Reverse Culture Shock – by Mercedes Escudero

by Patty Ryan posted on 10 December 2013

Mercedes Escudero talks about the anxieties experienced by expatriates returning to their home countries after a long period of time overseas

We now know what culture shock is and how it affects our mood, and how difficult it is to adjust living in a new country. But today, I would like to show you something that hardly anybody talks about. When people find out my birth place I often hear the giggle of complicity and I get to hear comments like, “So, you joined INC to practice your English, right?” Well, the answer is a big NO.

Not very many people know the term Reverse Culture Shock.

What is Reverse Culture Shock?

After you have gone through all the stages of adjustment, the ups and downs, the troubles overcoming living adjustments, you suddenly wake up and feel much brighter and looking forward to a better tomorrow. Before you even notice, it’s time to go back home ! I will not focus on going to another different country, but on coming back home.

You have made all the adjustments to a new environment, to carve out a life for yourself to build a new “me” and succeeded. You actually gave birth to something magical –like a baby.

You are not the same person that left home several years ago. Something different inside of you has grown, like a special part, like another end, a partition in the heart, brain and soul. Besides, the way you see the world is quite different. It is not anymore this vast territory. It feels more like this smaller piece of land on which we live. Your communication ability has grown too, and you have learnt not to have pre-fix expectations on people and places. You’ve been surprised so many times! The same way the brain physically grows when we learn, we physically and emotionally grow inside when we live abroad.

So, what happens when we get back?

While we were abroad, time has passed in our home land too. People have changed and things have changed. It is not how you remember it. Everything changed and you weren’t there. On a first view, you accept the fact and try to move on. Then there are old friends and family, ones you have missed so much. You talk to them excitedly about all you have seen and what you have experienced. Very often, this is when you realize that there is a gap between you and them. They don’t seem to understand what you say. You may find some closed minded attitudes, maybe prejudice, maybe some other reactions that just don’t fit in your mind. Everything that once was familiar is not anymore.

One can accept to not fitting in a foreign country. It makes sense. However, when it comes to the place you were born and raised, a sort of short-circuit happens in your brain. When you are abroad, you can always feel some comfort remembering home. But now, what is really home? Time keeps moving abroad too, and many of us have the feeling that our other life abroad runs without us knowing it. It is like looking through a window and we could watch our other life abroad. It is the one life that you consider and compare to raising a baby or seeing a child grow up and then suddenly it is abruptly separated or taken away from you. This is what is call Reverse Culture Shock.

How do we overcome the Reverse Culture Shock?
It took me many years to realize that being an expat is like pinning a nail on a wooden door. You can pull out the nail, but the hole will remain.

So it is not a matter or overcoming it. We need to add it to our existence. Otherwise, it can set the basis for a depression. We must understand that we no longer completely belong to a single place. We must be aware of our international new condition. Our interests may be different from the ones of our family and friends, and the way we like our life too.

You don’t want to push people aside but you need your own social space to grow and to help you understand and accept your new reality. The way you implement it is finding the group that thinks pretty much like you, the group with whom you share experiences and feelings and culture shocks, the group “where” you belong. Many of us back in Spain say that we miss what we call “the international atmosphere”. I hear same comments from other expats that went back home. I have had the chance through all these years to talk to returnees and we all agree with what we are going through, the adjustment, the sense of belonging or not belonging. It responds to a scientific fact and it is real.

How did I do it?

It took me many years. It was painful for quite a while but one day I happened to stumble into the INC and I met like minded women. Through discussions and sharing moments of our lives abroad and returning “home”, I began to understand that I am not alone. Reverse Culture Shock is a phenomenon amongst expat families and by being with people experiencing the same emotions I began to unsolve the problem of feeling stuck in my emotions, in my feeling of displacement in my own home country. That is the reason, why being part of INC is a blessing.

I no longer suffer from my Reverse Culture Shock.

Mercedes Escudero is a trained psychologist. She loves to speak with those who have experienced culture shock problems.