My experience with reverse culture shock: symptoms, stages, and cure

A few days ago I celebrated the four-year anniversary of my return to Italy after six years spent living in Xiamen, China.

“Celebrate” is exactly the right word… I patted myself on the back, savoring the positive sensation that gave me the thought of having survived the return to my native country.

WHAT IS REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK?

“A state of shock is not just what happens to us when something bad happens. It’s what happens to us when we lose our narrative, when we lose our story, when we become disoriented. What keeps us oriented, alert, and out of shock is our history.” Naomi Klein

Reverse culture shock is an emotional condition affecting most of the people that go back to their country of origin after having spent many years abroad.

After my return, for several months I went through a crisis of abstinence from feeling “foreign”, a very strong feeling that even surpassed the worry about finding yet another job and the sadness of feeling uprooted, belonging nowhere in particular.

Four years later, I feel good about myself for having decided to return. In this post, I will share my experience with reverse culture shock, the symptoms, and the stages from the last phase in the foreign country through the stages of reverse culture shock and resettling in Italy until I talk to you (surprisingly!) about what I consider the advantages of repatriation.

RETURNING TO WHERE YOU STARTED: A DIFFICULT DECISION

You have realized that the chapter in your new homeland is coming to an end, and this puts you in crisis because you do not yet have a clear idea of what the next step is. You feel (and fear…) that first of all, it would be better to return to your home town for a while.

I had moved abroad in desperate need of cutting some invisible ropes and having different experiences. I felt dissatisfied, unrecognized where I was at.   

Returning home was a time-consuming decision. In fact, I spent two years just mulling it over! Even though I was convinced that my chapter in China was over, I would have been more willing to accept the idea of moving to yet another country rather than take what felt like a real step backward.

reverse culture shock
Reverse culture shock

TAKE YOUR TIME

The fact that I had taken in a cat as a permanent guest and that it was quite a complicated procedure to transfer it to Italy between vaccinations, microchipping and feline passport, forced me to slow down my moves and to consider the return even longer.

In the months spent weighing the decision, worries had taken over my mind, consuming precious energy and health, so I opted for what I knew could really help: travel!

I traveled from my second home to Pulau Weh in Indonesia and spent 2 weeks surrounded by nature and people I had never seen before, regaining some mental clarity and the courage to look to the future with confidence.

I also met several Italians who, like me, had lived abroad, returned to Italy, and even left again, and were doing very pretty well. That gave me hope. Traveling prevented me from succumbing to uncertainty while recharging me, helping me to implement the return procedures with determination and serenity.

Maybe going back home was a bad decision, but I would always be able to travel.

SURRENDER TO THE SYMPTOMS AND STAGES OF REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK

A period of living abroad can come to an end. To accept this fact is a bit of a challenge that must be faced with a clear mind.

Sometimes the feeling of “this is not the right place for me anymore” is just a passing cloud, caused by a negative period at work or in your social life that can make you want to return “home”. But other times is the right decision that you would prefer not to take.

Acceptance and surrender are necessary steps.

LEAVE BEHIND AS MANY ITEMS AS POSSIBLE

Maybe you’ve amassed a lot of nice and special objects over the years of building your new nest, including furniture. You have the chance to drag only a suitcase and a trolley though, miraculously balanced together with the laptop and the bag that saw your trunk in two while you run to catch the plane. But you also have shoes and clothes for all four seasons, unless you were lucky enough to expatriate to a tropical country.

I lived in a pretty small room but I managed to cover every surface with objects, including a human-sized pink panther that I had found in a store when I already knew I was going back to Italy, but couldn’t resist! I also had some furniture that I was sad to leave behind.

Years later, I’m glad I sold or gifted most of my stuff.

AVOID LEAVING ANY DOORS OPEN

While it’s not certain that the return is permanent, why completely close the doors to a third possibility even? Other amazing places exist than homeland and the second homeland… Don’t tell me that your experience abroad has made you more rigid than what you were before moving.

As well, leaving items with friends in the country you emigrated to with the idea of coming back for them who knows when clashes with the fact that you’re ready for a brand new chapter. Objects tie you to places, maybe one day they could even be the excuse to return to a place that hasn’t fed you in a long time, being the cause of further expenses.

If you’ve made a decision, follow it through to the end, be happy for the time you’ve spent with your things and dispose of them. Shipping a lot of packages back takes time and money away from you, especially take into account that customs may have some surprises in store for you, as happened to me, who paid for both the shipping and the collection because I had omitted to write “personal items due for repatriation” on the package.

The time spent in line at the post office to send all the things you can use it to greet better places and people of which you want to bring back the memory, to take those photos that you have always put off because they were things you saw every day.

LIMIT THE DAYS SPENT AT HOME WITH YOUR PARENTS

So-called “reverse culture shock” will be amplified if you’ll have to go back to your parents’ house for a while, as I did. Unfortunately, after you’ve gotten used to seeing them for a week or two a year, a month at most, lingering too long in the environment where you were born could make reverse culture shock more severe, even with all the goodwill. Having your own space, at a distance from any mental pressures, is certainly better than saving money in some cases, you will gain health and, eventually, time.

stages and symptoms of the reverse culture shock
Hold on, reverse culture shock will pass

FORGIVE YOURSELF FOR FIGHT OR FLIGHT REACTIONS AND COPING STRATEGIES

In the first few months after returning home, I struggled to find a job and was desperate about having lost both my economic and my ” territorial” independence (in fact, I moved back in with my mother…)

I spent entire days in front of the computer looking for an escape route and to make up for the crazy decision to return home.

The idea of finding a new job abroad as soon as possible made me feel a little better while I tried to get used to the change. I was quite avoiding my current reality, fantasizing about getting out of there in order to feel better.

I definitely needed help, somebody I could talk to and share my feelings with that would not judge me or say to me what I shall or shall not do at that stage of uncertainty.

It felt a bit like the first weeks after moving abroad, only much worse, and replace the enthusiasm for new things with the disappointment for the old ones…

SYMPTOMS OF REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK

The symptoms of reverse culture shock made themselves felt right away:

irritation at hearing my mother tongue spoken at all times,

melancholy while shopping at the supermarket at the sight of all those products that I knew so well

intermittent need to go to businesses opened by foreigners and speak to them in a language other than Italian.

not to mention the feeling of isolation from what once was my community

a strong desire to leave again

CREATE A NEW SOCIAL LIFE BASED ON THE “NEW” YOU

The most acute symptoms of reverse culture shock lasted a year.

After repeating to myself several times that it was necessary to let some time pass, I felt the need to meet people with whom I had common interests, something different from a friendship born in a pub or at work. I needed to share and compare myself with those who would understand and appreciate my need to travel often, to recharge my batteries in nature, to spend time alone.

FORMER ACQUAINTANCES MAY DISAPPOINT

Whenever I returned to Italy for the holidays I always made time to see intimate friends and congratulate them on their progress on the road to happiness, while I surprised them with anecdotes about life abroad. During the hours we spent together, it seemed that everything was more or less as it was before, but already in the first months after returning home, I realized that something was a bit off… in me!

The people I used to hang out with before my expatriation and the old haunts no longer worked. I no longer felt comfortable in the skin I had before. I had changed, needed something else, there was no point in feeling sad or guilty, it was better to surrender and learn to say no to invitations that were out of my current interests.

DISCOVER NEW PLACES AND INTERESTS 

Spending years away from Italy pushed me to experiment with behaviors that I would never have dared before. In China, I started going out by myself to dine, to the movies, or parties.

Those habits some Italians close to me had defined as “out of the ordinary”, not to say odd, but I continued to cultivate them even after returning to Italy, with excellent results.

I was able to explore my hometown with a new rhythm and new eyes, discovering places that I had previously missed or underestimated.

The desire to explore other areas of your city or nearby towns will sustain you in the most difficult moments after returning. Experimenting with new activities such as a sport, class, or relaxation technique can also help.

CONGRATULATE YOURSELF FOR THE WEALTH OF EXPERIENCE AND KNOWLEDGE YOU HAVE CREATED OVER THE YEARS

In those moments when you feel most isolated or bitter about disappointing job offers or about going back to work in an environment where your colleagues belong to the same nationality as yourself, and perhaps have never even set foot outside of the country, it is important to remind yourself of what you have become because of your courage to emigrate.

You have embarked on an experience that has changed you profoundly You are probably fluent in two languages and,

You have friends (contacts!) all over the world who will be ready to welcome you to their cities and who will surely come to visit you.

In addition, you can handle yourself in the most diverse situations

You have certainly gained self-confidence that stands out.

Take another look at the photos of your travels and the people you met abroad, congratulate yourself, and remember that you are a very, very lucky individual. This will make you feel better!

CONSIDER STAYING IN DIFFERENT LOCATIONS IN YOUR COUNTRY OF ORIGIN

Getting used to Italy again was such a challenge that I was tempted to throw in the towel. The first year was tough but I managed to stay more or less still, and something fundamental happened: I shifted the focus from “I need to get out of here in search of greener meadows” to “let’s figure out what activities would make me happy anywhere”, a way of thinking that I had underestimated and that got me back in the right gear. In the meantime, if my feet were itching, I found a relief considering moving to other cities of the country.

REFLECT ON WHAT YOUR CURRENT STRENGTHS ARE AND IN WHAT DIRECTION YOU CAN GROW

In the period immediately after your return, instability, and lack of reference points create space to reflect on all the skills you acquired during the years abroad and that become even more valuable now that you are back.

Even if it feels like you’re sitting still for too long, don’t despise the “empty” moments during which you can create a new strategy, look at your profession from a different perspective.

Even if you’re surrounded by the places and people of the past, allow yourself to stop feeling like you’re at the crossroads between home and abroad: you’re capable of creating a whole new path if you want to, with the experiences you’ve gathered and the ability to see further than everyone around you.

It can be useful to continue training, to integrate new skills that facilitate the search for a new way to express your full potential. That’s what I’ve found myself doing in the last years: I avoided lingering too long in jobs that didn’t give me the opportunity to express the best of my acquired skills, I devoted time every day to learn new things, even through video courses or free tutorials, with the aim of working more and more independently.

Change comes in the end!

IN THE END, REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK WILL PASS

I have now completely overcome all the symptoms and stages of reverse culture shock. This journey was much tougher than I thought.

The best advice I can give you is to look at your reality in this way…

It’s not just yourself traveling back to where you started, it’s not just yourself struggling your best to fit in again, but it’s an entire environment adapting to the new, more complex, whole individual that you have become.

And you have the chance now to look in the mirror and see yourself in all the magnificence of your courage, the wisdom you bring back to the community you once left to travel, learn, and grow.

You’re much bigger now, give them time to get used to it.

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