Culture shock is what they prepare you for when you are about to embarc in a glorious adventure abroad, as a student, a volunteer or a worker. The culture will be different, as well as the people, the routines, the side of the road you drive on. But at first, it feels nothing like a shock. The honeymoon phase that kicks in at the very beginning is as good as a summer day after quarantine: everything is new, beautiful, ready to be discovered and explored. For the most part, this first quarter of the culture shock looks like a long awaited vacation.
But what we do not realize is that the honeymoon is bound to end, sooner or later. The language is different, first of all, and even if you can speak English on a daily basis at the office, the locals will communicate in an obscure and sometimes terrifying idiom, thus letting you wonder if they are offering you a cup of tea or threatening you for wearing your shoes inside the house. Routines are worse, even: coming from Italy, perhaps, you don't have that pausa caffè at 11 am, and you are constantly judging those poor locals for asking a capuccino with their fetuccini Alfredo. You start missing all the things you took for granted back home: the 'no-cars-around' situation, no traffic jams, no traffic lights, no nothing but people walking everywhere and cows and goats crossing the road; the local food which you probably left aside for the mid-week exotic take away; your friends and family that know you better than you know yourself. This is the frustration phase, when you feel even more of a stranger than you actually are. A feeling of mild depression accompanies you during the day, with homesickness being a close ally to it.
But whether you realize it or not, you are learning. You don't longer leave your shoes on, palinka before dinner is a must, you have a long list of question you submit every day to that poor coworker of yours, whose only fault is to be a local, or a fluent speaker of the language of Mordor. Thus, your language skills improve, now you can ask for something in a polite way and with the right pronunciation without bringing a car wheel into the picture. Congrats, you beat frustration and now you are happily living the adjustment phase. The most important thing of all, you respect the culture of your host country. It can be difficult at times, but you start to understand how every place in the world is different. This doesn't mean that different is bad. Different is just different.
Welcome to the acceptance phase, last and certainly not least. One culture is not better than the other, and judging is your number one enemy. Also, complete understanding is not necessary, nor it is even remotely possible. We all come from different backgrounds, with different mindsets, and it will be asking for the moon for people to be fully understanding of one another's point of view. Acceptance and respect are the key words. Now, a few months in into your experience, you are living your best life, with ups and downs, surely, but with a feeling of being one step closer to being a citizen of the world.
Reverse culture shock
Every head has its tails, and every experience comes to an end. As the back home date is approaching, the most of us experience a disengagement feeling: we feel both here and there, one foot in the now familiar host country and the other back home. You know you have to book that ticket, and you have to realize that the time left is not as much as you initially thought. Time to wrap up the experience: call your new friends for a last pizza party together, visit your favourite spot for reading, run the last run in the park near home, at the same time saying goodbye to the sleepy fishermen and the ducks you illegally fed during the past year (no wonder they are that chubby now). Buy some present for yourself, because yes. Buy something for friends and family at home, too, because yes. Leave some things behind, pack everything else, always wondering if the airport will make you pay for that extra kilos in your luggage.
For the most part, euphoria is your best friend: you cannot wait to go home, see the seaside again, eat the food, meet the friends, get mad at your sister in person, not via text. Then again, coffee in your favourite bar, strolls along the tiny little main square of your tiny little village, the feeling of not hearing cars racing in the street right next to your flat. Flight boarded, flight landed, parents hugged, home at last. You are now again in a mini honeymoon phase, but this time is as brief as a weekend vacation.
Things at home are way different than you remeber: that building was not there, your highschool crush was not engaged, your best friend was not having a child. Also, why are there goats running free? Where is the traffic light you knew so well? Where is the park with the great running track? Why can you understand everything everyone says? Why the first thing you hear in the morning is a rooster and not the bus from the train station fiercely closing the doors shut just below your room window? All these whys are the dampened euphoria signals: you feel frustrated for not having your routine, not recognizing what was familiar just one year ago. You are critical towards everything and everyone: it is like you have been put in a foreign bubble again, with the difference that this time the foreign bubble is you. If home is where you are your truest self, then home is not home, home is your host country. You have adapted so much to the place that had welcomed you 12 months ago that you feel like you belong there, not here.
You have changed, this is undeniable: for better or for worse, it doens't matter, you are not the same as you were when you first started the journey. What's more, it looks like people back home are not interested in your experience as much as you want them to be. And on the other end, you are not interested in their stories either: they look boring if compared to the wonderful adventures you have had in one year. You feel like no one understands you or, better still, that they misunderstand you. You miss being abroad, your friends, your office, your daily routine. And you also miss being a foreigner, the feeling of being the centre of the attention, people inquiring about your life and your decision to take a leap of faith. They were interested. You feel that a tension exist between you and society at home, you no longer feel like you fit in.
But the longer you stay, the more your mind understands that not everything back home is bad. Again, you come to the realization that things are different, just different. You have changed, sure, but this doesn't mean you cannot make the best out of the situation. This is the last phase, readjustment. Things at home are no longer shocking, and you are less critical towards what surrounds you. It is time to take the best you have learned abroad and apply it to your new self, and to the new adventures you will be dragged into by some mad wizard. Readjustment can be difficult, but it doesn't have to be traumatic: take things one at a time, understand how you can make them easier to face, both for yourself and for the others. At last, welcome back home.
How to deal with reverse culture shock
Some tips for a better readjustment:
- Get closure: be aware that these are the last days in your host country. Do not procrastinate things, it makes it worse. You are sad that you are leaving, but this doesn't mean you cannot take memories, love, friendship back home with you. Enjoy every single moment of your last days, stay with friends if you feel like it, stay alone if not. Go to the places you have loved the most, focus on the little things that mean the world to you. Say goodbye to anyone you feel connected with, from your always smiley old neighbor to the owner of that little shop next to the office. Remember that time the ATM decided it was starving for your credit card, and you had to ask a stranger for help. Look out of the kitchen window and fix in your mind the bright green of the tree in front of it.
- Adjust expectations: comparing life at home and abroad is quite nonsense, and it can be both painful and detrimental. You may be driven to comparing the best abroad with the worst at home. Things are different, you are different, comparing is just not the right thing to do. Try and see the best of both worlds, and mix the two together to get the best out of them. Lower your expections and be open minded about everything you will find back home, both good and bad.
- Accept differences: put things into perspective. We are human beings, each and every one of us different from the others. We have different dreams, expectations, experiences, routines. And this is the beauty of our species. Try not to force the others into your perspective, and don't expect everyone to be interested in what you went through. Nor allow yourself to go back to your old self just because it will be easier for you fit others' expectations.
We are different. Some of us might have had a not so great experience abroad, so coming back home will mean entering the comfort zone again. For these people, the dampened euphoria phase might just not exist. For others, like me, home is where the heart is, and my heart is everywhere. Going back is just a pit stop to recharge before another great leap of faith. For others, still, this was their first long experience abroad, and they do not know how they feel.
Especially at this moment, when the whole world is facing a deadly pandemic, some projects have been canceled and volunteers have been forced to go back home sooner than expected. So, it is possible that they have not experienced all the phases described above, or that they went through others that were not listed. Everyone is different, and we shall not judge how and when we cope with something. Either way, be aware of what you have learnt and how you can use it to improve yourself and the world that surrounds you. And if you feel like you need help, reach out! Our community is wide and connected, and we can help each other out. Don't be afraid to speak up, and seek medical help if you think this is the right thing for you.
And remember, the more you experience, the more you learn. The more you learn, the more you grow up. Enjoy your next adventure!