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Reverse culture shock and the challenges of returning home

Reverse culture shock and the challenges of returning home

I recently returned home to Australia after living in Dhaka, Bangladesh for eight months. It was great coming home – seeing my friends, starting a new job and eating all my favourite foods again.

When friends asked me to talk about my time away, I was happy to do so, at first. But soon I started avoiding standard questions like ‘what did you do over there?’ ‘what are the people like?’ and ‘was the country poor?’

Now, most people don’t ask me these questions and if they do, I give them one-word answers. It wasn’t until the other day I realised my reluctance to speak about my time in Bangladesh was a symptom of a larger issue, reverse culture shock.

When people talk about experiencing reverse culture shock they often talk about one event, like a breakdown at the supermarket because they are suddenly overwhelmed by consumerism and trying to decide between five brands of toilet roll. And when I didn’t have a melt down at the supermarket – I just grabbed the toilet rolls closest to me – I thought I had been spared.

The selection is overwhelming - and then you see how much they cost.
The selection is overwhelming – and then you see how much they cost.

Like many others, I didn’t know that reverse culture shock can come in different forms and can manifest itself in less obvious ways, like in my case not wanting to talk about my experiences because I felt alienated from my friends and family. Because I settled back into my Australian life very quickly and I was glad to be home, friends assumed I hadn’t changed and things would continue as they had done before I left.

As for me, I felt like my time in Dhaka had never happened. This was because I struggled to convey how different my life was in Bangladesh compared to Australia. I couldn’t find the words to explain what I saw or how it felt to witness some of the things I did.

At first, I tried but I saw people’s eyes glaze over and I grew frustrated when they followed up my heartfelt responses with, ‘so do they have beaches there?’ I spent my first few weeks trying to defend Bangladesh and correct preconceptions: yes, the country is predominantly Muslim, but no they don’t all wear burkas; and Bangladesh isn’t an Indian state though there are strong ties between the two countries.

I guess people can’t be blamed entirely for their limited understanding. It’s hard to understand a country, culture and people when you haven’t experienced it for yourself and Bangladesh isn’t exactly a popular travel destination or on most people’s radar, although I would argue more attention needs to be given to the country.

As a result, I found myself agreeing to whatever ideas people had about Bangladesh and ‘developing countries.’ I didn’t want to be that friend who started an argument or always talked about human rights over dinner so instead I kept my thoughts to myself, and because I wasn’t able to talk about my time away it felt like a distant memory.

I also didn’t give much thought to coming home and the challenges with settling back into my ‘old life’, despite spending most of my time prior to moving overseas learning what to expect and mentally preparing myself. I didn’t consider that people didn’t really understand what my role in Bangladesh was and my reasons for going.

Some people I talked to thought I was on an extended holiday and I spent my days teaching English to children. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Having to explain repeatedly about my work was a real struggle for me. I felt I had to justify my decisions for moving to Bangladesh and when friends and family didn’t understand these justifications, it left me feeling alone and frustrated. I believe the misconceptions about what it is to work, volunteer, and live overseas, contributed significantly to the reverse culture shock I felt.

What I went through, and am still going through, is normal. Talking to a few other returned expats, I realised I wasn’t alone. Most have gone through a similar process and some have stopped talking about their experience to ‘make it easier’ for themselves and others, highlighting to me that reverse culture shock is common.

The best way I have found to explain it to people is comparing it to returned soldiers. There is a strong friendship formed between yourself and fellow expats. It is only with them that I have felt comfortable to say how I really felt about working in Bangladesh and my experience as an expat. Without this support network, adjusting to life in Australia would have been very challenging. You can’t live in a city like Dhaka and not have it change you and your worldviews.

I don’t think there is enough attention given to reverse culture shock. Expats often put all their energy in preparing to go and making most of the experience that little energy remains to prepare themselves for the final part of their journey: coming home.

Friends and family may not be aware support is required upon the expat’s return or that reverse culture shock even exists. Expats need to be aware of this and be proactive to find those they can talk to, because feelings of alienation and isolation are mental health issues.

For returned expats like me, it’s extremely important a lack of understanding about reverse culture shock doesn’t prevent us from sharing our stories. Telling our stories is both cathartic and helps reduce the misconceptions about development work.

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Rachel is the Communications Director at WhyDev. She is a writer and communications consultant. Rachel combines her knowledge of storytelling and technology to help individuals and organisations in the social good space build their digital story. Over the last eight years she’s worked with international and local organisations across six continents. Her writing has been printed in numerous publications including The Big Issue, Dhaka Tribune and Maya. She is also the Regional Ambassador for NetSquared, Co-founder of Nia Children’s Foundation, a speaker, trainer and mentor. Read more of Rachel’s thoughts on her website: http://www.rachelkurzyp.com.au and be sure to say hi on Twitter at: RachelKurzyp

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12 thoughts on “Reverse culture shock and the challenges of returning home

  1. […] planes for a good however many hours, or find ways not to lose it while waiting at a checkpoint. My “reverse culture shock” is epitomised by the London commute, which only a good read can make less painful. Hence I’m […]

  2. […] That’s one way of handling reverse culture shock… […]

  3. Kevin

    Hey, Rachel. I just ran across this article and it really hit home. I lived in Israel and the West Bank for 5.5 months back in 2004, and I was kind of ruined for normal life back in the US ever after. It changed me permanently, and I have found myself bored with life back here at home (which is why I go back to the Middle East for a month every year). It was really hard to adjust back to being home with people who just didn’t understand what I had experienced, but I guess in the end, you have to make your peace somehow.

    1. Hey Kevin thanks for your comment. I totally get what you mean about your experience overseas ruining your life back home. I’ve been back for 7 months and when people complain about the traffic I still think to myself you know nothing about traffic congestion haha! When I moved back to Melbourne I realised not everyone lives the same, which is like a duh moment, but I think it was the first time I accepted that is the way things are – not that I’ve stopped trying to change this. I guess this was my making peace moment.

  4. Thanks for sharing that tip! I think it’s a really good idea. I’ve actually tried to do that. I’ve also made a big effort to go out and meet new people and attend events in recent weeks. I think the excitment and joy of meeting new people and doing new things helps with returning to the known and getting used to the ‘routine.’

  5. ad bhai

    @Rachel Kurzyp
    ” yes, the country is predominantly Muslim, but no they don’t all wear burkas; and Bangladesh isn’t an Indian state though there are strong ties between the two countries. ”

    you sounded like it’s a bad thing to wear a burqa. but it does reveal the Euro-centric despising prevalent in Australian society towards modest Muslim dressing. Bangladesh is not an Indian state although Bangladesh has a political system largely controlled by India since it invaded it in 1971. the political transgression from India often spills over into cultural facets one gets to see in Bangladesh

    1. Brenda

      Actually, I took it as to mean most everyone think this and he was clearing it up. That’s the reason communication needs to be clear across the globe or possibly you could learn his culture as he did yours. It appears from this side of the culture line it was a statement of defense for your culture.

  6. This is a really helpful article. My husband and I are preparing to return to the States after living in Cambodia for three years. We need to prepare ourselves to transition well back to life there. I experienced severe reverse culture shock after nine months in Khartoum, Sudan several years ago, and I know how important it is to end well in your host country and also to have others back home who can be a neutral listening ear when things get tough.

  7. Kirra Watt

    It took me almost 4 months for my life to get back to ‘normal’. In the beginning, hearing English everywhere was exhausting and I fell asleep after most outings. I didn’t like to talk about my experiences either because I felt like people were missing the bigger picture. I wrongly assumed that my friendships will be the same but they actually needed a lot of work. I mean, I needed to catch up on 5 years of not being there for all the small, day to day things and a few big moments. Some friendships didn’t make it. Most people thought I was on an extended holiday and now that I am back in Australia, I’ll get a ‘real job’ despite the work I had done. Reverse culture shock is sometimes just as lonely as the hardest moments when you are overseas and no one has been in that situation to understand how you are feeling.

    1. It’s funny you should compare reverse culture shock to the hard times living overseas. I have thought the same thing although I’m lucky because in Melbourne I have my partner so it makes it a little easier. You’re right, friendships and relationships in general are hard to remain. Sometimes I feel the more I travel the less time I want to spend in Australia because it feels more and more foreign to me each time and people feel further and further away. But the upside is I’m finding more people that I can relate to and that understand me. Our sense of community is changing as more of us travel and connect in different ways. i wonder what role reverse culture shock has to play in this.

  8. […] This piece was originally written for and is featured on WhyDev. […]

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