England feels very different to Mexico. Different to anywhere in Latin America in fact! Everything in England is calmer and quieter, but less colourful, and less fun. A grey afternoon in November wasn’t the best welcome back to my native country, that’s for sure! Many people find that reverse culture shock is worse than the shock of travelling to a new place, and coming home after more than a year I understood why.
Reverse Culture Shock: My Experience
Returning home after living abroad or travelling long term can be difficult to adjust to, settling back into a routine, adjusting to the schedule of a 9 to 5 office job, and getting used to the rain and the chilly temperatures in the UK was something I didn’t really want to deal with. After my first 10-month stint in South America, I was lucky that I didn’t have a job to go back to, nor did I feel any pressure to find one. I still didn’t know where I wanted to live, what I wanted to do, or which country I wanted to escape to next. I had plenty going on in the couple of months I was home to be able to justify not finding a full-time job, although I was worried about money. Everything in England costs so much more than I had been spending in South America. I needed to be careful, but catching up with friends, and attending weddings wasn’t as cheap as I was used to!
I didn’t adjust to life back home at all. It became obvious to me that settling back into my old life just wasn’t possible. I didn’t want to live in the same place, I didn’t want to get a normal job, I didn’t want to be “normal”. So, I escaped again, to Mexico, Cuba and Central America. For thirteen months I followed my dreams, travelling, working, exploring and living in another country. But this time, after thirteen months of adventure, I was tired. Tired of moving around, and although I loved the adventure, I longed to stay somewhere for longer than a week. I had travelled much more slowly this time, spending four months in Mexico City, two months in Antigua, and enjoying slow travel as much as I could. I had made a deal with my parents that I would come home for Christmas, and as the date grew closer, I was more and more excited to come home. I had spent the last two Christmases away from my family – and although we’re not religious, Christmas away from home is always tough. This year I will be with my parents, in their apartment. I have never lived there, but they make it home. We laugh at our jokes, share memories from years ago, and feel comfortable. There are no pretences here. This time, coming back home wasn’t so scary. I’m not sure how long I’ll feel like this, but for the moment I am glad to be back!
Reverse Culture Shock – What’s so Different?
To me, reverse culture shock is difficult to explain if you have never experienced it. How different can one culture really be to another? As it turns out, it can be vastly different!! Everything from the food, to religion, family values, music, TV, high street shops, markets, clothes, everything is different in some way. Everything we see, hear, and feel influences our culture, and our culture influences how we see the world, and conduct ourselves in it.
The first change I noticed was on the motorway driving home from Heathrow. There was a queue of cars waiting to join the M4, but there were no horns beeping, no motorbikes zipping in between lanes, nobody selling drinks, snacks, DVDs or fruit to the waiting cars. The drivers just waited patiently for their turn to join the motorway. Walking around the town where my parents live, the pavement is smooth and well-kept; no rubbish in the gutter, no open pot holes to fall into, and no stray dogs to avoid.
It was strange to speak to people in English, a few Spanish words slipped out, after I had become so used to asking questions in Spanish, replying quickly I almost felt more comfortable speaking in Spanish. This time while I have been away new pound coins have been introduced, and new notes – I didn’t recognise money from my own country! I got confused when I handed a cashier a two pound coin – I almost snatched it back, thinking it was a Mexican ten peso coin, but he assured me it was legal tender here. I felt like I was travelling in a new country again!
I took a train to Liverpool to see my brother. The train snaked through the countryside, and amid green fields and trees, the cows and sheep stared back at me through the windows as we sped by. Trains are one of my favourite forms of transport, I had missed them in South America, where the lines are limited to expensive tourist trains in most places. I could type with my laptop on my knee, without the lurching round corners or neck crunching braking which had made it impossible on the buses in South America.
Crops of potatoes and unknown greenery replaced the familiar sights of coffee and sugar cane in Colombia, and there wasn’t a palm tree to be found. Parts of Colombia had reminded me of home, the rolling green hills of Santander could have just as easily been the Welsh valleys or the Yorkshire Dales. The lush green countryside was similar, but somehow different. The types of trees and plants are a little different, and there were pale brown cows in Colombia with floppy ears, instead of the black and white Fresians that are so familiar in England. Sheep are less common in South America, although they can be found, along with goats munching the grass at the side of the road, instead of in a field
I had missed English food. A fish finger sandwich when I got home, an English Breakfast the next morning. A takeway with my brother, a curry and an Indonesian meal with friends in York. No more meat with rice, patacones and salad that I had grown tired of, but no more arepas, cheese and hot chocolate which I adored. In the UK there is much more variety of food. I could eat tacos here if I wanted to, although I’m sure they wouldn’t compare to the street food in Mexico City. It was nice though to eat cheddar, and baked beans, and bacon sandwiches – simple foods, but which were so hard to come by in Latin America.
How to Deal with Reverse Culture Shock
Feeling like a stranger in your own country is bizarre, but it needn’t be a bad thing. Coping with reverse culture shock can take some time, so try not to worry. Reverse culture shock symptoms can range from irritability to stress and depression, so don’t rush and give yourself time to adjust to your new old surroundings. Younger people who study abroad or travel long term can suffer badly from reverse culture shock, as can expats returning home after a prolonged period abroad. Travel changes your perspective on everything, but it also makes you more open minded and adaptable to change – even when you go back.
Don’t expect everything to be the same. You have changed, and so has everything else. Take this opportunity to rediscover your home town, and see it with new eyes – from the point of view of a visitor. I was lucky to visit London shortly after I returned to the UK, and instead of being bored by being at home, I spent a day getting to know the city, visiting places I had been to as a child, and discovering new ones with fresh eyes. Appreciate what you have around you – your town could be a really great destination for someone else, so take time to explore! Stroll through the park, visit a museum or eat at the new restaurant, and treat your town like you were visiting as a tourist. That way, it doesn’t feel like you’re going back home, it’s more like you are visiting somewhere again for the first time!
Keep some memories of your travels, but don’t dwell on the past. Souvenirs are great to provoke happy memories of the wonderful things you experienced, but appreciate where you are now too. Share stories of your adventures, but don’t bore your friends to tears. We all have stories to tell, so catch up with friends and listen to what’s new with them too, without bombarding them with your anecdotes. Reconnect with the people you missed while you were away, friends, family and loved ones; they are a unique adventure too!
To help me keep a slice of the Latin culture that I loved, I still had my Latino Vibes playlist on Spotify to listen to. If I didn’t have the colour and spice of Latin America to see in front of me, then I could still blast it through my earphones, wiggle my hips to the salsa rhythms, and shake my booty to Daddy Yankee (subtly of course!). I wear the bracelets and earrings I bought, adding a flash of colour to the British winter, and try to keep in touch with the friends I made. Then, I really try to enjoy my surroundings. Appreciate the moment and
Reverse Culture Shock – Where is Home?
Moving back home after living abroad was a struggle for me, as I wasn’t even sure where I felt at home. Home is a strange concept to me now. My parents no longer live in the town where I grew up, so when I visit them I have part of the comforts of home – washing, cooking, spending time with my family – but without a real sense of home. When I returned from overseas I could stay there for a while, but we all knew that sleeping on a camp bed in my parent’s living room was not a long-term plan.
I loved visiting my friends in Leeds; I had lived there for 10 years so would that feel more like home? It was familiar again, but things had changed in the last 5 years since I left. It wasn’t home either. It was great to catch up with my friends, and we have all changed, as you would expect. Marriages, mortgages and children had been most of their stories for the past few years, which I still can’t imagine undertaking. We are still friends, but have less and less in common as we spend less time together, and prioritize different things. This is no bad thing though, and I would expect no less. We all grow up, so perhaps it is me who is stuck in the past? I am still clinging to the Peter Pan like existence, backpacking with twenty-year olds despite being well into my thirties. Do they think I’m crazy? Or are they a little jealous. Do I think they are crazy? Or am I a little jealous? Perhaps it is all of the above.
Will I ever feel at home? Will I ever come back to home sweet home? Now I have seen more of the world, I know that there is still so much more to see. I’m not sure I will ever be happy living in one place. I know that living in the UK is not something that I want to do right now. Maybe not ever, but never say never. I still long to find somewhere to call home, at least for a while. But then again….
Have you experienced reserve culture shock after studying or living abroad? Share your experiences in the comments below.
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