Much has been written about the initial shocks and adjustments that comes with life in a different country. The bigger the difference from your home country – the bigger the culture shock tends to be. Over time the unfamiliar becomes familiar, and what used to seem strange or unusual is now so ordinary that you cannot imagine ever not having been used to it. Sooner or later, the time comes to return to your home country. Then, suddenly – everything you were used to in your former life, is weird. This is reverse culture shock: when you feel foreign in your home country.
Through the years I have experienced this cycle a few times, and concluded that it can be a great tool for reflexivity . It is also an indication of growth. It taught me that your perceptions always depend on your frame of reference. An expanded frame of reference leads to new and nuanced perceptions. It also leads to the understanding that there is always an idea to challenge and something new to learn.
Reverse culture shock is usually not a permanent condition. After some time of re-adjustment, things tend to reach some sort of equilibrium. Depending on who you are, where you come from and the nature of your experience, it can manifest in a variety of different ways.
Allow me to indulge in some anecdotes of my own experiences with this phenomenon:
Chopsticks and Disenchantment
As a teenager I used to be obsessed with anything Chinese. My room was decorated with those signature red lanterns and scrolls of calligraphy, and my bookshelf contained many books filled with stories of the Qin and Han dynasties, and Confucianism. When I was invited to visit China, my 18-year-old self was ecstatic. Upon returning I had difficulty eating with a knife and fork, so I continued using chopsticks for a while. I carried some with me wherever I went (true story!).
My experience in China was informative, overwhelming and definitely worth it – but I think once was enough. Over time, my perception of China changed a lot. My romantic fascination of old was replaced by the reality of an immensely expanding Chinese Empire, and what that means to us as inhabitants of the African continent.
I would also never take a blue sky or unconditioned air for granted ever again. The sun in Beijing or Shanghai was almost never visible – not because it was overcast, but because an immensely thick layer of smog obscured it. When I returned to South Africa it was definitely a re-adjustment to be able to breathe fresh, unpolluted air.
Walking with the Desert Tribe
I think the most radical change in lifestyle I have ever experienced was during the time I spent walking in Israel. I had the opportunity to walk the Israel National Trail with a group of diverse and eccentric people for a little under three months. We slept outside every night, and walked a distance of 18 to 25 kilometres a day, with resting days on Shabbat.
It was the first time I was exposed to collective and low-tech living. I was introduced to the philosophy of vegetarianism, and experienced pacifism and anarchism in practice. Some of the incredible people I met included circus performers, musicians, conservative religious people, nudists, military veterans, activists, and lifestyle travellers. I did not have a phone (or social media) for almost 80 days. I never looked in a mirror. My perception of time morphed from linear to cyclical to synchronise with a rising and setting sun and seasons. I learnt the wonders of using water instead of toilet paper, and the irrelevance of material accumulation in the name of enhancing status. In short: this was when I became a hippy.
The reverse-culture shock of this experience was the most intense to date. All of a sudden, I was hyper aware of the excessive materialism and consumerism that defined my life at home. I struggled to sleep indoors, or go to a supermarket or shopping mall. Re-adjusting to the meat-intensive South African diet was a shock to the system. A lot of Hebrew slang had been incorporated into my everyday vocabulary, and I sometimes found myself lost in linguistic confusion.
I longed for big open spaces. After quite some time, I managed to reach a bit of equilibrium.
Nonetheless, the experience significantly impacted my world view.
Freedom vs. Vigilance
The thing that struck me the most about life as a student in Germany was the absence of worries and the ease of living I experienced there. In general, life was relaxed and comfortable. I could walk home at 4am and felt a tangible lack of fear. If you are not used to having functional public transport – the abundance of efficient and trustworthy options for getting around can be truly mind-blowing. If you are used to a society that is casual about authority and where strangers easily and openly talk to each other, life in Germany is an adjustment.
I was also struck by the trust that people have in their institutions of authority and bureaucracy. It mostly works like it’s supposed to.
If a large part of my life in Germany was defined by becoming used to not worrying about my personal safety, my reverse-culture shock manifested in the re-accumulation of that worry when I came back to South Africa. I remember distinctly realising just how much of our energy is devoted to that constant vigilance, and how liberating it is to be free of it for a while.
It became clear to me how unhealthy and unusual this sense of normalised paranoia actually is. I was more frustrated by the utter unreliability of our bureaucratic institutions, and immediately missed the freedom of movement. On the other hand, I was happy to be able to talk to strangers again and not feel like questioning my sanity every time I do so.
Hectic Chaos and Chai
Few things can prepare a person for the amount of intensity, chaos, madness and magic that is India. India is a place that you hate AND love, and that is what makes it amazing. My time in India was probably one of the most extensive, ambitious and diverse travel expeditions I had undertaken to date. I quickly learned that the principle of rational thought can be useless, and yet in India, anything really is possible. The diversity of landscapes and cities, faces and food can fill a novel (or three).
Returning from India was a strange and multi-faceted adjustment. The first thing I noticed was the absence of overwhelming loud noises. The second was that all food tasted bland and lifeless. Indian food had literally changed my palate. I had also become addicted to Chai. So I made sure to learn how to make it properly in order to maintain my new habit. I was instantly nostalgic for crazy busses and long overnight trains. It is not uncommon to hear life in South Africa be described as pretty hectic. After the consistently hectic energy of India, a lot of what I once felt to be hectic back home seemed much less so.
When you are in the depths of reverse culture shock, it’s normal to make a lot of critical judgements about home. It can also be that your experience has significantly impacted your sense of identity as you broadened your perspective and opened your mind to new ideas.You can feel very disconnected to your home culture, and even resist re-adapting to it. If you repeat this cycle enough – you can always feel a bit like a foreigner. You never quite pass as a local wherever you are, and you always feel a bit out of place at home too.
It can be alienating to repeatedly have to re-adjust to a place you used to call home. Yet, it can also be very liberating and empowering to realise just how adaptable and flexible you have become.
Moving through a variety of contexts has taught me that you never really know anything. There is always more to uncover, learn and understand in this weird and wonderful world.