Once a foreigner, always a foreigner.
I learned that the hard way.
Traveling is transformative in the sense that it puts you squarely in the fire of transformation. That fire burns away everything you are not, and within the ash remains only what and who you truly are. I’ve had the incredible experience of traveling the seven seas, seeking all manner of things – temples, languages and food – but the only thing I ended up truly finding was myself. For me, deciding to leave Richmond, Virginia and move to the People’s Republic of China was a no brainer. Returning home six years later, however, was not just a difficult decision to make – it was also the hardest thing I had ever done in my life.
Leaving home to move to another country is incredibly arduous but what magazines and experts don’t tell you is that coming home can be even harder. Most tell you about culture shock, the psychological process and ‘disjointing’ that happens to the psyche when you go somewhere unfamiliar. Yet the real shock is coming back home and to people you left, into the fire of what is known as reverse culture shock. The word shock in that phrase is no exaggeration. It has been a psychological shock of seismic proportions.
I came back in a familiar body to family and friends but internally I had changed immensely. I had vacationed in the Philippines, eaten authentic foreign cuisine, conversed in a foreign language, worked and lived around people from fifteen to twenty different countries. My mind had been exposed to so much that my soul had been transformed, the jack was out of the box and it couldn’t ever be put back in. But instead of taking the time to get to know the new me, friends and family treated me like the person I used to be.
Reverse culture shock forced me to go within. I had to mentally re-adjust my perspective and maintain and water my own peace amidst what felt like a spiritual desert. Suddenly, I was forced to cultivate a new direction in life. But it isn’t enough for me to simply go on about America and reverse culture shock. Moving forward I would prefer to write something that is akin to a letter for those in the midst of repatriation. I went first, I struggled and now I wish to lay down what I learned as a type of survival guide.
Only Those Who Do, Know
No one will understand what you’ve been through and how your life has changed. They won’t understand how you’ve changed. They will see a familiar body and face, but will care nothing for getting to know the new soul inside of it. Accept this. If people project the old you onto you, you may need to ask them, “What are you basing this behavior on?” I was in China for six years, so I had to remind others that people change in that amount of time and that I had changed immensely.
Everyone Will Expect You to Just Pick Up Where You Left Off
As an expat, you get to watch and laugh at others, free of the rat race, feeling ‘beyond it’. When returning, people will expect you to jump back into the rat race, to find a job, a humdrum job and simply get on with the checklist of life. You’re to find gainful employment, find a mate, get married and then continue on with the rat race. They never escaped the soul crushing cycle and don’t know what it means to be out of it. Forgive them, for they know not what they know not.
You May Have Outgrown Some People
Your soul has been cracked wide open. Through sheer exposure, you have been forced to grow in ways others may never be able to fathom. Adapting to another culture shifts your perspective radically. Many of my closest friends can no longer relate to my experiences and I don’t feel like I click or mesh with them anymore. I’ve found that with many of my old buddies I just don’t have anything to talk to them about, and if I do talk about my life in China, they think I’m bragging. Some will feel threatened by your growth and new outlook and will want to compete with you. If you need to separate from some people, or stop hanging out with them, do it! There is no harm in this, and it may be necessary for your psychological health. Focus on those who you feel good around and who are open and willing to understand your experience. Remember, a different vibe calls for a different tribe.
You Will See Nothing the Same as Before
In China, I became acutely aware of China’s cultural differences and now that I’m in the US I am acutely aware of America’s faults. I have become very critical of my country’s shortcomings. More importantly, I developed an unorthodox opinion about everything in life. In China, I was a foreigner. Now, in America I feel like a foreigner.
I don’t see with the same eyes. For example, I see our work culture as truly toxic and unhealthy. It’s obsessed with protestant productivity. Annoyingly, I compare everything to how it’s done in China and I know people hate that. I never intended to be the “in China…” guy, but that’s literally most of my adult life experience. My solutions to problems at work are out of the box and this grates upon the soul of American parochialism. Allow me to elucidate here. Parochialism is as American as apple pie. America sees its corner of the world as the only world and doesn’t want anything to do with another perspective or one where our way of doing things isn’t considered the best. I can count on five hands how many times I heard the response: “This isn’t China! This is America,” as if I didn’t notice.
Try your best to not give your opinion out freely, don’t pass it out like some flyer at an election poll. Try to focus your conversation on others’ lives and not your own. This will help others feel more comfortable and since you’ve lived their lives, it’s something you can both relate to. Your experience will seem foreign to them, so bring it up as little as possible.
Life Back Home May Seem Draining and Baseless
American society often lies to us. I was taught to get a degree, find a good job, preferably a high-paying one, buy creature comforts that I don’t need, get married to someone extremely attractive, buy a house, buy a car and start a family, all by the tender age of twenty-six. One must also be incredibly fit, look hot in yoga pants, have a six-pack and have an Instagram profile full of pictures of you and your incredibly hot girlfriend or boyfriend on some beach on an exotic island. People seem more concerned with an idealistic life that they aren’t actually living and less concerned with the life actually happening in front of them. Don’t mind this type of thinking, just as others will not mind everyone around them while they direct their hyper-focus at their phones.
This may seem shallow to you, you may become disillusioned with it all, and everything about life in your home country. The psychological effects of reverse culture shock are unavoidable, and it is an emotional rollercoaster. The mind will be pulled this way and that, there will be times that you feel fifteen different emotions at once and there will be times when you fall into an abyss of despair. You will be met with a barrage of some of the dumbest questions that you’ve ever heard in your life, “Do they have restaurants over there?” So many times, I found myself defending China against a legion of gross generalizations.
I suggest that you reach out and grasp for the familiar foods, music and cultural relics from the country you left. Get out of the house, go for a walk, listen to international music on YouTube and refuse to feel guilty for avoiding people who are comfortable in their ignorance. Also, you may need to limit some people’s access to you.
Seek Other International People
Seek out international venues, people and food. My saving grace was a childhood friend of mine whose father was from Germany and whose mother had international living experience. They understood where I was coming from and how I felt about things. They could understand the jokes I made, my sarcasm, and my wit didn’t go over their heads. When I peppered my speech with foreign words, they didn’t look at me like I had a horn coming out of my head. I felt more comfortable around them and they understood me.
In conclusion, returning home is incredibly difficult. It can be mind-numbing and soul-grating. Study abroad programs have powerpoint presentations on file that teach you about culture shock before you go but no one teaches you about reverse culture shock before you come home. Not that the experiences are truly comparable, but it’s almost like you’re a soldier being rotated home from a tour. You’ve had this awakening experience and everyone around you seems dead to the world, like they’re just going through the motions. There were times when I just wanted to scream at people, “Wake Up!” But they wouldn’t have heard me. There were times when I felt like I was speaking Chinese to Americans, when I was clearly speaking English. People just couldn’t understand where I was coming from. Mostly, because they didn’t understand where I had just come from.