I was ecstatic.
My lost luggage eventually made its way to me from the shuffle of overseas travel. It felt like my most precious possession in the world. The heavy purple case– exactly 50 pounds– held my oil paintings, wine and crinkly, baggy white thrift-store shirt, now covered in bright splotches of paint from weeks of wearing it over my clothes while I painted.
I ripped open the luggage bag and pulled out my treasures, sure that sharing something physical with my family and friends would bring the experience I just had, vivid and breathtaking, to them.
But, the wine I brought home languished in the fridge, my paintings sat stacked in my room and my painting shirt hung, unused, in my closet.
For anyone who has traveled abroad, the adjustment coming home can be just as difficult, if not more difficult, than the adjustment of living in a different country.
I’ve heard it called reverse culture shock and re-entry culture shock. In my experience, the phenomenon is more like an acute depression. Whatever the label, the feeling is hard to cope with. Travelers are expected to have trouble with a new a culture, but their own culture? That should be comforting, not upsetting. Right?
Reverse Culture Shock
I had no idea how to deal with reverse culture shock when I came home. I didn’t know that it was normal. But by my second time abroad, I was prepared for the “dip” after coming back home. These are a few of the coping strategies I found that work.
Give without expectation
You’re going to treasure souvenirs from your journeys in a way others can’t. When you sip on the wine you brought home, you’ll remember the way the vineyard smelled; the feeling of afternoon sun on your face, the sound of a foreign tongue and the joy of picking up a word here and there.
Your family and friends can’t feel the same way about the souvenirs you give them. When you give souvenirs, give them fully as gifts with no expectations attached. The receiver may react in a multitude of ways including joy, but also including confusion or indifference. That’s OK. Their reaction does not diminish your experience.
Find a confidante
From the second you step off the plane and back into your old life, you want to talk about your journey. You tell stories and share photos and everyone nods along, but something feels, off.
Like with giving souvenirs, when you share your memories, you’ll be unearthing a wealth of feelings in yourself that those around you just don’t have. They might be excited for you and they might try to understand, but there is a slight disconnect that can feel especially disorienting.
Find someone you can talk to as much as you need. A good confidante will ease your need to share everything you did and saw and this person can also help you process everything you’re feeling.
What makes a good confidante?
A confidante loves and accepts you and understands that you need to talk it out. They listen actively and understand that what you’re talking about is important to you, even if they don’t fully get it.
A confidante can be anyone. People who were on the trip sometimes make great confidantes because they get it. But a family member or friend can be just as good. A confidante doesn’t have to be a person. Writing a blog or journaling is also a good way to confide and process.
Make sure to thank your confidante, they’re lending their time and their ear to you and you want them to know that you appreciate that.
Know you are normal
Everyone is going to react differently to coming back home from being abroad. You might not go through reverse culture shock at all, and that’s OK. You might desperately wish to return to your travels, so much so that you immediately begin planning your next trip, and that’s also OK.
It’s normal to have trouble with your native language if you’ve been speaking a secondary language fluently. It’s normal for your tastes to change and to feel annoyed that your home-country doesn’t have the ethnic dish you’re craving.
But it’s also normal to not feel those things.
Most likely, you’ll feel a confusing mix of relief and annoyance. I was relieved to chow down on American, meat heavy dishes after eating dishes of pasta and veggies in Italy. But, I was simultaneously annoyed that American food is so salty, heavy and unhealthy.
It’s odd to feel comforted and frustrated at the same time, but know that the feeling will pass.
Put your energy into something new
After visiting ancient monuments and historical sites, learning a new language, traversing an unfamiliar city and trying new foods, you’re going to feel like everyday life is unbearably mundane. It can even feel pointless. Life is happening out there, somewhere across a boarder, and you’re stuck here.
Now is a good time to put that energy into something new. Start a blog, read a book, volunteer, take language lessons or workout courses. You might not be able to drop everything and travel again, but you can do something that matters.