What Reverse Culture Shock Symptoms Feel Like

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As frequent travelers, we’re used to clearing immigration and customs after a long international flight, and hailing a ride. We’re used to landing in a new country where everything feels different, the food isn’t what we’re used to eating, and the people are speaking a different language.

People in a crowded airport

After having visited 50-odd countries on six continents, we’ve learned to take that all in stride … but not this time. We aren’t used to traffic moving at lightning speed on eight-lane highways. Where’s the bumper-to-bumper snail’s pace that we’ve grown accustomed to? Where are the car horns? And why are all the cars staying in their own lanes?

As much as I expected things to be new when I went to another country, I also expected things to be the same when I returned home to America. But it isn’t. Everything seems different.

Except … It’s not. I’m the one who’s changed.

Heading back from Dublin, not expecting reverse culture shock at security

All the symptoms of culture shock, reversed

We’ve been back in the US for weeks now and I still find myself noticing things I never used to pay any attention to. I have just come to realize that I’m experiencing reverse culture shock symptoms.

Wait … what … me?

Culture shock can be defined as “the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, a move between social environments, or simply travel to another type of life.”

Guilty. I’m displaying so many of the symptoms of reverse culture shock, it’s scary. (Geez, it sounds like a mental disease or something!)

So then I wonder—is that always a bad thing? What’s so wrong with noticing the quirks in your native culture? What’s wrong with missing people and places from abroad? Is it all that terrible to change your values, goals, priorities, or attitudes? Isn’t that what they call personal growth?

Franklin NC Tartan Parade
Celebrating the town’s heritage, Franklin, NC has an annual Scottish parade and festival.

When we visited our old stomping grounds in western North Carolina, we felt out of place. It wasn’t that we didn’t like the town anymore, or our old house, or our old friends. It’s that we saw ourselves differently. We don’t really fit into that world like we used to. Many of our old friends have never been out of the US—and in fact we knew some people who had never left the state. Our life experiences are so different now.

Although I love America as much as ever, watching foreign news for years has altered my opinion of its place on the planet. I’ve come to realize that other nations are fully capable of managing their own affairs. America really doesn’t need to rush to their aid at the drop of a hat.

And while I may have once believed that America was especially blessed by God, my journeys have taught me that God has given other nations special blessings as well.

Oh, crap!

Local women washing clothes in a river in Cuenca Ecuador

I’m now amazed at the insane amount of money people waste on crap, the same useless junk I used to buy for myself. We’re talking about things that I thought I needed … and later had to dust around. We’re talking about things that aren’t even available overseas and that we easily did without.

I marvel at the markets Madison Avenue has created for pre-measured pods of laundry soap and all-in-one tablets of dishwasher detergent with rinse aids. Seriously, people, is it really that inconvenient to measure it yourselves?

And suddenly my mind returns to the mountain river that runs through the town where we lived in Ecuador. I remember watching local folks wash their clothes in the river and laying them out one by one on the river bank to dry. Sure, it was a lot of effort, but these women had a wonderful time chatting while they worked.

Crazy prices

Food prices at Feria Libre marketplace were incredibly low

And oh, the prices! Have they gone up that much since I left? This self-proclaimed coffee snob can no longer bring herself to enter a Starbucks. Years of living in world-class coffee producing nations have spoiled me with their freshly-roasted and -ground beans at $3/pound. And don’t get me started on how much food we could buy for a song!

Of all the changes, one of my biggest surprises is how turned off we have become by drive-thrus and microwaveable foods. Popping into family-run shops for a 2-for-$5 homemade almuerzo (lunch) will do that, I suppose. We have no desire to patronize the grocery aisles with their chemical-laden packaged foods. Never would have seen that coming.

But then, I’d never thought my native land would look so different to me, either. My, how I’ve changed.

What travel has taught me

Bourdain travel quote

Traveling and living abroad certainly challenged me, but it helped me grow. I have learned to adapt to new situations, to function and thrive even when I feel uncomfortable or find myself in the midst of a big transition. I have enjoyed many cultures, embraced many differences, enjoyed many new tastes and experiences. I’ve adopted a few new ways of doing things. I even learned to use a squat toilet (though my knees and legs never will enjoy it).

Returning to my American culture after being away for so long, I’ve been noticing new quirks in my own culture. In contrast to some of the other places we’ve been,

  • Americans are really picky about cleanliness. They wash their bodies frequently, care where they throw their trash, and always keep their produce and eggs refrigerated.
  • They ask “How are you?” without waiting for the answer, and give the same “Fine” in response, whether they are or not.

Wow, who knew those are culture-specific?

Travel changes your perspective.

Dan & Linda near Mosul in Kurdistan, Iraq
Dan & Linda on the Giza Pyramid.

Traveling has certainly broadened my perspective and changed many of my priorities. I used to think “They should…” all the time. But now, when they do something differently, I ask myself why. Occasionally, I have found myself accepting that their way might make more sense—at least for them.

Foreign news is different as well. I remember hearing an Aussie tell us, “Yeah, mate. We come to Bali to find out what’s really going on in Australia.” Light bulb moment. Every country controls what gets reported. Things that might upset the populace are either buried on page 10 or suppressed. Because, nobody wants a riot.

And now I know that t’s impossible to get a clear perspective on world events if you only watch CNN. You need multiple sources, like Le Monde, Pravda, The Straits Times, and Al Jazeera, too. Why? Because a reporter’s cultural background can’t help but influence how he views things.

On reflection, every day overseas has been incredibly worth it. So worth it, in fact, that I can hardly wait to go back on the road again.

Because you know what? There are a whole lot of amazing places to see, foods to eat, and people to like out there.

This is why I created this blog: to share all of our travel “as we saw it.” I want you to enjoy the thrill of discovery as well. It’ll change you—and growing in love and understanding is never a bad thing.

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Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to over 50 countries. Her insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages inspired her to create As We Saw It, where she documents her trips, shares practical itineraries, and offers insider tips. She’s passionate about helping fellow travelers save time, money, and hassle, and loves to discover new places to explore.

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10 thoughts on “What Reverse Culture Shock Symptoms Feel Like”

  1. I can totally relate to what you are saying as I have experienced the same myself. Every time I return to my hometown in Canada, I feel that I have changed immensely. Everything feels different to me but nothing there has changed. (I am sure you know what I mean). Everything has remained the same but me. I am not saying that I am better than they are but I feel that I have different priorities now and a different set of values than when I lived there. Sometimes I try sharing about what life is like in Taiwan but it seems that no one is interested, maybe because they can’t relate. And I have learned to respect the fact that they are who they are and I am who I am!

    • So no one is interested in your travels, either, Constance? I feel better … thought it might be me.

      Amen on the priority change. It doesn’t make us better than they are, true, but adjusting one’s priorities can be evidence of growth. Er … I think that’s a good thing?

      • No, it is not just you. And I really think that a shift in priorities is a good thing. I see some of my high school friends constantly competing with each other – their friend bought a new car so they bought one, their friend got a swimming pool so they bought one, and so on. I moved to Taiwan a few weeks after graduating university (in 1999 – before it was even cool to do something like that) and I always wonder if I hadn’t, would I be one of those competing materialistic people?

        • It’s interesting that you haven’t bought into a materialistic philosophy since moving overseas. Have you noticed much of that in Taiwan?

  2. I feel you! Of course our exact experiences are different since I moved to Prague and then Munich, but overall I also feel reverse culture shock to certain things when I go back to the States. It takes me a while to get used to everyone (strangers) chatting me up in the grocery store, something that’s not done here in Germany!

    • We were in Germany in 2013 and I had forgotten how reserved Germans are until you mentioned it. There’s another cultural difference, and it’s not just about whether we speak the local dialect. Americans are quite outgoing, actually, aren’t they? Unless you’re in a big city like New York, where everyone avoids eye contact. In North Carolina, strangers would wave at us like we were old friends.

      Did you have any cultural challenges when you relocated to Munich from Prague?

  3. Linda and Dan,
    Everytime I come back, it gets harder and harder to “fit in” again. The differences grow larger and I am beginning to ccomprehend why I can’t live here permanently again.

    We are such a greedy society filled with pathetic competition, for who has the best toys or material goods. I too am amazed at what it takes to satisfy the average individual anymore.

    Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, I seriously think we weren’t faced with this. I can remember when a couple pair of jeans and around 5 shirts were ample inventory. Now I see closets with clothing at levels, where one cannot possibly wear everything in the closet more than once a year. I see pantries filled with canned and processed foods that I know will give them cancer eventually. Not to mention they have enough “food” to feed a small army.

    Don’t even get me started on automobiles and the fact they pay what some families lay out for a home, for one car that they drive to reflect status. It’s actually rather embarrassing!

    The only reason I even attempt to return is family. I still have 2 sons here, but I think they may be leaning to traveling or relocating abroad like my oldest, who lives in Japan and I have been with for the last 5 weeks. The kindness and culture of the Japanese makes it difficult to return. I know what I will run into just as y’all did.

    Now after several travels in 2015 I have to decide which country is best for me. BTW I am taking all suggestions! Ha!

    • Good insights there, Mike. I suspect that a major reason that Americans are so materialistic is that they spend so much time in front of the TV. Madison Avenue works hard to convince us that if we just own this one thing, we’ll be happy. Plus we think we have to have designer this and brand-name that just to “keep up with the Joneses.” Okay, I could wax on about that, but basically, I agree.

      We’ve lived in three paradises: Bali, Panama, Cuenca. Each were different but each still taught us the same important lesson: Finding satisfaction and happiness has to come from within. Nothing external will ever satisfy.

      You and your oldest son are good examples to the rest of your family that travel is amazing. I envy you the opportunity to stay in Japan for as long as you did.

      We’d sure like to hear which countries you’re going to, as well as what your criteria are for relocating. We may join you!

  4. Everything you said is so true. You are not the same person after you have traveled and lived abroad. Even the way you think, feel, and respond to others is different. Your lifetime horizons are broadened forever. The memories and experiences are gold that cannot be taken away from you. Traveling is a treasure of its own! Thank you for a beautiful article.

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