Reverse Culture Shock

I recently moved back to the United States after more than three years living and working in India. The move was prompted by some unfortunate health issues affecting a family member more than it was my desire to return to the United States, leading to very little reflection on my part as to what to expect upon returning; the focus was essentially on dealing with the issues at hand and not much more. This is not to suggest that I have anything against America or returned under protest or duress in any way (or at least any more than the situation warranted), but it’s important to call out. I didn’t leave at a logical breaking point or at a conclusion of work or anything of the like.

Though there were a few months of lead up before leaving, it did have a feel of “here today, gone tomorrow”; the life I’d built in India over the past 39 months simply and abruptly ended once I got on the plane “home”. Over the last few weeks I’ve come to learn of something I’d never imagined: reverse culture shock.

I first learned of this concept on an expat blog which described it as such: “Reverse culture shock is experienced when returning to a place that one expects to be home but actually is no longer, is far more subtle, and therefore, more difficult to manage than outbound shock precisely because it is unexpected and unanticipated.” I think that’s a pretty succinct and accurate summary of it.

Lacking the eloquence of that writer’s summation, it just feels weird being back in America. When overseas, it’s easy to think that the life I left behind here just paused; that I would just pick up with people where we left off so long ago, and that places would look, and more importantly feel, the same as they did. The realization that this is unequivocally not the case brings with it a sense of being adrift, like you no longer have a foundation, no “true north” to give you a sense of direction.

I didn’t really think about it until talking to a close family friend about the experience. I’ve always been able to be totally honest with him and was so in talking about the difficulties I was having adjusting back to America. A Vietnam War veteran, he said that it sounded oddly similar to post-traumatic stress. I wouldn’t dare claim that anything I’d experienced overseas comes even remotely close to that which soldiers are forced to endure, but I found it interesting enough to do a little research, which led to this “reverse culture shock” discovery.

One site listed the following symptoms: Boredom, No one wants to listen, You can’t explain, Reverse homesickness, Relationships have changed, People misunderstand you, Feelings of alienation, Loss/compartmentalisation of experience. Above and beyond these, I’d add increased irritability to the list. Always sporting a short-fuse, now I just feel on edge almost all of the time. Almost akin to how someone suffering from a migraine is overly, adversely affected by light, there is a certain heightened sensitivity to, and even a level of aversion for, interactions with other people. It feels like you’re being pulled in a million directions at once, and not in any that feel natural or preferred. It’s like you’ve woken up in a place that looks familiar but feels fundamentally different in ways that are not easily explained; everything is the same but totally different.

It’s an awkward, disappointing feeling. When I think about it calmly and logically, I understand that most of the people simply want to spend time with me as I’ve been so far away for so long. In the moment, though, I can’t seem to help but bristle and feel the opposite, like these people are acting selfishly and not taking my needs into consideration. It’s awful because when I inevitably snap, I feel like a total jerk but for some reason it’s not getting any easier. If anything, the longer I’m here the worse it gets, and the more I pine to return to a place that, at least right now, makes more sense and feels more natural. Complicating matters is the lack of a sounding board for these thoughts, and no one wants to delve to the level of sanctimony that is best encompassed by the unavoidable thought, “You had to be there to understand”. I have a few friends that can relate but most are too far away or too much time has passed between our last meetings for me to phone up and download this onto them.

I went, or rather ran away, to India seeking an intense, if not punishing, experience. I knew it would be difficult, and at least part of the rationale behind the move was to endure something extremely challenging and then move on with my life. Never would I have imagined that the intensity of the experience would become something that I needed or yearned for; that spending time in heart-wrenching contexts around people struggling to make it on a day-to-day basis would become more comfortable than life in America. Alas, that is the conclusion that I’ve arrived at, and the longer I spend here the more I want to be there. This has led me to conclude that the best course of action is to do just that: go back to India.

My experience may be unique, and it may be driven by the personal challenges related to the health issues of a family member stated before. That said, it is worth keeping in mind if one is considering a life abroad. Life as an expat is unlike being a tourist in manifold ways, but none more than that it augments one’s sense of normality, and what one needs in order to feel at ease, at home. For me, it doesn’t take any more than the undeniable excitement I’m feeling at heading back to India. Had anyone told me I would feel this way 3.5 years ago, I would’ve laughed in their face.

2 Comments

  1. I love your blog.

    I work at a hospital in the United States and will be visiting schools in Bhunaneswar for several weeks. I would love to hear your thoughts about some things we could bring that they most could need. We are planning to assist them in developing programming for children with specific medical needs that affect the brain, but I’d love hearing more on what to expect. Thank you.

    • Wow, thanks Jacklyn! Much appreciated. I assume you’re visiting public schools in Bhubaneswar? If so, the needs are plenty. Though they get school uniforms, a lot of kids lack shoes. Most schools lack toilets too, but not sure you’d be able to help on that front. I think small things like pens, pencils, notebooks, crayons, coloring books, etc. would be greatly appreciated. Is this your first time visiting Bhubaneswar? India? It’s going to be an incredible experience in so many ways! I’ll write to you at this email address so we can take this conversation forward. Cheers!

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