Reverse Culture Shock … It’s A Real Thing

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Reverse culture shock is no laughing matter. Well, perhaps, but it is also serious.  It can occur without notice and blindside the most seasoned missionary. Perhaps it is trying to get in the wrong side of the car, driving on the wrong side of the road, or maybe it’s using an expression that no one understands here in the United States.  Maybe it’s being overwhelmed at a grocery store because there are just.too.many.choices!  Supposed you were living in a war-torn nation, the sound of target practice by nearby hunters can suddenly be alarming. For me, sometimes it’s realizing that I am talking with my eyebrows and all of a sudden I become self-conscious.  (Normally no one notices, or perhaps they are extending me grace by not saying anything, but I notice.)

Some say that the longer you are on the field, the longer it takes for reverse culture shock to disappear. Some say it takes one to three years. Still others say it depends upon how enculturated you were in the foreign culture you were serving in. Some folks even claim it takes just as many years as you were on the field to fully transition and reverse culture shock to completely leave. But truly, it is completely unique to the individual. While people make predictions of how it will go, the life of the missionary themselves must face each challenge as it surfaces.

At the heart of reverse culture shock is the reminder that you are no longer in the place that you call home, your new home which is not in the United States or wherever you were “from.”  You are suddenly very aware that you are no longer “there.”  It is as if your physical self has arrived but somehow your soul has not quite caught up with your body yet.  So strange to feel like a stranger in your own home country.

I remember as if it were yesterday when we arrived in the Atlanta airport. I rushed to the rest room as quickly as I could because I did not want to hold up the family who was ready to go through immigration and get our bags as quickly as possible. I take care of business and try to wash my hands and think, ”Where is the soap? Oh, in this pretty dispenser right next to the faucet embedded in the countertop. How nice. Okay. Got the soap. But, how do you turn on the faucet?  There is no handle! Hmmm … this must be automatic. Surely, I can figure this out. I wave my hand here and there. No water. I wave it again in another location. Next to me someone quickly goes to the sink, gets their soap and I observe as they just stick their hands under the faucet and the water rushes over their hands. Oh! That looks easy, as I pretend that I have not been trying to make the faucet go all this time. I put my hands underneath. Nothing. Phooey! I move them around and still nothing. Man, am I feeling dumbfounded.  My family must be getting impatient out there waiting on me. If I did not have my hands full of the soap, I would just leave … well, so I give in. The next person who comes to use the sink, I simply ask for help and she is kind.  She just moves my hands to where the water begins. I guess I just needed to hold my hands still longer for the water to begin.  I am feeling silly now. That was so easy. Well, yeah, easy once you know what to do! Reverse culture shock. I was in my own country but things were not as I was used to anymore.  In fact, things had changed over the last decade quite a bit.

To define reverse culture shock, or re-entry as some people coin it, is simply this: it is the process of returning home and feeling disoriented, out of place. It no longer feels fully home. Isolation, depression and hopelessness are common. The book Returning Well: Your Guide to Thriving Back Home After Serving Cross-culturally by Melissa Chaplin is a guided conversation and workbook to help missionaries work individually at their own pace on tackling reverse culture shock and all that re-entry brings. I highly recommend that you gift your returning missionary with a copy. If they take the time to work through it, they will definitely thank you since it will help guide them through their reverse culture shock immensely.

You see, reverse culture shock goes deeper than just certain physical actions and reactions that manifest themselves. It affects the emotional and psychological well-being as well as even cultural implications. You see, adjusting back to American life can be difficult. You no longer value things the same way you once did. You may even have negative feelings toward your own country for a time. You find yourself longing to be back where you were, homesick even for what was – for what you have become accustomed to.

Sometimes it is the expectation, or lack thereof, that catches one off guard when reverse culture shock hits. Keeping in mind and just having the knowledge of its existence can help stave off some of its ill effects. Having good closure at the place you are leaving is extremely important. This involves saying goodbye to friends and favorite places. If this was not possible, it is a good idea to find someone to talk through this with.  Personal debriefing may be helpful and/or seeing a counselor.

Another way to elude deep impact from reverse culture shock is to avoid the comparison game. It can be easy to be critical of your home country. If you are constantly comparing your home culture to the old culture, you are only adding insult to injury. The truth is that each culture has its own strengths and weaknesses. Comparing them is like apples and oranges. There is no real comparison, so it is best to just enjoy each culture all on its own. Over time, your critical spirit will dissipate as you reintegrate and reverse culture shock fades. But it does take time, so give yourself grace.

When family and friends do not understand what reverse culture shock is or much of your cross-cultural experience, it can be isolating even further. That is why it is important to process your thoughts and feelings with someone who does have some knowledge and cross-cultural experience themselves. It is key to share with someone who has been there, who understands and can normalize your symptoms. Because it “is” normal. You “will” come out on the other end. There “is” a light at the end of the reverse culture shock tunnel. You can and will reintegrate back into your home country when it is time. I encourage you, brother and sister, reverse culture shock is a temporary condition.  It will pass and know you are not alone.

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