Most people expect it to be difficult to adjust to living in a foreign country, so they prepare themselves and expect to experience some degree of culture shock. But most of us expect returning home to our own culture to be relatively easy. After all, we're coming back to a familiar place with familiar people, where we fit in and know how the system operates. Right?
In fact, the evidence reveals just the opposite. According to Craig Storti, in his valuable book, The Art of Coming Home, "most expatriates find readjusting back home more difficult than adjusting overseas ever was." This seems to be especially true when the experience living abroad was rich and stimulating and rewarding.
People return home, expecting to fit back in easily, only to discover that home doesn't really feel like "home" any more. They have changed, in ways that are visible (e.g. new language skills, tastes in food or styles) and not so visible (e.g. new attitudes, beliefs, or even worldviews) to the point that home feels a bit like a foreign country, and they may even feel temporarily "homeless."
When this happens strong reactions are common, and they're often negative. Judgments are formed about the pace of life, materialism, and other core values and attitudes that once seemed normal, but now stand out in stark contrast to the cultural norms that people came to appreciate abroad.
Voicing these negative judgments around friends and family who "stayed home" can quickly alienate the person returning home, intensifying the experience of reverse culture shock and making us feel marginalized all over again.
A few suggestions to ease the transition home:
- Revise your expectations, anticipate that it won't be easy to adjust to coming home
- Plan to "go easy on yourself" for a while and allow yourself time to adjust at your own pace
- Stay in touch with others who have lived abroad and can relate to and help you make sense of your experience
- Look at "coming home" as another opportunity to learn about yourself and your own and other cultures
As Patti Digh so wisely says in her recent book, what I wish for you: simple wisdom for a happy life:
"There is no way to learn while judging. I can either learn, or I can judge myself (or others) for what I don't know, but I can't do both these things at the same time. Choose learning. Much less painful."