Reverse Culture Shock or Just a Different You in an Old, Familiar Place?

We’ve all experienced culture shock in some form or another, but what about reverse culture shock? You know – the difficulty adjusting to one’s home country after being abroad for some time?

Welcome home...

Welcome home…

Kind of strange, isn’t it, to think of someone having to adjust back to something that was so intrinsically a part of who they are, but as someone who has spent more time away from “home” in the last four years than actually being home, I can honestly say that it’s hard being back to “normal life.” REALLY hard.

The more I think of reverse culture shock within the scope of my own experiences, the more I believe it’s not simply about adjusting to a former life. It’s really about people trying to adjust back to a different version of themselves in a specific point in time that has passed and they just didn’t notice because they were too busy traveling and changing themselves.

Travel, especially long term travel, changes us. And not just in the “You’ve gained some weight,” or you got a nose piercing or a funky tattoo kind of change, but a real, sometimes imperceptible change that alters our perception of things and the way we react to those things, the way we approach challenges, as well as the new boundaries we’ve created around our accepted comfort zones.

This place looks familiar...

This place looks familiar…

Once these change take place, it’s extremely difficult to go back to a place and expect to pick up right where you left off months, or even years ago. And although all this makes sense intellectually, in reality when we leave, our brain freezes a specific moment in time and space and we expect that when we return things will start moving forward again, regardless that friends grow apart naturally, favorite hangouts close due to rising rent, and that little fact you still haven’t quite accepted, but just can’t ignore anymore about how you’re no longer the same person you once were.

Beautiful New York City on my mind

Beautiful New York City on my mind

Of course, distance truly does make the heart grow fonder and I’ve also come to understand that in some ways, perhaps I’ve romanticized my past relationships. In my fondest of memories, I’ve forgiven the congested streets of New York City, the exorbitant prices of everyday items such as toilet paper and fresh vegetables, the friends who are terrible at responding to emails or text messages, or the ones who disappear as soon as a new boyfriend enters the picture (99% of my friends are either gay or female – there is never talk about girlfriends in my social world), and for goodness sakes, what is THAT smell?!?!  Yes, I have forgotten all this and more.

So where does that leave me, or anyone else who suffers from this special brand of reverse culture shock? Well, to be honest, it leaves us alone. Life goes on, with or without us, and no matter how much we thought we wanted something to be, sometimes it just isn’t and we’ve got to accept it.

And we do. It’s one of those lessons we learned while traveling, just one of the many that has helped us grow, evolve, and change. Coming home isn’t what we expected it to be and so we start anew, like we’ve been doing almost every day abroad – we move forward, live our lives, and continue to have amazing experiences, seeing this familiar place that is now almost entirely different and hanging out with friends we once knew but now (and let’s be honest here), may not know very well anymore. Only we do this with new eyes, one that views the world in a way that better reflects the changed people we are today in this particular space and time.


  • jess jones says:

    Ahh yes, just the post i have been wanting/needing to write since i returnec on may first… Thank you for sharing! It really is bloody hard and most people in our lives cant quite understand it. I on the other hand realized that i just wasnt ready to be home or perhaps couldn’t accept it, and my journey took a very unexpected turn! Now im living in Bali!
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    • Connvoyage says:

      That’s awesome! I loved Bali! The week I spent in Amed diving was some of my most fondest memories from Indo. But more to the topic at hand, it is difficult to understand and I think it’s such a highly personal experience that it would be hard for someone else to understand. Alas, life still goes on. The key is still being able to find happiness and it sounds like you have. I know I have so.. HOORAY!

  • “The more I think of reverse culture shock within the scope of my own experiences, the more I believe it’s not simply about adjusting to a former life. It’s really about people trying to adjust back to a different version of themselves…” You put it perfectly. I like how positive you ended this because it is a really difficult process and easy to judge the people and place you go back to bc you have this whole new set of world opinions on life. I always said I wouldn’t go home until I felt like it was foreign to me to avoid reverse culture shock. I think traveling back with Ric has taught me to see it through visitors eyes when I first get back, so all the little quarks on life are just as interesting as those of another country and not just, oh, this again. I’m so ready to go back right now it’s scary. Just to get some sort of order in my life. But I am nervous that reverse culture shock will set in a week or two after I’m home…Just have to stay positive I guess :)

    • Connvoyage says:

      I know you will! Maybe it will be easier because you’re doing it with someone who shared the same experiences with you abroad? I don’t know. I’m curious to see how you fare so keep me posted!

  • Liv says:

    Hi Connie – I have definitely experienced reverse culture shock. Travel brings such perspective that I think it is hard not to experience it after an extended period away from home. You are also faced with the poignant reminder that life goes on without you, which is sometimes easier to accept than at other times. Hope you are settling back in ok though!
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    • Connvoyage says:

      Thanks and yes, I’m doing quite alright here. NYC gives me an energy that is just so…. so… GOOD (for lack of a better word)! I think I’m extremely lucky that my reverse culture shock is taking place here because it’s such an exciting city and plus, if I get “homesick” for India, I can go down and find some incredible masala dosas. Missing Thailand? A subway ride gets me the best pad thai this side of the world. And the best little Turkish diner is literally around the corner! Life, for the most part, is good.

  • Audrey says:

    Great article Connie. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I will soon be returning to LA after 3 years in Japan. Although our experiences abroad are different I too fear reverse culture shock. I’ve changed but that doesn’t mean anyone else has. Life as I knew it continued when I left. Sure, technology has alleviated some of that separation but still. Even on return visits people became less and less interested in my daily life abroad. It’s as if they heard it all and just weren’t interested anymore. It’s a reality I’m going to have to accept. I don’t like it but what can I do. Best to keep an open mind and roll with what comes I suppose. Best of luck adjusting to your new you!!

    • Connvoyage says:

      I can’t believe it’s been three years for you in Japan. Time flies! I think things may be better for you since you’ll have your husband with you and you can both share together the adjustment and the memories. I think that will definitely help you both get though it. Besides, you’re awesome so… no sweat! =)

  • Leigh says:

    This post is so insightful! I never realized how much culture shock you’d have returning, but it makes sense!! Guess things changed while you were gone. NOT FAIR!

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