Ruth Vahle
About Author
October 14, 2020

Reverse Culture Shock

Remember when you first arrived in Beijing, how exciting it was in the beginning? How the excitement then gave way to frustration, when you couldn’t communicate, or the air quality index hit 300 again?

With frustration probably also came annoyance, at the pushing and shoving, the spitting, those weird Chinese habits.

You experienced culture shock.

But eventually you settled in, felt comfortable and started to enjoy life. Living in Beijing became familiar.

How does reverse culture shock happen?

Going back home, even if only for a summer vacation, may bring the same U-shape curve of culture shock, only in reverse.

You enjoy blue skies and clean air at home like never before. People, habits and food are familiar. Public toilets are clean and don’t smell. You finally blend in again, even if tall and blond, or black.

But … (and this is of course biased by my experiences – you probably have your own pet peeves when you visit your old country…)

The variety of choices quickly becomes an overwhelming abundance. How to choose between 100 different cereals, which fill an entire aisle in the supermarket? The 10 or so varieties at Jenny Lou made that job much easier. Sticker shock sets in as well. Everything seems so expensive, especially eating out and transportation.

Fat people everywhere. Life is dominated by cars (well, in the US it usually is). There’s no cheap and good public transportation, so you always have to borrow or rent a car or ask for a ride.

And then this feeling you can’t quite put your finger on. Compared to Beijing, life seems so boring. Everyone seems so settled.

At first people are curios about your strange life in a country far away but they quickly lose interest in something that’s important to you. The same way as you have missed many important things in their lives. Their lives have gone without you, and you seem to have little left in common.

It seems nothing has changed at home, except for you. And now you don’t feel like you fit in anymore.

So how do you deal with reverse culture shock?

I think it helps to keep trips back short and sweet and filled with activities. That way, time will fly and reverse culture shock has not time to hit you that hard.

Moving back entirely however is a different story. I can’t comment on that yet. But I hear from friends how hard it is to settle back into the old live, no matter if that new old life is in Paris, Frankfurt, or Connecticut.

Patience, flexibility and an open mind, the same things you had to cultivate to settle into life in Beijing, will probably pay off eventually when you move back. Be prepared  to see your old country with different eyes and set out to explore it again, like a new expat.

Or you could just move on to the next exciting place …

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Ruth Vahle