5 Symptoms of Reverse Culture Shock

Returning home after long-term travel can lead to reverse culture shock. Here's what to watch out for.

Quick+Dirty!

"What do MEAN this won't be my backyard anymore?"

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

Though almost every long-term traveler experiences reverse culture shock to some degree after returning home, this rarely-discussed condition often takes travelers by surprise, which makes the transition from the road to home all the more difficult.

At seventeen I returned from a year-long exchange in Belgium, an amazing year filled with friends, school, and festivals in a place I learned to call home.

Within a week of returning to Oregon I was no longer the happy carefree girl I had been. I was depressed, angry, and disconnected from the world around me.

I gradually lost all of my friends, spent much of my time wandering aimlessly alone, and, in retrospect, wasted a perfectly good eight or nine months of my life as I struggled to deal with reverse culture shock.

I had no idea that returning could be so hard, and part of what makes the transition so difficult is that it is impossible for non-travelers to understand what you’re experiencing. Your friends back home won’t be able to do much to help you transition.

At nineteen I returned from another year abroad, a year backpacking through South America, and luckily this time I was prepared to deal with the shock. I made new friends, explored my own country, and was able to transition smoothly into “normal life.”

Here are a few tips about what reverse culture shock can feel like and how to deal with it when it strikes:

1. No one understands you.

This may very well be the most difficult aspect to deal with, especially if you aren’t prepared for the shock of returning home.

You have amazing stories to tell, yet no one wants to hear them.

In fact, people will probably get annoyed when you start every sentence with “When I was in…”. It is hard to realize that most people haven’t undergone the same changes you have, and you will probably feel lost and possible even angry for a while.

Find a way to share your experiences with those who are willing to listen. Start a blog or do a presentation at a local school or community event, or even an informal dinner presentation for a few of your friends or parent’s friends.

Though it is hard, try not to impose your stories on friends who aren’t interested. Instead, find something you and your friends share in common and focus on that.

2. Nothing has changed.

Your friends are still exactly the same, but that’s the problem. You have changed, you have new ideas about the world, your life path, and about who you are, and you may find it hard to fit in with your old group of friends.

Understand that you have changed, accept it, and love your new self while working with your friends to strengthen their friendships with the new you.

Since they haven’t experienced what you have, realize it may be hard for them to understand why you are suddenly different.

Feel free to share your ideas acquired on the road, but don’t impose or force your friends to change as well.

To supplement your old friendships, try meeting new people, maybe like-minded travelers who, like you, have recently returned home.

3. Home is…well….kind of boring.

After traveling, especially across multiple countries or continents, you have probably encountered amazing history, culture, and traditions.

Every day on the road seems like an adventure, with new sights and sounds around every corner.

Once you get home, shopping in a store is nowhere near as exciting as the chaotic markets filled with foods you have never seen. Everything seems so mundane and boring.

Travel, if done right, is more about how you see and experience life than how you see and experience a physical place.

Apply what you have leaned on the road to your life back home. Try cooking new dishes  that you tasted during your travels, pick up a new sport or hobby, and explore your own country.

Chances are there are some amazing things to see close to home, so go out and explore as if it was a foreign land.

After returning from South America I made sure to plan weekend getaways almost every week. I went backcountry skiing, snow camping, and hunting and fishing for my first time.

When I got itchy feet a few months in, I took a week off to hitchhike up to Vancouver where I was able to get my fill of traveling and travelers.

4. Your friends suddenly seem shallow. 

As you travel, you become accustomed to meeting amazing and inspiring people around ever corner, people who have climbed the tallest mountains, started their own orphanages, or dedicated their lives to discovering our world.

With these international-minded friends, you have grown used to debating world issues, and in your own way, discussing how we can make our world a better place.

Once you arrive home, you may feel like your friends only talk about superficial things. Who’s dating who, shopping, consumerism, etc.

You will probably start to crave the intellectual debates that had become part of your normal life on the road.

Try discussing a few of these issues with your friends back home, find friends who read the news or who are up-to-date on current events.

Also, go out of your way to meet new people. Though it may seem impossible at first, there are sure to be at least a few like-minded people living in your town.

Watching documentaries, reading the news, and attending cultural presentations or events are also great ways to keep expanding your international mind.

5. “Everything was so much better in _____________.”

Upon returning home, travelers have the tendency to think that everything was “better in [insert favorite country here],” which makes it hard for them to be content at home.

It is typical for travelers to hold the countries they traveled through in higher esteem than may be deserved. If you really think about it, you weren’t so crazy about Vietnam that day the motorbike broke down, and you were definitely ready to leave Nepal the day you got food poisoning.

This feeling will fade over time, and eventually you will be able to look back at those places and experiences with an unbiased view.

When I returned from Belgium I thought that “everything was better there,” yet now, in retrospect, I realize that I would much rather spend my life in Oregon.

Just because you are at home doesn’t mean life has to stop being fun.

Create new friendships, go on small trips, and embrace every opportunity.

The change in you is permanent. Learn how to deal with the new you back in your old home, and you will begin to see life, even at home, as an adventure.

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

Symptoms of reverse culture shock may include:

1. Feeling like no one understands you.

2. Feeling like nothing has changed.

3. Thinking that home is really boring.

4. Thinking all of your friends and family are really shallow.

5. Believing that "everything was SO much better in _________"

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

2 comments on “5 Symptoms of Reverse Culture Shock

  1. Andrea

    I just returned home from a 3 month trip backpacking Europe solo and this article hits the nail on the head about what it’s like to come home. I didn’t initially know what reverse culture shock was until someone mentioned it. I looked it up and now my feelings are much more valid. You should write an article for people who are close to someone experiencing reverse culture shock.

    Reply
  2. Isabel

    I recently returned from a year and a half living alone in Europe and I couldn’t relate more to all of the things you mentioned. It is being really tough, but knowing that it happens to a lot of people as well and that it doesn’t last forever is comforting. Thank you for the article. It was really helpful!

    Reply

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