Reverse Culture Shock: Home Isn’t Static

Reverse Culture Shock: Home Isn’t Static

You’ve returned to the place you used to call home, and things are not as they used to

Reverse culture shock. Never heard of it? Well, surely you’ve heard of culture shock—the feeling that hits when you visit someplace new and the details of everyday life are unfamiliar: climate, food, language, and mannerisms. The same thing can happen in reverse, only it’s unexpected because you’re returning home.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute:

“Change of routine and a lack of familiarity contribute significantly to reverse culture shock.”

You’ve returned to the place where you used to live, a place you used to call home, and when it’s not only changed, but you’ve changed too, it can be extremely difficult to readjust. Many people experiencing reverse culture shock struggle because they continuously compare and contrast the two places—big versus small, fast-paced versus slow, respectful versus rude, efficiency versus disorganized—and those around them tend not to get it, and sometimes get frustrated.

Dorit Sasson was recently featured on our podcast (listen to the episode here). She's an American who moved to Israel at only 19 years old. Decades later, she and her family moved back to the United States out of necessity. “So many years had passed. I left as a teenager, and I came back as a wife and a mother,” she says. One of her biggest frustrations with the return to her home country was the size of things in America. She says that the cars and houses were bigger. This may have been part of the reason that she couldn’t find a community similar to the one back home in Israel—not only are Americans not Israeli, but everything is “supersized.”

For Chef Shannon Llewellyn, who spent eight months in France cooking in various restaurants, returning home was difficult in a different way. “Back in the states, regardless of my education and experience, I was still 'just a girl' in the kitchen. Even when I became the boss, the male cooks would call each other 'chef' but still refer to me as Shannon.” The sexism in America felt hyper focused, but there were also body image issues. “Upon my return, my friends and family exclaimed 'Wow! Looks like you brought France home with you!' or 'Is your belly full of chocolate or cheese?’"
In Shannon’s experience of France, eating is a way of life and women are just as important as men in the kitchen. Back home in the U.S., she felt like less of a person in the kitchen, and says she felt invisible as a well-fed woman in public.

The longer someone is away, the more difficult the return, because the shift has already happened, and we can get stuck looking at the great parts of a place, forgetting all its negatives. Dorit’s family left Israel because they could only make enough money to survive, and Shannon may not have lived in France long enough to see the negatives.

People experience reverse culture shock for many reasons: they’ve lost their close-knit community, the change in language is overwhelming, the shift in climate is stark, or because they’re going from a health safety net to no safety net whatsoever.

If the people around you have never felt what you’re feeling, they expect you to readjust normally. You lived here before, just get back into the groove. But it isn’t that easy.

Getting past it takes time. Dorit suggests that it’s best to look at the return to your home country as a visit to a new country:

  • Stay adaptable.
  • Find traditions that you’ve become familiar with.
  • Find your people if you can.
  • Connect with others who are going through similar experiences: join a group or an organization or write a blog.

It’s often easier to readjust to a country that welcomes returning citizens. It also helps if you have family to greet you and help you settle in. It may help to find these people on social media or through an organization before going back home.

As Dorit says,

“Everybody has their own version of reverse culture shock. Everybody has their own way of seeing or expecting what home should feel like, or what home should look like.”

Home isn’t static: it changes as we change, and that’s important to consider when returning to the place that you once called home.

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Daniel De Biasi

Emigrant & Podcaster

Leaving my country is by far the best decision I have ever made. It was scary and challenging but totally worth it. I want to help more people follow their dreams abroad. by removing the scary bit.