As exhilarating, challenging, fascinating, and eye-opening life as an expat can be, there may come a day when, for whatever reason, you find yourself going back to where you came from. When that day comes, you should have your mental arsenal prepared for the shock of readjusting to life back in your home country. In fact, I will go so far as to say that you may face struggles greater than when you first left the shores of your land for a life of vibrancy and adventure many moons ago.
While these are strong words, they are necessary, for I feel that not nearly enough is done to prepare expats for the inevitable challenges that will ensue once they go back to their home country and have to re-acclimatize themselves. Indeed, most expats underestimate what will be required of them and find themselves woefully unprepared for what awaits them. In this article I hope to help expats make that transition more enjoyable, or at least a lot less arduous.
Before I begin offering advice, an explanation of what reverse culture shock is might be helpful. Culture shock is the experience you have when you move to a culture that is different from your own. This may manifest itself in many ways, such as disorientation, stress, confusion, irritability, and may sometimes even affect one’s health. Culture shock occurs when you become an expat and move to another country. Reverse culture shock, then, is the experience when you move back to your own culture or home country. Of course, reverse culture shock may also manifest itself in a number of ways, such as boredom, stress, alienation, a feeling of rejection, and may certainly also affect one’s health.
From my personal, subjective experience, while both culture shock and reverse culture shock are very real, reverse culture shock is more unexpected and hence requires one to be more vigilant. The reason for this is simple: when you move to another country, you expect that at least some things will be different, and thus you are more likely to be prepared for the unexpected, whereas when you move back home, one’s natural tendency is to assume they will fit right back in, since they are going back to where they came from. But this is a dangerous assumption and one that has caused many an expat great stress.
While there are many ways to reintegrate oneself, here are three ways I recommend to battle reverse culture shock and get into the swing of things back home:
- Understand that you have changed in some ways and as such, your interpretation of your home country may have changed as well. Meanwhile, you should be prepared for the possibility that the people you used to know might still expect you to be the person you used to be
- Develop a diverse social network of people with similar interests, hobbies, and passions
- Approach your repatriation with optimism and an open mind, and take advantage of the things you can do back home that you couldn’t do overseas
Going overseas changes a person in many ways. Indeed, when you become an expat, you will experience not only new sights, traditions, and customs, but also new people and hence new mindsets, philosophies, and ways of life. All of these things contribute to changing a person in potentially many different ways.
For instance, I not only became a huge fan of Asian food after moving to Asia, but I also developed or improved many crucial skills, such as public speaking, emotional intelligence, sales skills, and management skills. Along the way, I also learned new languages, and of course, picked up new habits and customs, such as the Chinese sociological concept of face, the Japanese cultural concept of wa, and more. While all of these things contributed immeasurably to the person I am today and brought me more value than I could ever quantify, they also changed me quite a bit, and when I moved back to where I had left nine years prior, I was a much different person, and the people around me immediately took notice.
I wish I could say that everyone accepted who I had become, but alas, that was not the case. While family and close friends accepted that I had changed, some people from my past were at best indifferent and at worst, somewhat passive-aggressive. Specifically, some people I used to know were no doubt expecting to see the person I used to be, the person they remembered me as. However, for all intents and purposes, that person was dead and gone, replaced by someone much different.
Further, there were many things I found difficult to deal with at first, such as suburban sprawl, the near-total dependence on automobiles, the lack of a frenetic and vibrant city lifestyle, and the relatively more confrontational nature of some people, at least when compared to people in Asia. To be sure, if I am honest with myself, I probably disliked these sorts of things even before I became an expat, but now they were magnified, and hence, annoyed me more than before.
However, my feelings were completely normal, and to be expected. You will no doubt feel the same about certain aspects of your home country if you move back after being an expat for a while. Again, this is not only normal, but will almost certainly happen to you, and so you should be ready for it. And being ready for these feelings will help you deal with them, since being prepared takes away some of the sting of the unexpected.
If what I have described above seems like not a big deal, and even if you completely disregard what I have advised, you might still be just fine. However, if you learn nothing else from this article, and even if you ignore the rest of it, I would implore you to not ignore one aspect of reverse culture shock, and that is, the boredom, apathy, and alienation you may feel as a result of not having a network of friends and/or a support group you can gravitate toward when the stress of readjustment rears its hideous head. Indeed, this one thing hits harder than the others, and the fastest way to become emotionally shredded is to go for a long period of time without a social network of people with whom you share common interests or hobbies.
The reasons that this scenario may occur are numerous, but include the fact that many of your old friends may have moved far away, started families and demanding careers of their own, or, the more likely scenario, that you have changed in many ways and hence no longer have much in common with people you used to know. Again, I would like to point out that feeling this way is completely normal. However, since you may no longer have the excitement, sense of adventure, and feeling of newness that you used to have in your adopted home, it is paramount to build a new network of friends and involve yourself in activities that not only bring you meaning, but also, help you fill the hole created in your life after you stopped being an expat.
The reason for this are also numerous, and include the fact that unless one is a total sociopath, life is more enriching and enjoyable when one can enjoy experiences with friends. Additionally, friends and acquaintances can help you overcome some the difficulties of moving back by providing perspective and a different point of view, not to mention moral and emotional support. In my mind, the single best way to alleviate the pain of loss stemming from no longer living life as an expat is to build or rejoin a tight-knit group of friends whom you can share feelings, experiences, and stories with. It helps even more if you can enjoy experiences you found meaningful overseas, such as specific cultural activities of the country you were living in. Further, if you can enjoy these activities with people who come from that very same country, that’s a huge bonus, since it will allow you to keep the ties with your adopted home.
Finally, related to the previous point, one of the best ways to deal with reverse culture shock is to be optimistic and open-minded about moving back home and focus on things you were unable to do while you were an expat. For example, if you were on assignment in a landlocked country with extreme weather, and your home country or hometown has a temperate climate with a beautiful coastline and beaches, you can enjoy those things when you return home. Similarly, if you were working in a dense, expensive country with a high cost of real estate, and your home country has more space and cheaper real estate (and purchasing real estate is one of your goals), then you have an advantage when going back home. Doing this will not only make it easier to readjust to life back in your hometown, but also help you overcome some of the frustration and boredom that you may feel when you first move back.
As I have mentioned previously, being an expat is a wonderful experience and I believe it has improved my life vastly on many levels. At the same time, being an expat can take its toll on you, as you have to deal with many external stimuli simultaneously and nearly everything around you is different from before. While all of this is somewhat obvious, there is a nebulous dark side to moving back to where one came from, and it can manifest itself in many different ways. Being unprepared for moving back home can wallop you mentally, emotionally, and physically, and your best weapon against that is preparation, a positive mental attitude, and a group of friends. Some of the ways you can be prepared is to understand that you have returned home a changed person, and your interpretation of an environment you used to be familiar with may have changed drastically. Further, you should also not waste any time in developing or rejoining a group of friends or at least acquaintances with whom you can share the joys of life with. Finally, your physical environment may offer you advantages or experiences you may have missed out on while living life as an expat, and you would do well to recognize that and do the things you were unable to do while living overseas.
It is true that everyone’s experience moving back home is different, and that some people will actually appreciate and enjoy their hometown even more than before. Further, some people will be able to make the transition back home more easily and will be able to rejoin their old group of friends right away, thus getting reintegrated faster. It is also true that taking the above precautions by no means guarantees that one will have a smooth transition when they repatriate. However, I can guarantee you that ignoring the challenges brought forth by reverse culture shock will hurt you more than it will help you. Starting all over again, even in your mother country, is difficult, but it is my hope that the advice above will help you build a new life again in a land you once found very familiar and comfortable, but which may now feel somewhat foreign to you.