This Isn't 'Home Sweet Home'! What Happened?

Photo by  Karim MANJRA  on  Unsplash

“Nobody is wearing clothes,” I said to my husband as we stepped off the plane and walked towards the gate for our next flight. Bare legs, bare midriffs, bare shoulders, and bare necklines were everywhere I turned. I was shocked! It was our family’s first time back in the U.S. since moving to North Africa two years before. 

I suddenly felt overwhelmed by exposed body parts and the smells of fast food wafting through the air of the terminal. My kids were thrilled to see lit-up signs for Chick-fil-A, Dunkin’ Donuts, and more, but I personally felt nauseous.

“Home? Is this really ‘home’?” I thought to myself. I felt like an alien—like a fish out of water. Was I really from this place? Did I belong here anymore? 

It suddenly occurred to me that I had drastically changed during these two years of living on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Everything about me was different: how I dressed, where I shopped, what I ate, how I saw the world, how I talked, what I thought was important . . . However, looking around me now, it seemed that little had changed in my “home” country and culture during my absence. Time seemed to have stood still.

I sensed another “colliding of two worlds” taking place inside of me—an inner wrestling, a deep stirring.

Upon arriving in North Africa, I had been forced to cross the challenging waters of the culture shock cycle: honeymoon, frustration, adjustment, and acceptance. (Click here to see our Culture Shock Cycle) I was somewhat prepared for that journey as I moved my family to the other side of the world, but I wasn’t prepared for these feelings of shock, confusion, and displacement as I re-entered my own country.

What was this? What was happening inside of me?

This was “Reverse Culture Shock,” and I was completely unaware and unprepared for it!

Reverse culture shock is the emotional and psychological distress suffered by some people when they return home after a number of years overseas. This can result in unexpected difficulty in readjusting to the culture and values of the home country, now that the previously familiar has become unfamiliar.” 

 
Photo by  Jeremy Bishop  on  Unsplash
 

Everything I knew before in my “home culture” in the U.S. now felt foreign and strange to me and my family.

We had adjusted and integrated in a real and deep way into our new “host culture” in North Africa. Our family had made that place “home.” We were now returning to a place that we still called “home,” yet it honestly didn’t feel like “home” anymore.

Two elements that greatly affect the shock of returning to our “home culture” are: an idealized view of “home” and the expectation of total familiarity (that nothing at home has changed while you have been away in the country of your choice).


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What are the stages of “reverse culture shock”? 

There are 4 different stages in the “Reverse Cultural Shock Cycle”—similar to the 4 stages of the “Culture Shock Cycle.” Click here to download our graphic.

1. Disengagement: This begins before leaving one’s country of choice—the place and land that we have come to call “home.” The days before our departure from the host country are often extremely busy and overwhelming—filled with packing, difficult goodbyes, and farewell parties. There can be feelings of sadness and frustration as we may not want to leave, and we are already missing the friends, places, and things that we are forced to leave behind. There is a breaking away, a separation, a disengagement that begins to take place as we uproot our hearts and lives.

2. Initial Euphoria: Just before leaving the host country, we may begin to feel excitement and anticipation about going back “home” to see family and friends. We start dreaming of our favorite people, places, foods, beverages, stores, etc. (My mouth always begins watering when I think about having my first maple-frosted donut and ice-cold Dr. Pepper back “home” in America!) When the “Welcome Home” parties and family reunions are over, the realization kicks in that people are not typically as interested in our family’s life and journey abroad as we had hoped. Every time we have a chance to show pictures and tell stories of “our life back there,” it seems that people are interested for only a few minutes. They quickly change topics to something “closer to home.”  

3. Irritability and Hostility: As we sometimes feel like strangers in our own land, we may experience an array of emotions: frustration, anger, loneliness, alienation, irritability. We may also become very critical of our “home culture” as we compare everything to our “host culture” and our newly-adopted and preferred ways of life. Longings to go back to the place we now call “home” are often quite prevalent during this stage.

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During this stage, Craig Storti in his book,"The Art of Coming Home," describes four reactions to the “home culture”:

  • Criticality: We may become very critical of our “home culture” as we compare everything to our “host culture” and our newly-adopted and preferred ways of life.

  • Marginality: Your overseas experience has greatly impacted your identity, and sometimes you may struggle to “fit in” with mainstream society back in your “home culture.”

  • Overexertion/Exhaustion: The transition back to your “home culture” can cause a lot of physical fatigue. Adjusting to new and old customs also requires paying attention to basic functions. 

  • Resistance/Withdrawal/Self-Doubt/Depression: Many become disoriented with their “home culture” and resist adapting to it. We will often fantasize about our “life back there” and long to return to it. As a result, sometimes we withdraw and escape, avoiding having contact with people of the “home culture.” This can lead to more feelings of loneliness, isolation, and depression.

4. Readjustment and Adaptation: Little by little, we begin to readjust to life back in our “home culture.” Old routines and cultural habits eventually set back in, although things never seem to return completely to the way they were before moving abroad. Usually, we incorporate some of our new ways of doing things into our “old life.” We begin to gain fresh perspective and vision as we move ahead towards new personal and professional goals.


What are some of the factors that make “reverse culture shock” more or less intense?

Craig Storti's book,"The Art of Coming Home," presents key variables that affect reentry stress. In his "Figure 2.1: Some Variables Affecting Reentry," he includes the following: 

  1. Voluntary versus involuntary reentry: involuntary is worse.

  2. Expected versus unexpected reentry: unexpected is harder.

  3. Age: reentry may be easier for older people who have been through more life transitions.

  4. Previous reentry experience: the first time is the worst.

  5. Length of the overseas stay: the longer the sojourn, the greater the chance for adaptation; hence, the harder it may be to leave and come home.

  6. Degree of interaction with the overseas culture: the more involved you become in the local culture, the harder it may be to leave it behind.

  7. The reentry environment: the more familiar and supportive, the easier the reentry.

  8. Amount of interaction with the home culture during the overseas sojourn: the more familiar the returnee is with changes in the home culture, the easier the reentry.

  9. Degree of difference between the overseas and the home culture: the greater the difference, the harder the reentry.

 

I can look back over our family’s life and see many reentries back into our “home culture.” It’s true that when we were traveling or moving abroad, we were prepared for “culture shock.” However, we often weren’t prepared for “reverse culture shock” as we tried to reintegrate into our “home culture.” On more than one occasion, we got a real slap in the face!

Could we have been better prepared? Was it possible to have a smoother landing when transitioning back into our “home culture”? Yes! Next time, we can better prepare ourselves, our children, and others for this major leap back “home”—“Home Sweet Home!”