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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, weird 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.