Culture shock is defined by Wikipedia as the “difficulty people have adjusting to a new culture that differs markedly from their own. A reverse culture shock a.k.a. “re-entry shock” or “own culture shock” is a state when returning to one’s home culture after growing accustomed to a new one produces the same effects.
First culture shock hit me when I arrived to Portland, Oregon, in March. I thought it was over then and that there will be no more surprises about adjusting to my normal life in Europe. I did not know that the second culture shock comes when people return to their home country. Many students on exchange programs experience it. Here’s my rant.
The shock of the transition to Portland, OR, was surprisingly weak. It took me only a couple of days to adjust and embrace the new life there. The easier this transition went, the more difficult the second transition was. It was new and unexpected for me. The beginnings were really difficult, manifesting in confusion and other negative feelings.
Business as usual – as if we never left
My normal life, as I knew it before, was over. Most things remained the same. The things I hated before are still there and I still hate them. But I was not the same at all. I could not avoid a feeling of disconnect between the past and the present life. Another fellow told me a story of how on her first day at work, everything turned as it was in a split second. There was just one word of her boss and just one look of her colleague and she was back to her old relationships.
Stereotyping and hostility towards host nationals were not as new to me as other re-entry symptoms. When we came to Ireland first time, everything and everybody looked very different. This time, my eyes became very critical this time, though; every small weakness of the new-old country seemed like a giant disadvantage.
Physiological stress reactions
I was lucky not to have any serious stress reactions, but some of my friends suffered. Depression was lurking in the background and sometimes jumped into Facebook statuses, e.g. “I have grown two wings but I can’t fly”. Examples of what happened to people who came back included divorce, no house, no job, mood swings, or people at work are not welcoming them. Compulsive eating/ drinking/ weight gain occurred too: another fellow have lost 5 kg while on fellowship but upon her arrival she toured her family for 2 weeks and gained that weight again. My mother in law lived in UK for five years and when she came back home, she wanted to return to UK immediately.
Disappointment – inability to apply new knowledge and skills
People aren’t interested in my experiences from abroad. I will never be able to use the knowledge I have gained abroad. Ambitions and competition hinder cooperation, people see you like their enemy. In the previous country, if they saw you being good at something, they supported you. Here, they envy you and try to make it harder for you. This country is broke and there are no growth opportunities. There are no money, no jobs. I could do much more if I stayed there. Smart people struggle to survive here. How can they live in such miserable conditions?
Rootlessness – I don’t belong here
Feelings of alienation and withdrawal are common symptoms of culture shock. I felt that people aren’t nice here. They don’t appreciate if I smile at them or if I start talking to them. They don’t like me and don’t understand me. I feel so weak here, so helpless and isolated. I need their response or feedback. I need to engage with them. People see the “wrong” changes when they look at me. “You’ve lost weight” somebody said and I didn’t believe her. Three other people said it later. This was not the type of change I was proud of or that I wanted them to recognize.
The shift from a big town in a big country to a smaller country was dramatic. This is a small town, there’s nothing here. This is nothing. No life, no culture, no fun. It is boring. Services are undeveloped, ineffective and slow. They are not customer orientated. People are dull and everything is made on such a small scale that it doesn’t even matter. Everything is small. Cars, trains, houses are small; I need more space to live better. Bicycling is unsafe, there are no bike lines and cars don’t share the road with cyclists. The streets are dirty and the greens are overgrown; nobody cuts them regularly.
Our flat is very small; we need to move out to a better place. I don’t like this area; I don’t understand how I could live here before. We threw away most of our things when we came back home. Our home was not our home any more. This state is well phrased in the saying “you can’t go home again,” first coined by Thomas Wolfe in his book of the same name.
When people return home after living abroad, it can take a while to adjust to their home country. Some don’t get used to it at all. I had the privilege to meet people who succeeded in bending their new lives. The new life wasn’t great. They lived in small apartments and struggled financially. But at least some of them enjoyed what they worked on. It was a demanding and low-salaried job, and often not just one. This gives me hope that things can get better. This country doesn’t have big events, venues or communities, but there are many small, which can serve the same purpose.