The delight and pain of coming home

‘Why did no one warn us how hard it would be, coming home?’  my friends moaned.  They have just returned to Romania after a long stint in the US.  While out there in Washington DC, they could barely find a kind word about America.  They hated the food, the schools, driving everywhere, the ignorance about Europe, the superficial cheerfulness, the lack of hospitality…  The list went on and on.  They idealised their home land, played its music, read its stories to the children, met to swap recipes for traditional dishes. 

Now they are back in the motherland, they are being reminded every day of the good things that they miss about the States.   They struggle through the small and great frustrations of Romanian society that they had somehow lost sight of during their stay in America.

‘Reverse culture shock’ is a very common phenomenon for expats when they do finally return home.  You might expect it if you had a wonderful time abroad (perhaps you were studying or enjoying a prolonged vacation or starting a completely different lifestyle).  But for people who were not particularly happy abroad, it often comes as a complete surprise.  They were so looking forward to returning home, but home has changed and moved on, and so have they.

After nearly two years in France (well, one leg in France, one in Switzerland, straddling the border as we were in Geneva), we were relieved to exchange rented accommodation for our lovely house and garden in the UK.  The children and I hadn’t found it easy to adapt initially to our lives there (I couldn’t work because of childcare issues, and the children spoke no French at first).  And yet, it was funny to see the little things that each of us missed most about our lives abroad.  My elder son missed the croissants and frites.  My younger (who could not remember a pre-France life) missed the sandpit and was surprised that everybody spoke English around here.  Both of them missed the lifts in our block of flats.  Personally, I didn’t miss that one a bit, as it was the smallest lift in the world, not even designed for a mother, a toddler and two shopping bags!  I missed hiking in the mountains and the winter sports, all just 15 minutes away by car. 

And my husband, for whom we all m0ved out there?  Well, he had lived in the perfect expat bubble, with everyone at work quite international and able to communicate in English (and if they couldn’t, dear wife would handle that).  So no,  he doesn’t miss anything at all about Geneva.  Except maybe the occasional fondue.

And I got to thinking that perhaps for some expats there is no such thing as ‘reverse culture shock’, because they never actually went beneath the surface of the society they were living in.  They are just ‘long-term tourists’ perhaps.  And they can move happily from one posting to the next, as long as they have their immediate creature comforts.  It’s debatable whether that is good for them or for the organisation they serve in the long run.  Perhaps progress and true understanding of other cultures is only possible when we experience some discomfort.

Have you experienced reverse culture shock?  If yes, what was most challenging:  the small everyday matters or the major differences?  What do you wish you had known before going back home?

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One response to “The delight and pain of coming home

  1. Oh yes, Reverse Culture Shock, several times! The first time was coming back to the UK after a year working in New Zealand. We were so ready to come back, but like fish out of water, we tried in vain to settle back into London (hectic & serious) life, after our year of 6 hour workdays days (yes, really!) and heaps of new and super-friendly friends. I guess we didn’t realise until we got back just how much we’d enjoyed about NZ.

    It was the little things that seemed so strange – I must have been one of the most irritating people around for that first 6 months, as I exclaimed ‘oh, neat!’ in a semi-kiwi accent at every opportunity and made comparisons between EVERYTHING with fresh ex-pat eyes. The trouble (or the blessing) is, when you do experience and enjoy and absorb a culture into your life, it shifts a part of you – it’s part of your personal journey and growth.

    I was shocked at this first re-entry into my ‘own’ culture, as I’d previously thought that the two cultures were very similar, when in fact, the values of the two were fundamentally different – I realise now that the values of New Zealand were much more in line with my own personal values – no wonder I had trouble re-adjusting to the UK.

    So, that’s what would have been useful to be aware of before I came back. To know what it is in the cultural experience you’re having that resonates most with you. And to realise that you can absorb this as part of your personal growth, rather than feel like you have to hand it over as soon as you hit UK passport control.

    Thanks for the post Sanda – very memory-stirring and thought-provoking!

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