While many expats expect to experience culture shock when moving to a new country, few of us anticipate the shock of returning home. We assume we will transition smoothly because we have grown up and are already familiar with the culture.
However, repatriation and expatriation are two sides of the same coin – just as it takes time to settle into another culture, it takes time to settle back into “home”. After investing so much energy into adapting to the culture of a host country, it makes sense that we now have to re-adapt to home and that we might have forgotten certain nuances of home.
Reverse culture shock, as it’s commonly called, can be worsened by the expectations of friends and family, who may expect you to transition back seamlessly or expect you to be the same person you were before.
Don’t despair though: reverse culture shock is common and completely normal. With preparation for your repatriation and with some support (personal or professional) during the process, things will get easier.
Home, the same but different…
While away, we all keep an image of what “home” is like, but often these are memories of a different time, and a different you. Now you may suddenly be faced with a disconnect between how you saw home and how it really is. Perhaps home has changed or perhaps you have changed – or both! You may also feel disillusioned with your home culture and question things more than before. This can lead people to become irritated and annoyed rather than accepting of the new you.
Understanding reverse culture shock
So how can you move more easily through this transition? Firstly, by recognising that reverse culture shock usually follows a cycle:
Stage 1: Disengagement
This stage can start even before you board the plane. Repatriating can feel bittersweet – it’s hard to leave behind the friends and experiences of your host country. You may have mixed feelings or doubts about returning.
Stage 2: Euphoria
You feel a rush of excitement about being home again and seeing old friends and family. It can be thrilling to revisit favourite places and to know instinctively how certain things are done.
Stage 3: Irritability and hostility
You notice things are not the way you left them or expected. You feel out of touch with your home life and all you want is to go back to the life you’ve just left. In this stage, people often become bored or frustrated, tired and uncommunicative. While it’s easy to feel stuck here, perseverance is key.
Stage 4: Re-adjustment and adaption
By using effective coping strategies and giving yourself time, you can start to feel okay again. Though things are not the same, acceptance comes and you adapt to a new way of being. You have managed to overcome reverse culture shock!
As with culture shock, these stages are not necessarily linear and you may cycle between them, even returning to a stage for a while.
Ways to settle in at “home”
Here are some useful tips to make your repatriation smoother:
Remember your expatriation process and the lessons learned. The same ‘rules’ apply for your repatriation – and you’ll get through this too.
Maintain your international network.
Take advantage of technology and social media to keep up-to-date with friends in the country you’ve left. This will give you an important sense of continuity in your life.
Reach out to friends and family.
Reverse culture shock can be challenging to explain to those who have never experienced it. Expressing your feelings to friends and family can be especially difficult if they are hurt by your reaction. They may also be reluctant to offer support, or not know how to if they don’t understand what you are going through. Let them know how they can best support you.
Stay positive and see the funny side.
Don’t let the shock get you down and try to keep your sense of humour. You will find yourself being more positive then, too.
Seek out internationals back “home”
Serial expat and author Diane Lemieux advises “creating your global village”. Begin to make new friends or professional contacts with other internationals at home. They may have experienced, or be experiencing, the same things you are.
Write about your experience.
Sharing your experience – on a blog, for example – will help you and others. You may be surprised at how many people resonate with your feelings. Or you may prefer to express yourself privately, in a journal.
Recognise that change is constant. Come to terms with the fact that you have changed and perhaps your friends and family have too.
Be a traveler in your home country.
This is a great way to scratch that expat itch of needing to be on the go. Explore new areas around your home… you may find out or experience things you would have never have known before!
Be patient with yourself as you go through this process. There is no right or wrong way to experience reverse culture shock! In time, this will pass and you will emerge stronger, happier and with an enriched understanding of yourself and your home country.
Have you ever repatriated? Can you identify with any of the challenges above? How did you cope? We’d love to hear what you think!
First published on Expat Nest.
Special thanks to Thomas Tischhauser.