Reverse Culture Shock

Reverse Culture Shock

The often inevitable return to an expat’s home country can be just as daunting as it is to move abroad in the first place.

By Claire Bolden McGill

Global Living Magazine – Issue 14 | Sept/Oct 2014

With a year to go until I leave America’s shores, the thought of returning to Britain fleets across my consciousness at odd points during my days here, blotting out the sun for a brief moment, and reminding me that I am not a forever-expat; that this is a brief three-year visit; and that ‘normal service’ will resume soon.

I am already seeing several British folk from our community here in Maryland return to the U.K. as their ‘tours’ expire. Some leave with heavy hearts, some with practical to-do lists adorning the walls of their rental accommodation, and some have apprehension and trepidation filling their every waking (and their should-be-asleep) moment.

As much as I make a concerted effort to appreciate every day, hour and minute that I can during my expat stay in the U.S., it’s hard not to occasionally get swept up in thoughts of returning home. There are the good bits, such as seeing family and friends, of course; and there are the scary bits, such as ‘what am I going to do for a job’; and there are the practical bits, such as the ‘must get children into a school and buy a car’ bits.

In reality, though, my expat tour has changed my perspective somewhat about how I am going to approach my return to the U.K. Instead of plonking myself down and just getting on with it, like I did before, I’m determined to take a leaf out of my expat-in-America book and start relishing and taking every opportunity I can, to travel more, to see things, to do things, and to genuinely appreciate things.

They say the ‘reverse culture shock’ of returning home can be an uncertain rollercoaster of emotions and that many who repatriate feel different and sometimes out of touch. Repatriation can be unexpected and daunting, and nothing can really prepare you for how you are going to feel. It’s like renewing an old relationship, but many things about you both have changed, you’ve had unique experiences apart from each other, and you’re both trying to find that common ground that bonds you.

I imagine that there will be an initial euphoria, but that this will wear off pretty quickly unless you begin to view your country just like you did when you came out all fresh-eyed and open-minded as an expat to your host country. At least, that’s what I’ll be attempting to do.

Jennifer Roberts and her family moved back to the U.K. from the U.S. in 2012, and she found the transition harder than expected.

“The move home was hard emotionally and psychologically. I’d built up such a great community and I missed the people so much. Britain seemed so negative when I got home after the warmth and openness of Americans. But… I loved being able to walk everywhere again; I felt I’d re-gained a connection with the place I lived that was missing when I had to get in a car to drive everywhere. One of the first things I did was walk to the local cheese shop and bought pretty much all their stock.”

What she really noticed were things that stood out as being very different in the U.K. from the U.S.

“The car culture is completely different. People will live somewhere much smaller in the U.K. in order to be close to bars, restaurants and their friends. Having a small child, I noticed there is less of a culture of going out to eat with small children in tow in the U.K. In the U.S. it is completely normal for an entire family to go out to dinner, often quite early, maybe 5 p.m., whereas in the U.K. it is more frowned upon to take children out to a classy restaurant in the evening – and anyway, most people wouldn’t eat till 8 p.m. at least, past most kid’s bedtimes. Also, children drop naps much earlier in the U.K. so go to bed earlier. American kids seem to nap for years and be up with their parents till late – U.K. parents would be horrified to lose their ‘grown-up time’ in the evenings! So restaurants are very much an adult space in the evening.”

Some aspects of being ‘back home’ can be amusing though. Jennifer tells how she still says “bless you” to random people who sneeze near her in public.

“This is considered entirely normal, friendly behavior in the U.S., but is clearly the mark of a serial killer in the U.K. People don’t even make eye-contact with you in case you try something else terrifying, like trying to talk to them.”

Her one piece of advice to those who are moving back home after time abroad as an expat is this: “Don’t rush the settling-in experience – it can take a good six months to feel ‘at home’ again.”

For Katherine, who lived in Australia for four years with her husband, the move back to the U.K. became a terrifying experience. She recalls, “For the year leading up to our return, people would ask me what I was going to do back home. In Australia I had carved out a career in publishing, got involved in community work, made great friendships and established my identity. When I contemplated their question, I began to worry that I would lose all this and become lost and redundant back home. I began to fear the return and got caught up in trying to figure out what I was going to do instead of enjoying my last year in my host country. When I eventually returned home I had such a negative set of emotions that I became very depressed, viewing everything as boring, mundane, or even tedious, and it took me a long time to find myself again.”

She adds, “It’s been a year since I’ve returned and I’ve just managed to stop hankering after my Australian lifestyle, which I cherished and enjoyed so much, and have had to reeducate myself about living in the U.K., and I have begun to learn about the pleasures of living here again. It takes time, though.”

The gradual adjustment to home life came easy for Annie, who moved back to the U.K. from the U.S. last year. She says, “The adjustment to life back in the U.K. was easier than I had ever hoped for. Physically it was tough, as we had bought a new house whilst in the U.S. and moved to a different village. But, in typical British fashion, the local people have been amazing, and that really helps. My daughter was a minor celebrity in school for a while, being the ‘American’ girl, and people loved to hear her talk! Sadly, the accent disappeared after about a month. Emotionally it was better than I thought, since we instantly got the feeling of being ‘home’. I never expected that, but I think it was the right time for us to return. Guess you can take the girl out of England, but you can’t take England out of the girl. Being home now I find it easier talking to people – because people simply ‘get’ you. I found myself changing my language and having to think before I spoke so much more in the U.S., as people didn’t understand the language or terminology, but I’m more relaxed about that now in the U.K. On the other hand, I don’t know what ‘language’ I am talking any more. I use American words and phrases without thinking, such as ‘trash’, ‘truck’ and ‘good job’. We had a power cut recently and I was talking about the ‘power outage’ to my dad. ‘You’re so American,’ he said.”

The whole ‘moving home’ process is something that is unique to everyone, and each one of us will have a wide variety of emotions and challenges to deal with.

“Reverse culture shock is experienced when returning to a place that one expects to be home but actually is no longer, is far more subtle, and therefore, more difficult to manage than outbound shock precisely because it is unexpected and unanticipated,” says Dean Foster, founder and president of Dean Foster Associates Intercultural Global Solutions, a firm that provides intercultural training and coaching worldwide.

Foster explains that expats learn over time “to behave and think like the locals, to greater or lesser degrees, while on international assignment.”

He notes, “By the time most traditional international assignments come to an end, several years may have passed, providing the international assignee a significant amount of time to learn new patterns of behavior and thought necessary to fit into their host country.”

Foster points out that expats returning home are often “shocked into the realization that they have in fact changed substantially, usually when they encounter their home culture upon repatriating. Both they and their home culture have changed, and this is often the first time that expats have had the opportunity to experience any of these changes.”

I look forward to the changes and the challenges of moving home, but I also look forward to making the most of my final year in the USA, and, boy, do I have plans…great plans!

Image courtesy of shutterstock © FCSCAFEINE

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