Reverse culture shock, post travel blues, why did no one warn me that the hardest part about going away was coming home again?
I remember a month before I completed my first year in South Korea, I received an e-mail from the recruitment agency that helped Chris and I find jobs in Seoul. The e-mail was entitled Time Flies, and there was an article attached detailing the phases and stages of ‘reverse culture shock’. I remember reading it briefly and chuckling with my co-workers about some of the ‘changes’ I should expect upon returning home.
I was excited to go home. Granted it was only going to be for three months, but an exciting three months with lots to look forward to including my sister’s wedding, a trip to Salzburg, even just wearing the rest of my wardrobe and saying hello to all of the shoes I’d missed during those twelve months. I was sad to say goodbye to my friends in Korea, but I was going home to reconnect with family and friends, and it was going to be an awesome summer.
The first week after you’ve arrived home is a haze of reunions coupled with extreme jet lag. You are excited to see everyone, and they are excited to see you. However, after a week of endless cups of tea and comfort food, the haze begins to lift, the excitement starts to subside, and you remember reading something in that e-mail about how after a week or so ‘the initial euphoria begins to wear off, and you find yourself feeling out of place in your own home’. It’s called reverse culture shock, and it’s the toughest part of repatriation.
Returning home, you learn that your family’s and friend’s lives have moved on; weddings, babies, job promotions Etc. But it’s not arriving home to family and friends who have changed that shocks you, it’s the realisation that you have changed, and changed substantially. It’s not that you no longer care about your own culture or values, it’s just that now you see them in a totally different light.
And so begins the slow downhill tread. Before long, you’re standing in a room surrounded by people feeling completely alone, when suddenly, you start being assailed by questions such as “What are you going to do now that you are home?” as though everyone is trying to slot you back into the life you had before you left, but you can’t fit back into that life because you are not the same person. Frustration builds, and you want to scream, “I am not the same person anymore. Don’t you know how much I’ve changed?” You want to explain it, to show everyone this new side of you, but it’s as though you’ve learned a new language that none of your friends and family speak, so how can you possibly explain what you’re feeling? The desire to ‘get up and go’ again is so strong that it burns in your chest; people call it ‘the travel bug’ but maybe it’s simply a desire to once again be surrounded by people that ‘get you’, because there is no worse feeling than feeling like a foreigner in your own town.
After years of living abroad, soaking up another culture, meeting new people, and experiencing amazing new places, how could I have been so naïve to think that nothing would be different? My first brush with repatriation caused me to raise the topic amongst my friends in the expat community in Seoul, and once again I felt as though I was surrounded by kindred spirits. They described the general feeling of awkwardness when you’re with a group of friends with whom you now feel a slight disconnect. Those first moments after you’ve reconnected when you wait for someone to ask about your adventures abroad, but no one does. The even more awkward moment when you do begin to regale the group with tales of your life abroad only to be met with silence and blank stares.
You can’t expect everyone to show interest in the life you lived somewhere else, but it’s infuriating when a large and influential part of your life is regarded as nothing more than an extension of your college years. There have been many times in Ireland when Chris and I have taken part in conversations about work and life only to be left feeling as though our opinions were not important, because what would we know about ‘real life’? Who decided that our lives are any less ‘real’ just because we've chosen to take a more alternative route through life?
I’ve read many blog posts about this topic, and I’ve spoken with many expats who have given me an array of reasons why it is they believe that some people appear to be completely disinterested in the lives they’ve led abroad, and of all the reasons, there is one that continuously crops up; jealousy. But I don’t believe it. In reality, I think the reason is a lot less exciting. In my opinion, people simply cannot relate to the life we’ve chosen. It’s more likely that some of my friends don’t show interest, or ask probing questions because sitting and talking about the cultural impact of wearing shoes indoors in Korea is about as interesting as listening to me talk about insurance for an hour. But the effects of reverse culture shock and repatriation are very much a reality, and the more I’ve researched, the more I’ve learned that feeling confused and frustrated when friends and family appear to be anything but curious about your experience is normal, and so is the dissolution of some of those relationships. Being an expat is such a great and international experience, and it changes you so much; how can you expect all of your relationships to remain unaltered?
I think the shock of ‘losing friends’ would be far less shocking if after expats returned home, they asked themselves, “Were we really that good of friends before I left?” Most people when they live at home are part of a wide social network, and when you are within that network it’s easy to convince yourself that those friendships are a lot stronger than they actually are. But in truth, you don’t lose friends after you move away, you discover who your true friends are. Perhaps travel simply expedites a process that is ultimately inevitable. Friends are the people that even if you haven’t spoken to them in a year when you see them, it feels like no time has passed.
Elizabeth Foley said, “The most beautiful discovery true friends make is that they can grow separately without growing apart”. Wise lady.
Watch out for next week's blog post on Tuesday 29th March, The Best Way to Get a Girlfriend is to Get a Wife.