back home and see it all with completely different eyes.
When I first got back from my Fulbright Fellowship in Thailand, I’d been speaking Thai for over a year, and the English I spoke while I was there had been pretty elementary. Returning to an academic setting and having to translate my thoughts into American jargon actually proved to be a huge challenge. I had become used to speaking in simple accessible tones, and expressing emotion through the type of smile I had that day. Often, I felt reduced to a scale of emotions for which there weren’t American words—which was exactly how I felt when I first started learning Thai.
If you feel the same, know it just takes time—and with several robust and intellectual conversations and some avid reading, your normal speech will come back.
Lost in Translation
When, during a meeting, I pulled out my phone with the Happy Panda iPhone cover I picked up in Vietnam, I got some smirks and giggles from my colleagues. In Hanoi, my iPhone cover made sense, and my friends fawned over it, asking where I’d purchased it. To my colleagues in the States, it seemed childish.
Sometimes, it’s about your own level of comfort and pride. If you’re willing to whip out your Hello Kitty pencil during a business meeting, then that’s up to you. For me, I settled on showing off some of the cultural aspects I loved most by carrying a great local Hill tribe bag or wearing earrings purchased in the local market. With those choices, just as in Hanoi, people here would fawn over my accessories, exclaiming, “Where did you get that!” I could then tell the story of the item and my travels—all while still being taken seriously.
I lost 30 pounds while traveling in Asia, partially because I walked or biked everywhere, but mostly because I ate simple healthy foods. But upon coming home, I was reintroduced to my favorite foods: bread, cheese, and candy. Even though I indulged with moderation, my body was no longer used to the heavy stuff. What was more, I also found my tastes had changed: After tasting new spices and flavors abroad, the food at home often seemed bland. I found myself frequently asking for chilis or a spicy sauce in order to be able to eat to my liking.
As a result of all this, feeding myself in a way that made me feel good and satisfied sometimes proved to be a huge challenge. Initially I started out on jet-lagged cheese binges, but slowly transitioned back to eating bread and meat—half a sandwich at a time.
I also learned it could be difficult when my friends wanted to take me out for Indian or Thai food, and I would quickly realize that it wasn’t quite the same as what I had enjoyed in the country itself. To avoid those moments, I learned to ask the staff which dish would be most like what I was looking for. I also took some time to explore my neighborhood to find the most authentic food in the area. Amazingly, living near New York and Philly, I have now found some of the best local Korean and Thai food. Each region has it’s own specialty, but don’t be dismissive of suburbs either. Iraqi food outside of Detroit is outstanding, as is Indian food in the middle of New Jersey. Just because you’re no longer traveling doesn’t mean you should give up trying great things.
The Politics of Stuff
After living and working with a community in a garbage dump in Burma, everything at home seemed like a precious resource. For a few weeks I attempted to use as little as possible, and I was completely overwhelmed going to a big box store and realizing how much we waste in the United States.
Many students coming home from service learning trips or areas of poverty share this initial reaction, and these disparities are difficult to come to terms with. One of the best takeaways you can have from your experience abroad is to realize that what you do at home can have an impact elsewhere in the world. Use this experience to educate your friends, get involved in a local or student group, or start an organization of your own to focus on the issues that are important to you.
Reconnecting with Friends and Family
Being away for two years meant I missed the extreme wave of texting that swept through my friends and family. When I came back, and my phone was no longer ringing—just lighting up with the occasional “ding” of a text, and I felt lonely. I made it a point to talk instead of text, and asked my friends for their understanding as I made an effort to reconnect with them and rebuild our friendships.
I also realized that, while I was away, most of my friends had moved on with their lives and were getting married, buying houses, and having children. We felt disconnected from each other’s experiences. I still had plans of travel and didn’t want to settle down yet. Some friends, on the other hand, didn’t see how my traveling lifestyle could be taken seriously, and even made me feel guilty because I had been away and wasn’t there for their special events.
But just as travel will always be a part of my life, I understood that growing a family will always be a part of theirs. I did end up losing touch with some friends along the way, but I made even stronger bonds with others as we sought to understand each other and share the experiences that had enriched each our lives while we were apart.
Expats in Laos say that sometimes, if you stay too long, you can never go back home. You become a permanent foreigner, never quite making it as a local, and never feeling satisfied at home. And I certainly know some expats this has happened to—but it doesn’t have to be like that. If you return home with a traveler's heart, always seeking something new, no matter where you are, you will find satisfaction in your surroundings.
No matter where I am, the simplest things trigger my travel memories—and no matter how many times I leave and come back, the transition home can be clunky. But after years of international trips and living abroad, I understand it’s merely reverse culture shock, and I know how to get through it until the next trip.