So you're preparing to head overseas for a while. You've read up about the country, or countries, you plan to visit, knowing that once there, things are going to be different. You're not just visiting a different country, you're visiting a different society. Their values may be a world away from what you're used to at home, what is considered normal where you live could be completely taboo where you're going, the religions may be different, the form of government completely different - a simple smile may pass on a meaning that you're completely unprepared for. You know what culture shock is, and expect to feel like a fish out of water for a while, as you adjust to a completely new environment and people.
Are you ready for what you may feel when you get home though?
Reverse culture shock - also known as re-entry shock - can be just as difficult to live with, or possibly more difficult to come to grips with, particularly if you're not prepared for it. While many people are expecting to feel out of place in a foreign culture, and may be able to recognise culture shock for what it is, feeling something similar once you've returned home can be more alarming. After all, you're returning to the place where you may have spent the majority of your life, returning to a culture that you know instinctively, and to people who know you. So why should you feel out of place in this environment?
For many people, reverse culture shock is the feeling that while travel may have changed you, your home remains the same. It's easy to imagine that as you've changed - whether that be your thoughts and ideals, your attitudes to the people surrounding you, or the concepts of what is right and wrong - the world has kept pace with that change, somehow aligning to your shifting values. Of course, this won't have happened - the people you left behind have been doing the same old things while you've been gone, dealing with their everyday challenges, certainly not being exposed to alien cultures with their own philosophies, beliefs and culture. It can be difficult to adjust to your own home, and you may be feeling that what you have always accepted as right and true doesn't seem so straight forward any more - the lines are blurred, and it's difficult to understand why nobody else can see that.
On the flip side, there can be the assumption from your friends and family that you've returned the same person as when you left. It can be difficult to understand why you're having trouble communicating with these people, when in reality you may be coming from very different directions - something that may never have happened before. It's a situation where you have trouble understanding why everyone else can't see your point of view any more, while everyone else is wondering why suddenly you have less in common than before you left. Those people you left behind have not had the opportunity to experience what you have, so have no idea where the change has come from. They may even feel intimidated - while you have a world of stories to tell, they have nothing comparable to share with you. It makes conversation hard when all they have in reply to your story of some crazy rickshaw ride through the back streets of Delhi, is the latest work drama.
Reverse culture shock is a normal reaction to returning home, particularly for travellers who have been away for extended periods of time - although it can affect those who've been away for shorter periods. I felt many of these emotions after getting home from 10 weeks travel - not a huge amount of time in the scheme of things, however I think what I felt was largely influenced by the countries I visited, all with very different cultures and values to those I was used to at home. I believe one of the most important strategies for dealing with it is to be aware that it exists, and be prepared to feel a sense of alienation for some time. It isn't a permanent thing, in just the same way as your initial culture shock will fade over time. Allowing yourself the time to get over reverse culture shock is important - many people I have spoken to have stressed the importance of allowing some time to yourself doing nothing when you're travelling, accepting that you don't have to be active all the time, and it's perfectly ok to sit in your hotel room all day reading a book every now and then - a chance to recharge your batteries, and take a break. Allow yourself the same when you get home too - don't try to readjust in a day, or a week - let it happen in its own good time.
One of the most useful things I've found dealing with being back home, is to speak to other people who have travelled if you can. It can make a world of difference to be able to talk to someone who understands where you're coming from, and most likely knows exactly what you're going through. When you're talking to your family and friends, try not to overwhelm them with your stories of life overseas all at once - take things slowly. Sharing your photos with them can be a great way to give them an idea of what you've seen and experienced, and allows you to explain what it is they're seeing. I've found this works really well if you avoid having some mass showing of your pictures - the ever dreaded slide night or its modern day equivalent - it's easier and more personal being able to talk to one or two people, and you'll probably find that its easier to have more meaningful conversation.
And while reverse culture shock may fade over time, if you get home and realise that you've been bitten by the travel bug - well, start saving, because there's really only one cure for that. Who knows - I might run into you on the road one of these days.