Homecoming Saboteur: the cultural shock of returning home

Planning to eventually move back to your home country after an extended stay in China? Then you have a problem. I suggest you be on the lookout for this sneaky little bugger, because he will get you, and there’s no escape.

He won’t jump up in your face and assault you outright; that’s not this saboteur’s modus operandi. Instead, he’s spent the entire time you’ve lived in China scheming against you, lurking just outside your range of perception, slowly sabotaging your much-anticipated homecoming from within the subconscious regions of your mind. His name is usually some variation of “reverse culture stress” or “re-entry shock,” and he can be a nasty piece of work, especially if you fly home with unrealistic expectations, unaware and unprepared. Fortunately, although you can’t avoid him, you can be ready for him when he comes, and that can make your re-adjustment back into your home culture a much less stressful and negative experience.

Welcome… home?

When you arrive back in whatever overdeveloped, obscenely rich nation you probably came from (no offense meant to the minority of expats from developing countries; offense to expats from the overdeveloped “first world” is entirely intentional, but when you’re in the middle of a bout of reverse culture stress you’ll happily agree with me anyway), re-adjustment might not seem like too big a deal at first. Your nominally curious friends will ask you, “So, how’s China?” And you’ll answer, “Uhhh… good?” Maybe you’ll all go out for “real Chinese food,” and they’ll give you painfully awkward looks when you eat bite-by-bite straight out of the serving dishes and hold your bowl off the table close to your mouth. Or maybe your sister will freak out when she discovers that somebody put used toilet paper in the garbage can. Or maybe you’ll do like me (I wouldn’t know anything about the aforementioned toilet paper incident) and refuse to accept the fact that your home city was built for cars, not bikes, and become a road hazard by insisting on walking and biking everywhere even though you’ve forgotten how the traffic works, violating numerous by-laws in the process and making the local motorists nervous.

There are myriad ways you can be surprised by the fact that you are no longer effortlessly at home in your own culture. Many such experiences are superficial and even funny, but the accumulation of such anecdotes can result in strong, confusing and stressful underlying emotions that leave you feeling almost as disoriented in your own culture as you were when you first arrived in China. In a way it’s even worse in your own culture: unlike in China, at home you have no excuse for not fitting in, nor do you expect to ever need one. But after a few months, the romanticizing of your home culture in which you indulged while away takes a U-turn. You become more critical and angry than ever with your home society; its flaws appear all the more damning and its benefits superficial or discounted. Reverse culture stress bleeds out through your negative attitude and actions. This is not only out of character, but seemingly without cause. Your family wants to know what your problem is, but you don’t know. Re-entry stress is a sneaky little son-of-a-turtle.

Friends’ Experiences

Bio returned to his native Brazil after years of graduate school in Texas, and he describes his cultural re-adjustment experience this way:

Take it easy on reverse cultural shock. It was awful to me. I started questioning everything as if it was totally different from before I left. It’s such a strange feeling! Till today I still react. There is a bit of American/European value in me after the experience living abroad. I guess I learned to appreciate it.

Beth, an American physiotherapist in Tianjin, likens it to the ultimate foreigner experience:

Reentry is like you’ve been abducted by aliens and had tests performed on you then you are returned back to your planet. When you go back to your home country you look about the same but you can feel completely different and feel like you don’t know how to do some normal things you used to do every day because of the alien experience you have had living overseas.

Sonja, a native of Germany who lives in Tianjin, describes it this way:

It’s part of the parcel, I think, and often hits when least expected and can be as nagging as toothache. Toothache you can figure out quite easily, but it sometimes takes some time until the realization “Oh, I’m culture-stressed!” hits home.

Who are you and what did you do with my home?

How did this happen? It’s simple, really: You left Blueland and went to Yellowland, and after a few years you’ve taken on an odd greenish tinge. You haven’t really noticed or understood this gradual change, even if you think you do. In ways deeper than you realize, Yellowland has altered your preferences, comfort zones, expectations, even the autopilot that guides you through crowds and traffic. On top of all this, while you were away Blueland faded to a slightly different shade of blue. Neither you nor “Home” are the same as when you left. This means that arriving home expecting to effortlessly slide back into the way things were is a small tragedy waiting to happen. Bethany, an American grad student in Beijing, experienced this first-hand:

When I’m in a foreign country, I don’t expect to understand anybody, and nobody expects to understand me – and since this total lack of understanding finds expression in every aspect of my daily life, my expectations are all fulfilled; and though uncomfortable, I at least find comfort in knowing what to expect. When I come back home, I expect to understand everyone and for everyone to understand me – but because living in a foreign country has indelibly left its mark on me, i just end up confusing and being confused by everyone else, and I feel even more out of place and disjointed at “home” than I did in the foreign country.

Tianjin English teacher Shannon Ingleby succinctly and unforgettably describes the experience this way:

Re-entry stress is like the direction of water when you flush a toilet in China… backwards and stinky.

It’s a rude awakening – rude because it sneaks up on you, biding its time to one day ambush your hitherto subconscious assumptions with the realization that things aren’t the way you remember them in your home country, and your home country could say the same about you.

How to Deal

To anticipate and respond to your inevitable experience of reverse culture stress, it helps to go in with both eyes open and informed, expecting, recognizing and understanding these inevitable feelings for what they are when they hit you.

Reverse culture stress doesn’t engulf everyone with the same force. Your particular experience will likely be shaped by several related factors. Here are three of the big ones:

  • the amount of time you spent abroad,
  • your degree of cultural adaptation while abroad,
  • your personality and personal flexibility.

The longer you’re away, the more opportunity both you and your home each have to change. How much you change, of course, depends on how you spent that time abroad, how meaningfully you engaged and adapted to your host culture. If you lived, worked, and played in one of Tianjin’s lǎowài ghettos (aka 洋人街), living the life of a long-term tourist, chances are you got a smaller dose of Chinese culture; you’re still mostly blue with maybe the slightest whiff of green around the edges. But if you lived in an average Chinese neighbourhood for several years and spent most of your free time with local friends doing local things in Mandarin, you might be bright green in a few spots. The people who changed less while abroad have less adjusting to do when they return. Hard core, KTV-loving, Mandarin-speaking, culture-snob lǎowàis (p.s. – more power to ya) will probably be in for a harder time when they try to re-adjust back home. The upshot is that if you were flexible enough to adjust to China, then you are flexible enough to re-adjust back home whether you feel like it or not.

There are several things you can do to ease the stress of re-adjustment:

  • Find others to talk to who’ve also returned home after extended time abroad.
  • Recognize your feelings for what they are: the totally normal result of re-entering your home society after extended time away. It doesn’t mean something’s wrong with you, or that you’re a failure, or that you’re inflexible or can’t handle change.
  • Expect to experience the culture stress cycle again: honeymoon (initial euphoria of returning home), disillusionment (negative reaction to home not feeling like home), adjustment (correcting unrealistic expectations and accepting the new situation).
  • Realize that your perception of your home culture, while possibly enhanced and enriched due to your time away, is also heavily coloured by your culture stress feelings. When you’re in the second stage of the culture stress cycle, resist the urge to romanticize your host culture while demonizing your home culture. This urge arises from your reverse culture stress, not reality. If you feel like moving off to a monastery or a hippie farm, give it a few months first.
  • Re-engage the relationships you left behind when you went to China. You can’t simply pick up where you left off because everyone has changed over the years, but you can catch up and move forward.

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7 thoughts on “Homecoming Saboteur: the cultural shock of returning home”

  1. I would say my most slap-you-hard-in-the-face moment of reverse culture shock happened in class at the Alliance Francaise. There were several Brits in the class, the rest of the students Kiwis. We were discussing some aspect of NZ society, with the Brits giving their foreigner’s eye view, when the teacher turned to me and said “What do you think, Chris? You’re a foreigner too.”

    “Excuse me?! I was born and raised right here in this city!”

    And of course, the teacher quickly dug his way out of that hole by saying that although I was a local, I’d just come back from several years abroad and therefore had a foreign-Kiwi point of view to contribute.

    Perhaps the fact this conversation happened entirely in French added somewhat to the surreality.

    But yeah, re-entry is hard. Afterall, all that friction is precisely why they have those fancy protective tiles on the space shuttle. It’s depressing sitting there with friends you used to know so well and now you’ve got nothing to talk about anymore. I wound up sprinting through customs and diving onto a plane after a mere 6 months, and was not able to relax until I boarded my Singapore-Beijing flight. Stepping out of Beijing airport was a huge relief.

    Got a trip home planned for next Spring Festival, and that’ll be the wife’s first time outside China….

  2. I should have thought of the space shuttle analogy. Yeah, even for us this time (visiting after three years away), it’s weird not having anything to talk about with people, or at least not having very much to talk about. They don’t care about China, not like we do anyway, and we’ve pretty much missed out on three years of personal and local happenings.

    I think it’s different, too, if you return “home” on an extended visit, like us, or if you move back home, intending to stay. The stakes are a little higher in the latter situation, I think.

  3. I love this topic. The first time I went home I had a panic attack in a grocery store trying to buy lettuce. My family thought this was hilarious but it freaked me out. Here is my “re-entry” protocol since my incident.

    2 Weeks of China Blackout:
    1. I OD on western TV shows, movies don’t cut it, and allow little to no Chinese TV in the home.

    2. Chinese food is out, none, zero, everything is western and home cooked.

    3. No Chinese spoken in the home.

    4. Stock up on food in advance, leave the home only when essential or work-related.

    5. Take care of the Goodbye’s with Chinese friends in advance and I tell them what I’m doing for the next 2 weeks. They think I’m strange but they are used to it now.

    More than anything I find Number 1 helps the most. And, the worse the TV show the better, i.e. something I would never watch normally. Sitcoms, Cheesy mindless soap-operas, and any reality TV you can get your hand on.

    Sounds crazy but it has worked great for the last 8 years.

  4. Watching brainless Western TV sounds almost as bad as the reverse culture stress itself! Glad you found something that works.

    I think it’d be funny to hear what kinds of things Chinese people have come up with trying to do the same thing when going the other way.

  5. Great post as always, Joel so not busting chops your way. I’ve been back and forth more than once now for long stretches and…

    My advice for folks returning home?

    Buck Up! Waaah.

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