Reverse Culture Shock: Homecoming

[singlepic=1143,150,,,right]As they passed out immigration/customs forms on the plane, I started filling it out – I knew the routine by heart. When you are an around the world traveler, you have all of your immigration/customs data memorized. However I stopped and stared at the box that read:

List the countries visited on this trip…

Hmmm – this threw me a bit. Did they really want to know that I had been to 24 different countries on this trip? I used my judgment here and wrote down Singapore and Japan. I figured I could explain the rest of my passport stamps if necessary.

This was just the beginning of a long and confusing road back home after being away from the country for 16 months. Homecoming is not something to be taken for granted; sure it’s great to see family, friends, and pets again, but there are hidden landmines on settling back into your home.

[singlepic=1145,150,,,left]One of the most disturbing realizations I made on my journey back to the US was that I was no longer a minority, specifically an ethnic minority. When I stepped off that flight and into JFK, it hit me – I was surrounded by Americans. People looked like me, talked like me, ate similar food as me, and laughed at the same jokes as me. Yet as I sat there and took everyone in, listening to their loud boisterous laughs and complaints, I realized maybe they weren’t like me – or was it that I was not like them any longer?

It was a long flight back to New York so when I stepped onto the Airtrain and left JFK airport heading into New York City towards my ‘home’ I couldn’t quite figure out why the young woman talking on her cell phone was annoying me so much. Was I just tired? Was I upset about being home? I wasn’t sure.

Later that week I experienced the same frustration at a Starbucks. Once again I sat there feeling bombarded with the excessive noise around me. I was preoccupied and annoyed with the cell phone noise and personal conversations. I thought about how loud Americans were and thought about why this was so different than Asia. Everyone in Asia had a cell phone and friends, so what was the big difference?

Then as I sipped on my tea, I had my ‘A-HA’ moment – a light bulb went off. The main reason why I didn’t remember them talking was because they weren’t speaking English. The reason why all of this cell phone and conversation noise was attacking me was because they were speaking English and I actually understood what they were saying! As I rode the subway, went to lunch, or sat in a coffee shop I felt attacked by a barrage of English; hearing everyone’s personal life, business deals, heartache, and sex life. That is America – everything laid out there for anyone to hear – or at least anyone who understands English. I can’t really say if it’s that much different than the other countries I traveled in because I never understood the background noise. There was a constant buzz, but it never fazed me while traveling. Now my personal sound space was being bombarded.

While on the road I had grown accustomed to living very simply, being different, standing out, and not understanding the noise/language around me, but now my world was turned upside down again and I was having to adjust to my own country. This is quite common for long term travelers, so finding some ways to cope with it can ease the transition back ‘home’.

Make a plan
[singlepic=1144,250,,,right]In order to give myself a ‘game-plan’ for my re-entry into New York City (and to stop from being super depressed) I got out my laptop at 30,000 ft. between Tokyo and San Francisco and typed out a personal ‘contract’ for myself. I felt that I could utilize it to stay focused as I was going through all of the varied emotions and confusions about being back in the US. On it I included some concrete goals such as get my CELTA certification, subscribing to the NY Times to keep current on world news, and look for a teaching job abroad. I also included some ‘stretch goals’ such as write a book and have a photography exhibition with my travel photography.

Finally I listed some emotional goals so that no matter how confused or sad I was I could try to stay grounded and retain the emotional balance that I achieved on my travels. My overall goal was to treat this as a stop on my journey, and go back out and live and work abroad. This list helped me put the pieces in motion to achieve that without being overwhelmed. Whether you are looking to start a new career or go back to your old one, putting together a plan on how to achieve it is key.

Give yourself time
[singlepic=1147,200,,,left]I had been gone for 16 months, so my first inclination was to have a huge party. I wanted to see all of my friends as well as get back in touch with everyone that I had missed or fell out of touch with. I wanted to try to plug right back in where I had left off. However there was a problem with this – I had changed and now I was looking at my country with different eyes. I needed time to process that. I made a conscience effort to try to control the shock a bit. As much as my instinct was to send out a mass email to all of my friends saying “I’m back! Let’s get together!”, I fought it off and instead started to see people slowly. I found that I needed time to digest everyone and everything again. I slowly spread out coffee dates and dinners. I made sure that I had time for myself to digest the newness.

Reflect on what you’ve learned
It’s easy to get caught up in trying to plug back into work and your social life, but don’t forget to step back and reflect on what you’ve learned from your travels. This can be crucial if you are planning on going back to work in your previous industry or corporate environment. Without a doubt you will be asked many questions about your career break during an interview so be prepared to have a well thought out answer as to why you did it and what you learned. For me, I knew I wasn’t going back to my old career, however this step was still very important to me as I sorted out my feelings on why I didn’t want to go back into corporate America.

Make it real
[singlepic=1148,200,,,right]When I arrived back to my apartment that I sublet it was surreal to walk into my old home with everything in the same place that I left it. I wondered if life had played a cruel trick on me and that I had just imagined the last 16 months. Maybe none of it had happened. After all, everything looked the same as my old life and sounded like my old life – maybe it was my old life. Whenever I had these feelings come over me I would get out my laptop and look through my pictures from my travels in order to remind me that it was real – the last 16 months weren’t a dream. Don’t be afraid to revel in your travels and embrace the memories. Put up your pictures and your travel trinkets. When people come over it provides great conversation and allows you to enjoy your memories.

Prepare some answers
I knew I would be bombarded with questions upon my return. Everyone would want to know where my favorite country was, my favorite food, my favorite experience, my worst experience, and the list can go on and on. When you travel for a long time, it’s honestly very hard to answer questions like these. There are so many experiences and I didn’t enjoy having to reduce it down to one or two quick answers. Yet I found that this is the information that busy Americans wanted to know. Many people didn’t have time to listen to you rattle on and on about the time you took a ferry from Zanzibar to Dar es Salaam. As much as I disliked it, I developed answers for these questions just as a matter of small talk…kind of like ‘What do you think about this weather?”

These things made my re-entry easier, but it was still no cakewalk. It was a long road that took me about 3 months to adjust to. Maybe I never did adjust considering I’m now living abroad! Regardless, take your time easing back into your culture, prepare for it, and don’t forget to enjoy your accomplishment!

We’d love to hear from you!

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