04 August 2010

Reverse Culture Shock

A lot of people talk about reverse culture shock when they come back from trips abroad, especially if you travel to a place that is significantly different than your home country, and if you stay there for longer than a month, and get used to the way life there works.

The nebulous “they” will tell you that reverse culture shock varies for everyone, and I have found this to be true. But in general, people have some similar experiences – feeling out of sorts, not feeling like they fit in to a space they used to occupy so comfortably, shock at things that they feel wouldn’t normally shock them. The difficulty with reverse culture shock is that you don’t expect coming home to be so hard. I mean, this is HOME, it should be the same as it was when you left it. But we forget that time has passed for everyone at home just as it has passed for us. It’s a double edged sword, because everyone involved has changed, but we who’ve traveled have changed in different ways than the people to whom we return.

Personally, I experience reverse culture shock in a different way now that I’ve gone back and forth a few times. I am no longer shocked at the change in myself and in people – I know now to expect it – and I am no longer marveling at things in America like way-too-short skirts or how addicted everyone is to their SmartPhones. For me, it is more like what my mom used to call being “camp-sick.” When my sister and I used to go away to camp for the summer, we would come back and be homesick for camp and the pattern we had established in our lives. This campsickness would last a few days to a week, depending on how long we had been away, but eventually it would fade.

With traveling abroad however, the campsickness lasts longer – especially the first time I came back after being away for 2 years! It’s not that you got used to a routine and new friends, but you also got used to a new language, new food, a new family, new music, a new city… and you actively worked to integrate into that life. Then, you come back, and you feel like a stranger in your own country. In Arabic, they have a word for feeling like a stranger in a strange land (combined with a feeling of longing for what you left behind): ghorba (الغربة). Reverse culture shock is feeling that “ghorba” in your home country…

As a look into what my students might be going through right now, take a look at what one of the girls wrote before she left Morocco:

“This is the last official day we have to spend with our host families, which is such a weird feeling. I cannot believe in a few days I will be at home. I am worried about the culture shock coming home this time more than I have ever been on any other trip. The American group is talking a lot about it, and how each person deals with it.

After talking about it with a few people, I have realized that the biggest part of returning culture shock for me is the fact that people don’t understand my story. Of course my family and closest friends will listen and appreciate to what I have to say, but its the others that bother me. There is no real way that I can convey my story to them and make them genuinely appreciate the experience. So what I think I am going to focus on is not telling those people every detail of what I experienced, but what I learned and what I want those people to learn. I want to make them realize that the world outside of America is actually not that bad of a place, and not everyone hates us. And that there are other, better ways of promoting the US that do not include war.

I am so happy to have a group like this one on NSLI Y because all of them have something in common with me and most feel the same way I do about traveling. I can talk to most kids at home and none will understand why I do this kind of stuff. But the students on this trip know and understand, and also want to pursue the same things I want to. It just makes this whole trip much more meaningful and purposeful.”

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