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.
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.