Before my return from the round-the-world trip, I expected to experience reverse culture shock, even as an immigrant of only 11 years. Talon Windwalker’s recent blog post at 1 Dad 1 Kid about his and his son’s persistent reverse culture shock one month after returning to the U.S. from years of traveling reminded me of this. But hard as I racked my brain for instances of reverse culture shock in my 4+ months since returning, I could only trace a few mild symptoms that would barely make for a diagnosis of culture shock. What am I missing?

What is reverse culture shock?

As a traveler you may suffer from revers culture shock when you return to your country of origin (U.S.A. for the present purposes) and feel any of the following:

  • Distance and disconnect from your acquaintances, friends, family be it because they cannot relate to your traveling experience or because you cannot relate to their lives as they unfolded while you were gone.
  • Conflict between your values, attitudes, and beliefs as a traveler and those that are the mainstream in the U.S. or among your friends and family.
  • Confusion and uncertainty about your place in your own culture.
  • Restlessness that results from the yearning for traveling, that is, a strong sense you miss and would rather be traveling.
  • Frustration and a sense of isolation springing from any of the above.

How to avoid reverse culture shock

More than one traveler has suffered from symptoms of culture shock. When I lived in Slovakia, every time I returned from trips abroad I’d experience severe reverse culture shock, getting angry at the condition of public bathrooms or upset at poor customer service. When I returned from the RTW trip to the U.S., my adoptive country, I could not fully relate my traveling experience to my friends and in-laws and they could not comprehend it on all levels either. I also continue to have itchy feet, feeling I could leave on another trip tomorrow. So why am I missing out on reverse culture shock? Given that I am neither superhuman nor a heartless bastard, I can think of the following reasons:

  1. I am an immigrant. This is the biggest reason I haven’t suffered from much of a reverse culture shock. Eleven years in the U.S. has been sufficient time for me to acquaint myself with the American culture and to adopt some of its customs and values. I also learn something new every day and still experience immigrant’s pain from time to time (I write about this on my blog American Robotnik). Not only did my experience as an immigrant purge the culture shock out of my system over the years, I continue to consider this place foreign.
  1. I prepared for the return. As I outlined in posts after the return, I was ready for the re-entry physically and mentally. I knew what to expect: I knew my friends wouldn’t be able to relate completely to my travel adventure, I knew I would miss traveling, and I knew what city and culture I’d be returning into. In a way, I got the reverse culture shock out of my system before I even got back.
  1. I changed my identity. Part of the preparation for re-entry was to rethink my attitude to life. I reshuffled my identity and adopted the outlook of a permanent traveler. To “live at home like a traveler” [Thoreau] means remaining an outsider in the local culture, observing it and reflecting upon it the same way I used to in other countries (being an immigrant helps). The life of travel at home also means seeking out experiences and going out of my comfort zone, as if I were just visiting. I’ve also connected with Portlanders who traveled long-term. Challenges remain: I slide into old habits and get too comfortable to go beyond thinking like a traveler at home and actually acting like one. But I’m off to a good start.
  1. I don’t take it personally. Travelers raised in the rhetoric of American exceptionalism tend to have high expectations of their home culture. As an American, albeit of only 3 years, I do too. I’m also allergic to people, Americans or foreigners, travelers or homebodies, denigrating it. It only took a few weeks back in the U.S. for me to slide into the local conception of time: whereas on the road I adopted event time, now I find myself wanting everything now and loath to wait. I reflect on this development with bewilderment but instead of disparaging the culture that causes it, I take a deep breath and return to my newfound event-time center. As a Slovak, I’m a born-and-raised expert in complaining, but I refuse to play that game any longer. It’s easy to complain, much harder to do something about it. Being an immigrant and a permanent traveler allows me to maintain a certain distance from the local culture, my expectations of it reasonable, and my emotions about it in check.
  1. I returned to a familiar place. We made a conscious decision to return to Portland, Oregon, where we’d lived for 8 years before the trip. Sure, returning to where I left from makes the life of permanent travel more difficult and because of the disconnect mentioned above I feel a drive to seek out new friends. But returning to a familiar environment and circles has made the return much easier. Plus I like it here: Portland is a great place to live and so it was an easy place to return to. What’s more, some aspects of Portland that I enjoyed a lot before the trip, e.g. the craft-brew scene, improved while I was gone.

Granted, not everyone can be an immigrant like me. But reverse culture shock can be prevented, if not avoided altogether, by taking a few precautions.

19 Responses

  1. John

    Interesting perspective and I can definitely relate. We’ve been traveling for 11 months now and have just returned to the US, where we’ve been for the past 10 days. I was prepared for reverse culture shock yet have barely felt it. I was just thinking what is wrong with me so glad to see I’m not the only one. Perhaps where I’ve felt reverse culture shock a little is with prices of a lot of things seems to have gone up (or at least that’s my perception). But all the other symptoms you’ve mentioned I’ve likewise somehow avoided. Perhaps its #5 – returning to a familiar place – that has helped us. Am also am enjoying some new beers – cheers Peter!

    Reply
  2. Talon

    Length of time away can also factor in as well. It looks like your RTW was 1 year and you had plans on returning. We were gone almost 4 years and initially had no plan on returning to the US. And I’m sure you’re right about the difference of returning as an immigrant vs. someone who is a native. And people are different. I’ve rarely ever experienced culture shock on the road whereas I know others who have almost been crippled by it.

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      Good points, Talon. Every person’s circumstances are unique. Having followed your blog for a while now I know you’ve gone through worse. Hang in there.

      Back in my solopreneur days, a friend had a motto: Proper planning prevents piss-poor performance. Applied to culture shock, reverse or regular, I’d say it helps knowing and being prepared for at least some of what to expect. Though sometimes even that doesn’t work. I actually still experience culture shock when I visit my native Slovakia. I expect certain things to have improved while I was gone – sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes I find others have got worse.

      Reply
  3. Tracy

    I’ve not traveled extensively, as you have. But after two tours of Europe and a couple humanitarian trips to Mexico’s slums, I found the commercialism of America to be quite overwhelming for a time. I still don’t like radio or TV commercials. (I’m always using the mute button.) Other cultures seem to value silence more than we do, and when I came back each time, I felt like I was bombarded with too much selling, too much stuff, just too much in general. Does that make sense?

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      It makes perfect sense. America can sure be overwhelming, especially in terms of commercialism. I still freak out a little when I have to go to the supermarket and I go into panic mode when they change the merchandise around. But after the trip I’ve been approaching it as a fact of life, something I cannot change much. That distance has helped a lot.

      Reply
  4. Catherine

    These are great suggestions. I wish I’d had them after spending a long time abroad. Returning from long trips more recently were easier because I knew what to expect from reentry. I still remember seeing a paper toilet seat cover in the airport bathroom after a summer broad and thinking, “WHAT?!”

    Reply
  5. Emily

    Towards the end of our trip we were so wrapped up in finding a stinking apartment in Toronto that we were checked in a bit before we flew back. It’s been a week back and I think the biggest adjustment has been the weather – brrrrrr! – and already we are wanderlustin’ (friend’s getaways to Central America and the Caribbean have us sighing). It will be interesting to see how things evolve as time plays on!

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      I hope you aired that apartment out before you moved in. But no matter what you do and whatever happens, the feet won’t stop itching, I can almost guarantee it. I’ll be curious to see how you fare.

      Reply
  6. Franca

    I’m not sure if I’d experience a reverse culture shock after travelling for so long because like yourself I am an immigrant too, I lived in the UK for almost 7 years before me and Dale left the country. I’m not sure, we’ll see when we’ll settle somewhere again. Great suggestions though 🙂

    Reply
  7. Micki

    I love your perspective on this. As I travel more and more, I’m finding that my reverse culture shock is less and less each time. I think it really boils down to expectations on my part; the first time I traveled out of Canada for a year I came back and found it very hard to adjust to the fact that, even though I’d changed and seen so much, my friends and family were living almost exactly the same lives as they had when I left a year earlier. These days, I’ve come to expect that life at home changes little when I’m gone, and that’s made re-entry a lot easier.

    Reply
  8. Rhonda

    We absolutely had reverse culture shock.. and quite honestly, I still find it unbelievable that a grocery store needs an entire aisle of cereal, for instance. Huge portions, huge people, too many options.. I still feel like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole. Of course, since we’re currently planning on getting back on the road, these feelings will change and, once again, we’ll feel like we don’t fit in but at least it won’t be in our own country! Even with the mental difficulties in coming back, we are totally appreciative of the benefits here (and especially in places such as Portland) as far as availability of any type of food you could want, amazing beer and wine, warm showers, comfortable beds, toilet seats (or hell.. toilets!) but our wanderlust carries us onward.

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      Some aspects of American culture/life are definitely mind boggling. I find that observing without passing judgment has been very conducive to a peace of mind. Keeping in mind and focusing on the good, too, goes a long way.

      Reply
  9. Jen

    I agree with so many of these comments. We’re not “home” yet but we arrived in Australia after 6 months in SE Asia and a month in Nepal. I was quite amused with all the pedestrian warning signs around construction areas and the hand sanitizer in the bathrooms, but also really dismayed at the excessive waste and consumerism. It’s been surprisingly easy to slip back into “I really need X or Y” when actually, I don’t need “it” and most people probably don’t need “it” either. I think that will continue to be a challenge as we reinsert ourselves back into the US…

    Really interesting post, Peter. Looking forward to chatting more in a few months – unless you take off before we get back. 🙂

    Reply
    • Peter Korchnak

      Thanks, Jen. I guess we’re going to have to lead by example and stick to our minimalist travel principles…

      I look forward to meeting you too. We’ll be here.

      Reply

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