I didn’t cry when I left home. I didn’t cry when I got bed bugs at an expensive hostel in Singapore, when a cat peed on my bed in Japan, when I had an asthma attack in Togo or food poisoning in Cambodia. I didn’t cry when I spent a night being harassed by teenagers in a German train station, when I was followed by four men in France or when I was in a car crash in the mountains of the Philippines.
I nearly cried over the holidays, birthdays and three weddings I missed being away, but those absences—just like all the other challenges—were part of the adventure. I cried plenty when I got back. (I also cried a little when I missed a flight I couldn’t really afford to rebook, but that was entirely my own fault, both times.)
Coming home after time away can be more painful than leaving in the first place. I spent a year right out of college interning for an international nonprofit in Manila—learning from locals as they worked for systemic change in the Philippines. I tasted a new language, found new favorite foods and built friendships that have lasted years. I tested myself time and time again.
Coming home after time away can be more painful than leaving in the first place.
I came home to—not much of anything.
I went from living in a new-to-me country and working at a demanding but rewarding job to working two dead-end jobs and living in my parents’ house. Worse, I couldn’t see the next steps. It was like all the momentum I’d built up working abroad, traveling and learning was just gone.
If you’ve studied or volunteered abroad, then you probably sat through at least one talk on culture shock. It makes sense that new environments stress us out and might make us act in ways we wouldn’t understand without those warnings. Yet, coming home is supposed to be a relief, right?
Coming home is supposed to be a relief, right?
Reverse culture shock doesn’t hit everyone quite the same, but it’s safe to say anyone who spends time away from home might face issues adjusting after a move back. I’ve gone through it a few times now, and there are definitely ways to minimize the stress of trying to fit your growth abroad into your world at home.
1. Plan ahead
I made almost no attempt to have another job lined up when I got home from the Philippines, even though I knew my general end date from the start. I was proud of that choice. I wanted to “really be there all the way to the end.” While this is fair, but it was also a cop-out for me.
It’s all about balance. Looking back, I think I was just scared to make decisions, but figuring out a next step doesn’t necessarily get easier from home. You want to be invested in the end of your time abroad, but having nothing lined up after my year in Manila wasn’t good for me. I assumed something would come along, but it took months and dozens of applications before I had anything exciting to do.
If you can’t have another job or adventure lined up, then at least give yourself a goal for when you want to have it figured out or even a list of paths to research!
2. Don’t lose touch with everyone at home
At least not completely. Be present for the semester, year or few years you spend in a different country. However, you’ll want to have people you can jump back in with as soon as you get home, and long-distance relationships take some maintenance.
I was in Manila with a few other Americans, and we spent time together figuring out different versions of our stories to tell friends when we got home. Everyone will ask what life was like in China, Spain, Guatemala or Antarctica, but not everyone will really be ready to listen.
Everyone will ask what life was like [abroad], but not everyone will really be ready to listen.
Some people truly want to hear about every bump in every adventure. They’ll be excited to hear what day-to-day life is like in a different place (Note: Call these friends every month or so if you can!) Other friends have the capacity to listen for the length of an elevator pitch, and plenty of people will fall somewhere in the middle.
3. Find someone, anyone else in the same boat
The biggest stroke of luck was that I wasn’t alone when I came home. I got home around the same time as a friend who’d spent a year teaching English in Japan and another friend who’d just finished a stint nannying in Italy and Germany. We met weekly for needed commiseration and good frozen margaritas (a very good thing about being home in Texas). It took us all a while to find our footing again, and we leaned on each other the whole time.
I also had a few Americans and one Australian I’d worked with in Manila head back home around the same time—they were all invaluable.
Journal, paint, talk, run, write music or do whatever you need to do. I can’t overemphasize the benefit of talking to a professional. I had my first therapy appointment a few weeks after I got back, with a therapist who specializes in helping people who spent extended time away from home.
If you can swing it, then leave yourself a couple of weeks for some rest and focus before jumping into the next job or grad school application.
5. Plan some tiny adventures
It’s certainly more fun to wind up lost in a Taiwanese night market than to feel lost, or at least stagnant and purposeless, in your hometown.
For nearly the first year I was back in the States, I refused to dig into my life at home because I kept expecting to be moving on, but I didn’t move, not for a year and a half. Eventually, I started allowing myself to have a life. I found community, started volunteering, got involved in a racial reconciliation conversation group and started saving up to visit friends who lived throughout the country.
A year and a half after I landed back in Texas, I did move again. Yet, the friendships I’d built and the things I’d learned in the time span that I was there were worth the pain I felt over leaving them.
6. Be kind to yourself
It’s easier, in some ways, to know you need to be more careful about the way you treat yourself and others when you’re in a different country. My friends and I were careful to watch out for each other in the Philippines and understood when the stress got to be a little too much.
Home, on the other hand, isn’t supposed to feel like a different country! If you’ve been gone for a while, then you might not notice all the little ways you’ve grown and changed. You might not be ready for the ways your home changed while you were away. Returning for any length of time can shine a huge spotlight on all those new edges, and that’s both normal and stressful.
Now, when I spend time at home, I try to approach it with the same curiosity and openness I do a brand new city. It’s OK to sit with the questions surrounding new things for a while. There’s no script for this, not really.
Have you ever lived abroad and faced reverse culture shock upon your return home? What advice do you have for others who might be facing it?
Image via Kara Alden