Talking about reverse culture shock; the peculiar, alienating feeling you get when you move back home after living the expat life.
And I do realise that I’ve not actually spoken about normal culture shock on this podcast yet (that’s a topic for the future!) but I wanted to get this one in now after the visiting home episode last month. Because a form of reverse culture shock can hit you even when you make a short visit to your home country after moving overseas.
I’ll tell you what reverse culture shock is, how it shows itself and why it happens. And, of course, I’ll share tips on how to cope and work through any reverse culture shock symptoms.
You’ll also learn the first rule of Ex-Expat Club… !
“So, here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here.
Never enough for both.”
~ Ijeoma Umebinyuo
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Welcome aboard the Expatability Chat podcast, helping expat parents navigate moving and living overseas with their families. With Carole Hallett Mobbs, expat life mentor and consultant and founder of Expatchild.com.
I'm Carole, your resident expat expert, and I'm here to help you live the expat life you dream about and deserve. If you're planning a move abroad, or if you're already living your expat life, or even if you're planning a move back home, you've come to the right place. In this podcast, I'll offer you experienced insight, sensible advice and practical information, along with some sugar-free no bullshit tips and tricks to help you on your way so that you and your children can live your expat experience to the full. There are so many layers to this expat life that you need to know about, but often you don't know what you need to know. And that's what I aim to help you with, because knowledge is power and I want you to have the best expat experience you possibly can.
So let's get straight into today's episode.
In this episode, I want to talk to you about reverse culture shock, which is the peculiar alienating feeling you get when you move back home. I touched on a couple of points about this in my Visiting Home episode and now I'm going to expand in full. And I do realise that I've not actually spoken about normal culture shock on this podcast yet, and that's a topic for the future again. But I wanted to get this one in now because after the Visiting Home episode last month, it will make more sense because the form of reverse culture shock can hit you even when you make a short visit to your home country after moving overseas. So what is reverse culture shock and why does it happen?
Pretty much everybody knows about culture shock when you visit a country with different customs, different food, different cultural aspects and a different language. Not everyone experiences culture shock, I didn't at all when I moved to Japan, which is where you'd expect to find culture shock everywhere. Or you may experience culture shock when you move somewhere very similar to your home country, which is what happened when I moved to Germany. Some say the most obvious culture shock happens when you move somewhere extremely similar to home, for example, from the USA to the UK, or vice versa, where you expect everything to be identical, but it really isn't. However, most find that the worst culture shock of all comes when you return to your home country.
And this is reverse culture shock. It's the name people give to that feeling of not fitting in, where you'd expect to fit in easily. You are particularly at risk of it hitting hard if you return home after living abroad for a long time. The longer you're away, the more noticeable it is. Reverse culture shock relates to the psychological, emotional and cultural aspects of being back in your home country, whether that's to live or for a visit.
Obviously, a visit will be short-lived and the shock will be different, but the same. Goodness, I could tie myself up in knots here trying to differentiate it all, but I reckon you'll work it out if I don't keep signalling. There are some variables in play that could influence how well you cope with repatriation, which will also affect how much reverse culture shock you may experience. I've mentioned much of these before in my Repatriation podcast episode, but I'll whizz through them again here. For example, if your move back home was unexpected and involuntary, you'll find it more difficult to settle than if you wanted to move back and planned it well.
Also, the older you are, the more familiar you are to change. So we'll probably find it all much easier because you've already been through so many life changes already. Having a strong and understanding support system at home will also help you integrate more smoothly and quickly, and, as it happens, with ordinary culture shock. Reverse culture shock is subjective, meaning that each person, each individual, will have their own unique experience in readjusting to their home culture. The best way to beat reverse culture shock is to be aware of how it may strike.
Here are a few of the experiences you could expect to have once you return home. Your first few days back home will be exciting, meeting up with family and friends, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of home. Maybe you'll be dealing with jet lag too, so you'd expect to feel pretty weird. Once that's all settled, you may notice some unusual emotions arising, a kind of delayed onset of reverse culture shock. It doesn't happen all at once, disorientation, isolation, or, as some describe it, alienation.
You don't fit in. It's a strange kind of disembodied, out of sync feeling. Others have said that they felt a kind of uneasiness, some anxiety and, well, damn grumpy about all kinds of normal stuff. But I'll come to that bit later. The thing is, you feel that you should feel at home, you should feel comfortable, but you don't.
I do need to add a disclaimer in here that these feelings can also be key symptoms of depression. So perhaps visit your GP if it's all overwhelming. Normality can hit hard to start with. As I say, you'll enjoy being with friends and family, you'll scoff your favourite foods and then, well, everything becomes a bit more mundane when you're overseas. Everyday tasks may have seemed a little bit more exotic and interesting, but at home?
Nope. Especially if you lived a good proportion of your life in your home country before moving, because there's just nothing new and exciting to discover anymore. Living overseas is quite an adrenaline filled lifestyle, where even the most banal activity has a little spice to it. Supermarkets, for example, always have something new and unusual to discover when you're back home. Language can also trip you up.
It took me a hell of a long time to fully understand English again. It was really weird, particularly all the different accents here. And some seemed like a completely foreign language to me. As I say, it was really odd. Being away inevitably creates both a physical and emotional distance between you, your home country and your people.
The thing is, two main things have happened. You've changed. Living abroad triggers profound changes in you. And when you move back, the way that you feel about things at home changes too. Things that felt comforting once aren't comforting anymore.
And also home changed. The country, the town, the politics, the society, your family, your friends all change. Time does that, and you haven't been there to see it gradually happen. So it's therefore more obvious, more in your face. You see, while you have changed by living overseas, your home country has changed too.
Not only that, but your hometown will have changed. The physical environment, the streets, the houses and so on, it just feels off. New buildings have appeared, old buildings have gone. Your family and your friends have changed too. And these changes can be a bit disturbing and disorienting, because in your head, everything was a snapshot of when you left.
There may be new family members that you've never met. New babies, new partners, even new pets. Yes, I had to get pets in there somewhere, didn't I? And then the tough stuff happens. You notice that your relationships with friends and family members have changed too.
Your friends' lives have moved on. They may have different careers, different hobbies, and their life outlook may be different from yours now. Connections that were once strong may no longer feel the same. Your family may have certain expectations of you. Perhaps they expect more frequent visits now that you're in the same country.
Maybe you're expected to help care for family members, babysitting, for example, or elderly care. Your friends may want you to join in their already established but new to you social group. Yet you already have a family routine that fills your time. The school run may be longer and it may be more complex than before. There may be loads of after school clubs that your kids want to attend.
Your new job will be stressful at first. Maybe your commute is longer. It's all just different. Not necessarily bad, but different and therefore something new to learn and to deal with and you can't just slip back into home life seamlessly.
And as I'm sure you are perfectly aware, you have changed too. Living abroad is a life-changing experience and affects your attitudes, feelings and relationships with home and the people that you left years ago. Some other aspects of reverse culture shock are directly related to the changes in your own perception that you developed overseas. And of course, you may simply miss being in your old country. Personally, I struggled a lot with repatriation and reverse culture shock because I did not want to come home, but I had to.
It wasn't unexpected, but I really didn't want to come home. But one of the key disconnects I noticed when I repatriated back to the UK from South Africa was the difference in what we call poverty. And, yes, I am fully aware that we're in the middle of a cost of living crisis, but compared to how many families in Africa and other countries live, well, really, I'd moved from somewhere where I had seen the sheer heartbreaking and indescribable poverty. And then one of the first TV adverts I saw back in the UK was for a special toilet spray or something that makes your poo not smell. I mean, massive disconnect.
And that was a disconnect that was astounding and quite difficult to cope with. Something else I noticed personally was clean versus dirty. The UK is surprisingly filthy with rubbish strewn all over the roads and verges. Of course, in Africa, many people are so poor that they scavenge for all the rubbish and then sell it for a few grand to buy a tiny bag of cornmeal. And the verges are therefore clean because of that.
So it's weird things, that disconnect that you discover in your home country versus your new country. And if you weren't keen on returning home, it's very easy to slip into making critical judgments while you're in the middle of reverse culture shock. As you can see, major judgement from me. Okay, let's try and lighten up a little bit here.
Some ex expats miss the tight-knit expat bubble, or community of fellow experts from the same company that they mix with. In some places, you live in an expat compound or an expat apartment block, so everybody you meet is in the same boat as you. They may even work in the same company as you or your partner. That's what I mean by the expat bubble. You don't mix with the locals, you just mix with other expats.
You understand the way of life. When they moved back home, some missed the privileged lifestyle that they were able to afford, the nannies, the cleaners, even drivers in some countries. And then there is criticality. At the depths of reverse culture shock, you may notice yourself making a lot of critical judgments about home. You may think that it was all just so much better overseas.
Well, it may have been, but you're home now, for whatever reason. It is what it is and you have to make the best of it. Yeah, tough talking from someone who knows, been there, done that. As I say, got the T-shirt. And I will hold my hand up to being immensely critical and judgmental about the UK.
While it's normal to critically compare your experience abroad with your experience at home, you do need to try and keep your frustrations in check, however grumpy you are about it all. People got really cross with me for commenting on the no stinky poo stuff. It seems that everyone else can criticise your home country, but if you've lived overseas, you're not allowed to. Welcome to the Ex Expat Club. So what's the first rule of Ex Expat Club?
You do not talk about Ex Expat Club. Surprise. When you move back home, your friends and family generally do not want to hear about your life abroad. You may be surprised to learn just how few people are even the slightest bit interested in your life-changing stint overseas. Nobody cares about your travels.
Sorry, but it's true, they aren't as interested in hearing about your foreign experience as you are in telling them about it. And you'll also discover that you aren't as interested in hearing about what has happened at home as they are in telling you about it. You may find that when you start talking to your nearest and dearest about your expat experience, they either shut down quickly, shut you down quickly, glaze over, or find ways to talk about something else. Some may be even outright rude. Sigh.
Do the whole rolling eye thing and even say, well, if it was so great there, why did you bother moving back? There could be a few reasons for this reaction. It may be that they're jealous. Not everybody had the same opportunity as you to travel overseas, but they may want to. So be sensitive about who you discuss your experiences with.
They may be unable to relate to your adventures, especially if they've only ever lived in one place all their life. It's simply not interesting to them. What's important to them may seem mundane to you, but then that's rude from your own point of view, isn't it? That may give you an insight into their attitude. Talking of which, you may be the target of a kind of punishment behaviour.
They may be punishing you for having the absolute audacity to go away and leave them and have a different life from them. Maybe you're talking about it all too much. Other people's lives are just as important to them, and perhaps they feel that you're bragging about living abroad. But the thing is, when you've lived away for a long time, that's a huge part of your life, your past, your life experience, which is now a part of you. So are you expected to just ignore that life experience to suit others?
Well, I'd say no, definitely not. But it's a tricky balance to find. Perhaps not start every sentence with, When I lived in and Oh, it was so much better in. Basically, try not to take it personally.
Think of it like looking at somebody else's holiday photographs. A few is okay, but after 100 it gets really difficult to sound interested. So how can you cope with reverse culture shock? Well, first of all, get rid of your assumptions about how easy it will be to fit back into your home country. Old homes, social circles, workplaces, neighbourhoods and habits are not easy to slip back into. Nowhere near as easy as many people expect them to be, making it all seem alien and unwelcoming, rather than homely and familiar.
Be patient. Time is a great healer in this respect. Reverse culture shock effects can crop up when you least expect them. Like when I'm preparing this podcast episode and looking back to when I repatriated. I was insufferable and they may hang around longer than you'd like.
This is normal. I've been back, what, four and a half years now? I've kept my judgement to myself, but it's still there. Be patient with yourself and with those around you. Allow yourself the time you need to work through what you're feeling, whilst also being respectful to the people you interact with every day.
Keep in touch with friends you met overseas. They can relate to your experience, especially if they've moved back to their home countries, too. Let them become part of your support system. Another aspect to getting rid of reverse culture shock is letting go. Let go of your resistance to reverse culture shock.
By fighting it, you'll just create more pain. Let go of the concept of home as a physical place, because both it and you have changed, redefine what home means to you. Home is a massive concept. It's not necessarily a house or a country, it's bigger than that.
Let go of the idea that operating within a comfort zone is how things should be. Keep stepping outside your new comfort zone, otherwise it can be too easy for your world to shrink to nothing. Lockdown made this aspect of life almost impossible to cope with for so many. And the thing is, letting go in this sense can be empowering. Think of it in terms of excess baggage.
Let go because you no longer need it. Live in the present and try not to look back too much, or at least when you're talking to others. Be careful not to drop your travel tales into too many conversations. If you're feeling a bit adrift, try a new experience, perhaps learn a new skill. Join a club, get out there and meet new people, just like you did when you first moved abroad.
It's not as easy back home, though, as there generally isn't a pack of other expats in the vicinity and you're trying to break into already very settled circles. But if you are lucky, if you can find other expats and adventure travellers, they get it, and that's fabulous. That said it's easier said than done, though, unless you're extremely lucky where you live. When you do find people on your wavelength, though, it is wonderful to be able to relax and swap travel stories. These are great times and friends to be treasured.
Overcoming reverse culture shock is a process. It does not last forever. Every day that you’re home will help you readjust and re-acclimatise to your surroundings. And after a while, you'll start to feel yourself easing back into life at home. Try to keep an open mind about your home country and how you and your people have changed.
Life goes on and change is a natural process. It's just because you've suddenly landed in a changed place as a changed person, meeting changed people that you're feeling it so keenly now. Just remember that reverse culture shock and the various ways it may affect you is because home has changed and you have changed. You've adapted to another culture and now you must readapt, you've done it before, so you can most certainly do it again. I just want to end on a lovely quote from someone whose name I'm not even going to try and butcher, and I deeply apologise for that.
But the quote is, “So here you are, too foreign for home, too foreign for here, never enough for both.” I'll put the name and that quote in the show notes, so my embarrassment about not being able to pronounce the name will be there for everybody to see. But just remember, you've done it once, you've adapted, once you can adapt a game. All the best and I'll talk to you again soon. As ever, thank you so much for being here with me today.
I hope you found this episode useful and interesting. If you found this podcast helpful, I'd be really grateful if you could subscribe, share and give me a review. It really does help other people who may need to know about this stuff to find it, and I really, really do appreciate it. In the show notes that accompany this episode, you'll find information about my websites, about my downloads, I've got lists, I've got e-books, I've got master classes, all sorts. And these will help you with every step of your expat journey.
You'll also find details about how you can work with me, one to one if you wish, so that you can get personal advice tailored for your life and your move abroad, because everybody is different. And of course, you can find me on your favourite social media. I've got a presence on most of them. Tag me, message me, tell your friends about me, and I look forward to learning more about you and your move overseas. Please do get in touch.
Please check out Expatchild.com for more free information and resources. Don't forget to join me next time for another episode. Until then, goodbye.