The Shock of Reverse Culture Shock

This guest blog is by Ava Apollo. When she’s not writing for MSW, she’s blogging about adventure travel at bemytravelmuse.com

I had full blown reverse culture shock when I moved home from Taipei.  I’m talking sleepless nights, forgetfulness as to how to operate a vehicle, the feeling that nobody cared I was back, the whole shebang.Yes, I just said “shebang”.


The only thing is, I had no idea what reverse culture shock even was before returning home.  Why would it be odd for me to return to the place I grew up, definitely understood the culture, and already had a built-in network of friends and family?When moving abroad, one naturally worries about culture shock.  It’s obvious to think about the task of acclimating when arriving in a new country, especially if you’re like me and decided to move to said new country having never visited it.  It’s like learning a whole new way of living life.

I thought the first few days in Taipei were among the most taxing of my life at the time.  I was on a 24/7 translation bender, which is surprisingly exhausting.  I even spent a full hour in the grocery store my first time in (Wellcome market in Taipei, at the end of Wen-Zhou street where I lived) and emerged with only 3 items: ramen noodles, dumplings, and merlot (wine is universal, my friends).

I’ll be honest. I broke down and cried a few times the first few weeks.  I felt overwhelmed.

Can I just hide today?

I didn’t set out on the journey expecting that any leg of it would be easy.  I didn’t want it to be easy, either.  The rewarding things in life seldom are.  I figured once I got used to Taipei, I had made it through the toughest part.But why did nobody warn me about reverse culture shock?

When I moved back home, it seemed as though nobody really, oh I don’t know, cared.   I half-expected my friends to drop everything to see me like they did before I left, but it didn’t go that way.  I learned a painful lesson back then, that I would have learned eventually anyway, about who was really a friend, and who was nothing more than an acquaintance.

My real friends would be curious about the adventure, they’d ask how the “trip” was, and then slip into a comatose state five minutes into my story. They weren’t really interested in the details.

I felt like everything was so different.

Home?

The oddest thing about all of this is that nothing back home really changed much while I was away.  Everything carried on just the way it did back when I was still a part of it.   It seemed so wildly different and difficult to me because it was I who had transformed.I didn’t realize it at the time, but the moment I moved abroad was a turning point in my life.  It was an event in which I was one person going in, and a completely changed person coming out.   My old life ended the moment I stepped on that plane leaving LAX, and my new life began the moment I stepped off of it and into the sticky Taipei evening.

Even now, thought it’s been over three years since I left Taipei, sometimes triggers make me yearn for that life.  Every time I get in my car and someone cuts me off and we show our mutual displeasure by flipping the bird, I think to myself, people were nicer in Taipei. Every time Lunar New Year rolls around, I think about the lantern festival, and I deeply miss my night-time walks, which I can’t safely take around here – I miss living somewhere safe.  I also miss going to the doctor and paying only $12, without insurance, to see her.  I miss the truly amazing food, and the unique mixture of East and West.  Heck, I even miss the honest people who returned my lost iPhone to me (before it had even been released in Asia) after I accidentally left it at 7-11.   Gosh, that would NEVER (ever, ever, ever!) happen here.

Don’t get me wrong, Southern California is amazing, as evidenced by the amount of people who live and vacation here.  Moving home had its perks.  For the first time in 8 months, I was able to walk into a store and speak English, and be fully understood.   I was finally back with my family, whom I had missed.  I was able to buy all of the food and beauty products that I had been missing,  there were no longer mosquitoes torturing me, and the weather was truly a significant improvement.

Home, sweet home?

But, if I’m honest, I yearn to take off and move abroad again almost every day.  I ask myself if the grass is just always going to be greener somewhere I’m not.  This could certainly be the problem.  Either way, I’ve been struck with wanderlust and I can’t shake it.  There’s something so beautiful about being somewhere completely new, where nobody knows you and yesterday and tomorrow don’t matter.

I wish there was a way to travel the world and still put something away into a 401k.  So, for now, the nagging need to be financially secure has kept me sedentary.

But you know what? Writing about it always makes me feel better and reminds me of the best times I had over there.  Visiting old friends I met abroad and reminiscing about our time together takes me back in such a deliciously giddy way.   We always ask each other, will you go back?  Some of us have, and some of us only flirt with the idea.   Either way, we’ve all been changed.

What about you??

Posted in EXPAT LIFE | Tagged , , , ,

About Ava Apollo

Ava Apollo grew up in Southern California where she had exposure to a wide variety of languages and cultures. After her University years, Ava spent a year in Taipei where her love of Travel, Chinese language, and writing were intensified. Ava has since returned to California, however, she remains a lover of writing about Asia and traveling the world. Find her on twitter: www.twitter/.com/avaapollo and her travel blog bemytravelmuse.com.

19 thoughts on “The Shock of Reverse Culture Shock

  1. The Journey

    Home sweet home, there are times when we go to meet friends and family. It can be boring and re-arrange a new route.
    Home sweet home, and that’s wonderful beach :)

  2. Josh Aggars

    Hey Ava,

    How are you? Long time no speak.

    I totally understand what you mean. The culture shock of returning and realising literally nothing has changed is immense. You walk around your family home looking for signs of change and the most you can detect is a photo on the shelf has been moved slightly to the right of where you thought it was. You walk around your old neighbourhood and the only discernable change is that the all night garage now stocks Dr Pepper cans as wells as bottles now. You talk to friends and everyone still has the same problems as before although now those problems are all one year on so ever so slightly dealt with differently. Oh and one of your friends has cut their hair slightly differently and everyone is suddenly wearing really bad looking boots which are now the ‘in thing.’ A few months in and you buy said boots because suddenly you’re back in the swing of same old same old and then you try and piece together the images and feelings from your travels and they suddenly feel opaque and distant. Thank god for photos and videos is all I can say.

    Cheers
    Josh

    • ava apollo

      Josh,

      This comment made me chuckle a few times. You’re so right. It’s so weird to come home and realize almost nothing has changed, especially after going through such an intense personal transformation.

      BUT, let’s not reduce the significance of the all night garage now stocking Dr. Pepper in can form. It took us years of customer complaint cards to result in that momentous transformation ;)

  3. Marcus

    Hey Ava,

    I loved this article. Your writing truly resonated with me, because I’m still going through reverse culture shock, having been back in the United States for a year. This was after 5 years in Asia:

    –1 year in Shanghai, China.
    –3.5 years in Taipei, Taiwan.
    –0.5 years traveling around Southeast Asia and Japan.

    Like you said, one of the hardest things to deal with is that your travels simply do not matter to people back home. Only other travelers really understand, which is why I’ve tried to stay in touch with the closest friends I met in Taiwan. We’ve all returned to our hometowns, and are going through the same painful re-assimilation.

    The ironic thing is that I never used Skype while I lived abroad. My parents only use the telephone. Most of my friends lived in the same city (Taipei), so it wasn’t necessary. Now I use Skype often to video-chat with my travel friends. I can’t calculate the huge therapeutic benefit of seeing and talking with fellow nomads. Great to know I wasn’t alone in going through the post-expat blues.

    A few things I miss the most about Taiwan:
    –The nice people.
    –Terrific food.
    –The MRT, buses, and excellent public transportation.
    –Universal health care.
    –Being able to hop on a plane and be anywhere in Asia within 4 hours and for less than $500.
    –The nice people.

    Good luck with re-adjusting to being home. In another post, you said you’ve already found a job. Congratulations! I spent my first year back studying web design at a university. Now that I got my certificate, the job search is on.

    • ava apollo

      Marcus,

      I’m so glad I posted this so that I could find others in the same boat. I know we’re all just hiding out back home, feeling the same things, around a bunch of people who don’t really understand.

      I wasn’t even abroad for a year, and I feel this way. I can’t imagine how the transition is for you after 5 years away. I had a few friends who moved home after 10 years in Taiwan. They had a tough time too.

      It, too, miss the MRT. It was such a nice mode of transport. We have no such thing here. I also LOVED traveling around from Taipei. It was the perfect hub! You’re right, everything was close and pretty cheap to get to.

      I’ve been home for years now, and have been working in a cubicle job since. I know I should be thankful to have a job, but I freaking hate it. I want to take off again soon.

      Good luck on your search! Find an occupation that makes your heart sing.

      • Marcus

        Ava,

        Yes, the longer you’re abroad, the harder it is when you come home (if you come home). One of the main reasons I left Taiwan at the 5-year mark was that I knew that if I stayed any longer, I wouldn’t be able to leave Asia ever. There was this dread that I’d lose my ability to live in America entirely. It was important for me to try to keep a foot in both worlds, abroad and at home. If I lost one, I’d only be half a person.

        Another driving factor for me to return home was to enroll in a web design program at a university here in the United States and learn how to build online businesses (like in the book “The 4-Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss). I could have studied on my own, but I needed the structure of an academic program to keep me on track.

        The ultimate goal would be able to work from anywhere and travel whenever I wanted. To do that, I needed to seriously upgrade my computer skills. I’m far from reaching that ideal lifestyle, but I’m trying.

        On a brighter note, I attended a meetup of travelers here in Hawaii one night. SO NICE to be around like-minded people. The organizer suggested I join Couchsurfing.com.

        I’d heard of the site, but never used it. For privacy reasons, I didn’t want to host travelers or sleep in their homes. But she said that you can just say you’re available to meet up for coffee and things like that. She found Couchsurfing to be the best way to meet travelers, especially if you’re not on the road yourself. So I’ll join and see what happens.

        Maybe you could sign up and meet visitors where you are. Could help stave off the “homesickness for the road.” Or make it worse, ha ha!

  4. Jesse Lee Rhodes

    Thank You for sharing this,

    I can especially relate to the part you shared about having been transformed. I visited Japan in January 2011. The first time I had flown overseas for personal time. I remember feeling so different when I returned back to California. I eventually settled in again. I will be moving to Japan permanently in about 16 weeks. This has been a dream of mine for over 15 years and now I am here. It feels great! I will initially teach English as a Second Language in Japan. I will be taking intensive Japanese language courses also so I will be able to completely integrate into the society.

    I would love to visit Taipei. If I were visiting Taipei tomorrow ‘what is the first place I should visit?’

    Thank you,

    Jesse Lee Rhodes

    • Ava Apollo

      Jesse,

      YangMing Shan is my favorite. It’s one of the mountains surrounding Taipei. I’d also suggest coming in the weeks following lunar new year for the lantern festival. The city center is so beautifully decorated! Enjoy your time in Japan!

      -Ava

  5. Rhonda

    Wow, this post really spoke to me and brought tears to my eyes. I completely understand this. After spending two years in Taiwan, I’m now back in Chicago and I have to say it’s been VERY difficult readjusting. I miss Taiwan. Even though traffic was crazy there, people were indeed nicer. I miss the mountains of Puli, my students, my scooter, the food. The friends I made along the way.

    I wrote about this very subject a few weeks ago. It’s odd how nothing and everything changes when coming home.

    And you realize how many people are trapped in these bubbles and have no clue what’s really out there.

    You said you yearn to take off everyday, I understand this feeling all too well. Good luck with your future travels and hopefully you continue to feed that wanderlust!:D

    • Ava Apollo

      Rhonda,

      I’m glad you commented. I just read the blog I think you’re referencing, and it really is comforting finding others who feel the same way. I also like how you’re exploring your hometown and falling in love with it again. I think that’s the healthiest thing you can do. Good luck with your future travels as well, both at home and abroad.

      -Ava

  6. Mihaela

    Hi Ava,

    It’s a nice personal experience you had abroad and probably you found there people alike you and the mentalities, believes, way of life resembled to your ideal. I felt once like this; but I think it is nice to let your life follow its own way; if there is something you miss, find ways to give your memories life, change something around you. You have no idea that what you are looking for might be under your nose.

    • Ava Apollo Post author

      You’re right. The best thing to do is stop searching and appreciate the “here and now”

  7. Joanie

    This was a really engaging read. My attention was arrested in particular by the photographs coupled with the captions ‘home?’ and ‘home, sweet home?’ Those made an impact on me as powerful statements about belonging – both landscapes are vast and beautiful, haunting, misty — but both are distant, separated from the individual, potentially intimidating… it’s hard to know where the ‘right’ place is sometimes.

    • Ava Apollo Post author

      Thanks for your kind comment :)
      It seems as though this feeling of trying to belong, and the confusion that comes with it, affects a lot of people. I’m not glad we’re all going through this confusing time but it sure is nice to know that it’s not a lone journey.

  8. Paul

    Thanks for this article. I was considering moving back, but after seven years in Taipei I don’t think it’s going to be the same at all… hell, i was an outsider before i left :P nah, you guys helped make up my mind, i’m staying forever!!

  9. Y. Russell

    What a great article. I really feel your pain. I returned back to Canada from a year studying in England (and travelling extensively elsewhere) and I was so depressed. Nobody wanted to hear my stories, not even my girlfriend (who was simply angry at me for being away). Nobody cared to hire me for my international experience, which had been the most intellectually stimulating, exciting, crazy, surprising, stressful year of my life. I was a different person coming back. But in my home town, people were obsessed with trivialities and held only crude stereotypes about where I had been. And even friends lost interest in the details because for them traveling is just an abstraction, a luxury, a more expensive version of seeing it on TV or going to a theme park. It was a rare friend who took a deep interest (and they were only the others travelers or people who loved me like my mother). Eventually, I couldn’t stand it anymore so I moved back to England after three miserable years suffering reverse culture shock. Now I’ve been in England 10 years, using it as a base to explore the world and I have never looked back (luckily, my formerly cruel girlfriend, now wife, eventually understood what I was feeling and decided to move here with me!). You might love the place you came from, but you don’t want to live there. YR

    • Carrie

      That’s so true, Yvan. I’ve been gone for ten years. When I return home, people listen politely, but I know that they can’t really relate.

  10. David

    Hi, my name is David. I currently live in Taipei. I’ve lived here 5 years with a break back home in San Diego for 5 months. I couldn’t find a job that time (2010), so back I was here and found one in two days. LOL… I am scheduled to move back the summer of 2014 and was googling reverse culture shock and came upon your blog. Glad I read it. I have a bit of experience since I did go back for a bit of time after the first two years, so kinda know what to expect. It’s odd, though, when you are here, you kinda long to be home. But then when you get back you realize you aren’t missing anything. I think it’s been a bit of tiime since ou wrote this post, but how are you doing now? I’m trying to prepare myself for next summer. Thanks for posting this and for reading my comment. :)

    • Carrie Kellenberger

      Hi David,

      I know what you mean. I haven’t made the jump back to North America yet. I’ve been in Asia for ten years, and we’ve been talking about heading back in another five years or so. It’s daunting to think about. I think it scares me more than than when I moved abroad! I’ve found that even short 6-8 week trips back to Canada leave me feeling like a fish out of water.

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