Reverse Culture Shock


Six months into my third year teaching overseas I departed Bangkok, Thailand for Kansas City, Missouri. A family emergency dictated a short leave of absence.

Touching down in Kansas City, a feeling of alienation soon began to take root. A city that had once felt familiar and comforting now loomed foreign, steeped in rules and regulations that served to regiment and depersonalize life. How could a city that once seemed so satisfying now feel so predictable and mundane? Did people here always go about locked into their own little orbits, hardly recognizing each other’s existence?    Reverse culture shock had struck hard! I no longer fit in… 

Adapting to Bangkok hadn’t happened overnight. The people, customs, sights, smells, weather, language — just about everything — had taken me months of adjustment. But once culture shock subsided, I fell in love with Thailand and its people. Would the same again be true of Kansas City? Or had we broken up forever?

Fortunately the emergency that had brought me “home” resolved in the most perfect way anyone could have hoped for. A few days later, while exiting the terminal back in Bangkok, I flagged down a three-wheeled, open-air tuk-tuk and headed for “home” on Soi 16. Signaling my sandal-clad driver to pull over at a pushcart parked on the side of the road, I picked up an order of Pad Thai en route. The smiling vendor lovingly scooped a generous portion of savory, hot noodles into a clear plastic bag, sealed it with a rubber band and, with pride, handed me tonight’s dinner. I knew I was truly “home.”

I’m curious to know about other educators’ experience with reverse culture shock and how they handled it. Can you ever fully readjust to your “home” culture after immersing yourself for extended periods in exotic cultures in distant lands?

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37 Responses to Reverse Culture Shock

  1. Anonymous says:

    I understand your culture shock. I think being single in the United States was difficult for me. If I am married any where is home.
    I joined a group called “International Toastmasters!”
    Those groups help me move to a new town and make new friends.
    I love the Unites States State and National parks. I also love my
    friends and family. But I also love the adventure of traveling. I love
    contributing to my society, any society through teaching.
    I see myself always going home to the United States for the summer.
    I love my friends and family.

    Like

  2. Curtis Lowe says:

    I thoroughly loved moving back to the US after 2 plus decades abroad. I had my fill of traveling and living in other cultures. There were so many things I missed about the states it was as if I was living in the US for the first time. Since my family had never lived in the states (I got married and had kids abroad) they too were loving the thrill of a new culture. America, like all countries, has its flaws, but there is plenty here to keep me here now.

    Like

    • Umut Karzai says:

      Thanks for writing a thoughtful post, not ideological at all.. All cultures are fascinating, but your own is where you’ll find the most happiness..

      Like

  3. Christopher says:

    I first lived abroad when I was 5 and attended BIS. A year later my family relocated to Singapore and I attended ISS. I returned stateside during grade 3 but it was never “home” again. Now, I have worked and lived in 8 countries but “home” is where my son is comfortable and happy.
    Traveling and seeking are the norm and eventually I will retire in a country with low or no property taxes.

    Like

  4. j says:

    I have also been struggling with that and it has been 3 years. Looking to go back abroad because I find it is hard to go back to building a community in a place that seems like an old friend that I no longer connect with

    Like

  5. Leland Anderson says:

    I love living abroad and visiting my family and home in America. CS Lewis’s comment resonates with me: “Most of all, perhaps we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar who has lived in many times is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”

    by C. S. Lewis
    A sermon preached in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, Autumn, 1939

    Like

  6. Wondering Why says:

    Returning to the US from our first gig overseas included reverse culture shock very like the original poster describes; everything in the US seemed too much, and our feelings for where we had been living were still in the “honeymoon” stage, of course we missed it. Since then, we have moved back and forth numerous times, so much so that it seemed culture shock was for newbies, we were over it. And in terms of our personal lives, indeed we are not having difficulty adjusting in our recent repatriation. Quite the contrary, we are loving being in our home year round, experiencing seasons, and being close to family.

    However, teaching in the US this time is definitely giving us both pause. Each of us – my spouse and I – in different schools, and both experienced public school as well as international school educators – are reeling from the atmosphere at our respective high schools and the attitudes of the students. So many students sneer (really no other appropriate word for this attitude) at the profession of education, the need for education, and us as representatives for what they assume is a liberal institution trying to brainwash them. (Neither of us has ever had any occasion to discuss politics, nor would we in school – the students simply assume we are dreaded “liberals” as we have lived in other countries and we are teachers.) Of course we also have many students who do not fall in this category, but the atmosphere created by a perhaps emboldened minority who celebrate hate and divisiveness makes it difficult for other students to learn in a safe atmosphere.

    We feel for the students whose education is being negatively impacted by their peers who feel entitled to disrupt at will. And we also feel for those students who carry around such hate and anger. What a burden they have either inherited or been taught or assumed. So that has provided us with the heaviest dose of culture shock we’ve ever experienced, and made us question whether the US home we love is worth it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Rabia says:

    My experience has been with the quality of life that I’ve noticed is sadly lacking when I go ‘home’. People are so engrossed in work, running errands, going shopping and watching television that it is almost impossible to meet anyone to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. If I want to get together – even for a coffee, calendars need to be pulled out in order to schedule something a few weeks down the line. Courtesy too seems to be something I think I only imagined in my home country. Abroad, people are smiling, friendly and willing to help at every opportunity. In Toronto (where I’m from), it is rare to find a sincere smile. Courtesy or simple eye contact are even missing in the service industry where I’d thought they were mandated. I find it a lonely experience when I go back.
    This has caused me to move back overseas. I only return to Canada for the mandatory 5 months a year I need in order to be a Resident.

    Like

  8. Ross McIntosh says:

    I taught internationally for fifteen years. I was in Tianjin China for a year, San Jose Costa Rica for nine years, and Managua Nicaragua for five years. Prior to that, I had a working visa in Australia for a year. My three kids were born in Costa Rica, and my wife is from Nicaragua. We have lived in Canada for ten years now. I love my teaching, but I miss the sense of adventure that comes with living in another country. I was fortunate. I never worked in a bad school, so I have no reason to complain. I could never afford a car while living abroad, so I walked everywhere. I was particularly fond of Nicaragua, because it was primitive. Little businesses were everywhere, so you
    could sit down and have a good meal right outside on the street.

    Like

  9. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Kansas City teacher in Thailand! Personally, I have found that culture shock is what makes us feel home. It either forces us to commit to home where we have arrived, or it makes us understand where home really is. In my life abroad, I have thought a lot about home and culture shock. Expat blogs have helped me, of course, but also books like “Bloom where you’re planted” by McMaster, “The Feeling of Home” by Delvalle, or “Mom, what’s my home country” by Braithewaite (when we discussed the topic as a family).
    And then talking about it! Relatives who stayed in our countries of origin may not be the best at understanding us, however, I think it is really important to discuss culture shock and the sense of home with immediate family and with other expats (and also with locals, to get a clearer insight into their culture and a better understanding of our own shock).

    Like

  10. Anonymous says:

    Life in your home country, after international teaching, will never be the same again. No one is really interested in your experience but you cringe at the mainstream media informed comments of your family and friends as they declare their “no ledge” of countries that you have lived in and they have judge by the news.

    Like

  11. Rod Kormylo says:

    Reverse culture shock is a well established phenomena. You need not look further than Hong Kong in 1997 during the handover. I was there, and with thousand of U.K. nationals there only a small percentage believed they were even capable of returning home and starting over again. However, my daughter born in Hong Kong, my wife from the Philippines and I have now repatriated to Canada after 27 years of living in Asia and I have had few difficulties. I guess it depends mostly on the situation you are returning to. Moving into a nice home, buying a nice car and fitting your kid into a good school and other great programs is different than returning to your parents basement. Like anything, you need a plan, no plan then you only have yourself to blame.

    Like

  12. Philofficer says:

    I find that when I return home from China there are small points of familiarity based comfort (order, in particular), and just as much discomfort from observing a culture similarly sheltered but without the excuse, given its relative wealth and (seldom utilized) opportunities to broaden horizons. I have the good fortune of returning to an academic community, in which most of my fellow scholars have engaged with the outside world meaningfully. When I step outside of that group into the broader public, which is unaware that 10M Americans choose to live somewhere else, I often feel much like the author. On the other hand, many people do take interest in my “exotic” tales from afar.

    Like

  13. JMS says:

    I am also surprised at the harsh tone of some of the responses to this article. It seems that the author is new to overseas living, has just experienced his/her first encounter with reverse culture shock and was asking for others’ perspectives as a way of understanding it. I’ve lived and taught overseas for almost 30 years but still remember my first trip home after being overseas for two years and it was a strange, new experience. Everyone’s is probably a little different depending on your home country and your experience in your new country. To the original poster and anyone interested in joining a positive, supportive group of expats and “re-pats”, do a search on “I Am a Triangle”. The original Facebook group has now switched to Mighty Networks (a more private, manageable platform) but you can find access through the archived Facebook group, or download the Mighty Networks app (white M on a black background) and search for I Am a Triangle. It’s a community of people who share this unique culture of expat life and I’ve enjoyed the support of it for a few years now.

    Like

  14. Whealthy Choices says:

    I lived overseas as a kid, and now over 15 years as an adult. I have experienced this “reverse-culture shock” many times in the cereal aisles of grocery stores, and driving on big wide American street lanes, and waiting in lines with what now seems like unreasonable spaces between people. I understand the writer’s experience well, although I no longer feel surprised or put off by these things when I return to the US. In fact, I now long for this space and order and predictability. I’m not sure if it is because of growing older, or frustrations with the reality of living in developing countries (ie. Coronavirus), or evolving life needs and goals. There is no need to discount the feeling of the author, which are real and affirm their current life choices. Living and teaching abroad offers wonderful opportunities but comes with a cost, and that cost is different to different people at different times.

    Liked by 3 people

  15. Someone Like Me says:

    I remember one of my first summers home feeling a bit of reverse culture shock. I didn’t realize I was experiencing it until I went to the supermarket. I was so overwhelmed with the variety of choice that I left empty-handed. I went back later and felt a bit like a tourist in an exotic location marveling at what I was seeing – an entire aisle just for cereal; 25 to 30, probably more, kinds of toothpaste; peanut butter and jelly swirled together in the same jar!

    Sadly, I don’t think I ever felt the same sense of shock or marvel on subsequent visits but there is always a bit of an adjustment when I’m home. These days when I visit home from China, I find myself pulling out my phone to pay at every vendor, (bigbox to sidewalk balloon seller,) and then I realize there is no wechat and not everyone takes apple pay. When I leave home, I have to remember I need more than just my phone. I can’t send my child spending money through wechat pay, either. I have to estimate how much she will need and send it in cash! The horror.

    Reverse culture shock is a real thing but it needn’t be disconcerting any more than culture shock of a new place. It’s that feeling of shock that makes moving to a new place so exciting for me. Once I’m adjusted, things sometimes get a bit boring.

    And culture shock, whether it is reverse or not, doesn’t have to be interpreted as an insight into the value of the culture. I often hear expats opine on this thing or another that is done differently and what it reveals about the host culture. I disagree. The lack of personal space and seeming disregard for one another as you attempt to shove yourself and your minor child into the subway in Asia, for example, shouldn’t be taken as an indictment of the people. By the same token, the lack of crowds or in-your-face nature of life in high contact cultures doesn’t mean that low contact cultures are “isolating.”

    Like

  16. sedivypes says:

    My cultural roots are American and always will be. However, after almost 30 years living/working in the Czech Republic I could never return to living in the US. I always experience severe culture shock when I return to visit family and friends. The reasons are immaterial really. It took me about five years abroad to recognize that when I returned to Prague I really felt I was returning home. This surprised me at the time. Advice: as an expat, expect to have your perspective of life broadened, perhaps altered forever. Embrace and immerse yourself in the culture where you live. Some of us are really, really fortunate to be able to choose where we want to work and live. Oh, and as the Dude would say, “Just take it easy, man!”

    Liked by 2 people

  17. mbkirova says:

    This is entirely normal. I left the US when Reagan got elected, thinking it couldn’t get worse, and it has. Moreover the polarization in politics has gotten evil, as anyone on fb knows. It is also the case that the US has little time for people who have lived abroad for any extended time (2-3 years is nothing): you are seen as unAmerican. The good thing is that global vision is rewarding in itself, and you will meet interesting people and learn new things wherever you go.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Someone Like Me says:

      Speak for your own part of America. I lived abroad for 12 years then returned for 8 before going abroad again. People were warm, welcoming, and interested. And they were interesting as well. I’m sorry your corner is not nice or not nice for you, but while there is a thing as reverse culture shock, it doesn’t make one place better than another.

      Like

      • Anonymous says:

        I agree, speak for yourself! If you think that America is an intolerable place to live go to Bangladesh or Saudi! I worked in Burma and the parents of my students threw a celebration when the Muslim majority Rohingya were forced from the country! The world is an evil place but there’s still no place like the states.

        Like

  18. Trav45 says:

    I find the melodrama of this–after only 2 1/2 years overseas–pretty unbelievable, and the author seems “locked in her own little orbit” herself. As an ex-pat of 20+ years, who has been in countries more difficult than easy-to-live-in Bangkok, this post is naive and overly-romanticized. You think KC is “steeped in rules and regulations that served to regiment and depersonalize life,” try China or Saudi or Venezuela. Look, if I didn’t love the ex-pat life, I wouldn’t have been in it for so long, but this kind of drivel serves no one.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Mark Munday says:

    I lived in China for many years and it was fascinating. But I could never call it ‘home’. Just too strange. I lived in Mexico and I could settle there. A lot more laid back. I found Sharjah in the UAE uninspiring and was pleased to get home.

    Settling into life in New Zealand again is not easy and I am having to reinvent myself again. But doing this here will be much easier and more satisfying than doing it in a strange environment. For me returning to the home culture is a relief.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Chrismarz says:

    I am so surprised by the venom emanating from some posts – (SEE COMMENTS BELOW). The question was on reverse culture shock. Yes, some people may experience that and some people may not. Some people may find that the overseas experience is not what they had anticipated and return home sooner than they may have wanted. I lived and worked overseas for over 20 years and there were times when I returned home and was ‘shocked’ usually by the blindness that people had at home to the ‘wealth’ they had and the opportunities that ‘home’ presented to them and their lack of recognition of how lucky they were to live in my ‘home’ country. The biggest shock was when I returned from overseas after some 20 years and tried to get a job- there was a lack of recognition of my 20 years experience and cultural understandings and no job. Having not been successful in getting the work I wanted I have now given up- ageism in my own ‘culture’ has meant that I am not working back ‘home’ and am now not employable on the international market due also to age restrictions in many countries. It would seem I am too cultured and deemed too old to work back ‘home’ and too old for overseas. Now that is a shock!

    Liked by 3 people

    • mbkirova says:

      Yup! Working and teaching abroad more than 20 years, most of it in universities, couldn’t even get a minimum wage job in Seattle, nor could I ever afford to live there again. Tg I have now found schools in SE Asia, Latin America etc that value experience and have no age limits. Money won’t be the greatest, but it is silly to give up, and I’m probably even older than you are.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Anonymous says:

      I agree with the lack of recognition for overseas work experience. Trying to go back to Australia some years ago I was told that I had been away too long and would have to go through training before I could get a job. Then there was the 7 months it took to register with a very unhelpful WACOT, as it was called then. I ended up back overseas!

      Like

  21. Dianna Fleute says:

    Every comment represents what is wrong with international education today. It is nothing but a social Darwinism cesspool of backstabbing and gossip. I am so glad to be retired from working with AWFUL kids in their 20’s who just want to drink themselves into oblivion and post to social media. It’s no longer about education, it’s just about who’s right. Disappointing. And I’ll wait for the “ok boomer” reply to prove my point.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Get a life says:

    Great article ISR. I had a very similar experience not long ago when I returned to England after many years overseas. To answer the writer question, once you’ve lived overseas for an extended period I don’t think you ever fully adjust to returning to your home country. That’s not to say you can’t be happy there, it’s just that know you have something to compare it to.

    To address some of the comments that proceed my comments: Obviously Karzai has never been to Thailand who he would know that street food is often packaged in plastic bags to take home and pour onto a plate.

    Saying the younger generation knows nothing, coming from a guy that thinks you eat out of a plastic, bag speaks volumes. Old, jaded, closed minded guys like Karzai make lousy teachers and they should retire and make room for adventurous younger teachers who embrace change, rather than talk about the good old days that only seem good now but no so when they were experiencing them.

    Thanks for publishing this article ISR. Keep up the good work

    Liked by 1 person

    • Umut Karzai says:

      Did, I say the person would eat out of the plastic bag, but I don’t want my dinner given to me in a plastic bag or anything like a plastic bag.. By the way I have visited Thailand twice, it is exotic, so is Vietnam and many other places!! Just, because they are exotic doesn’t mean that I’d like to live there for any long period of time..
      I have visited or lived in 43 different countries in my lifetime and I still prefer living in my own country thank you!!
      At the moment I’m teaching in a University in Mexico!! Unlike you I know the world not just one or two countries.. Traveling and living abroad has always given me great love for what I have at home.. You are like the other young people they end up loving the exotic over their own.. I find this perspective, at best wierd and at worst brainless!! So go and worship at your shrine of diversity and muti-cultural crap I prefer civilization.. The exotic is great to see and good entertainment, but it isn’t a replacement for living in comfort and plenty!!
      Maybe, if young no nothings such as yourself and the original writer who started this thread actually listened to experienced people you wouldn’t sound so WOKE or needing a Safe Place!!

      Like

  23. Marian Catholic says:

    In my experience between contracts and of returning home temporarily, reverse culture shock was transitory lasting no more than a week or so. Whatever alienation I felt quickly dissipated. When it was soon time to leave my hometown in Canada and go back overseas, I wished I didn’t have to. But financial priority to return to Asia left me no choice. I’m more of a pragmatist than a sentimentalist.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Expect a Postcard says:

    Well said! I think ISR should delete this Discussion thread as it’s honestly embarrassing to read. Street food from a plastic bag instead of a plate? If this is what the next generation of international teachers is becoming, count me among the happily served and happily retired!

    Like

  25. Expect a Postcard says:

    This reads like it was written by a “wonder lust” Instagrammer instead of a seasoned educator. While reverse culture shock does exist I don’t think that this post does a very good job addressing it. There are people in Thailand who would sell their souls to be given the opportunity to move to KC for a better life and you make it sound like you were Sisyphus pushing the rock. It seems like you did not confront the problem and once your crisis had concluded you just got on the next flight to BKK and went back to your easy life in Thailand of street food and Tuk-Tuks.
    Moving back state side is HARD! I did it after a career abroad and that cost of just getting reestablished was well over $10k! Buying a car, getting insurance, a flat, new clothes, I can go on and on. However, I pushed through and now appreciate all of the little things that my home offers that Bangkok never could! Things like drinking from the tap, liquid coffee creamer, and no Degue Fever. Reverse Culture shock is a thing but you hardly experienced it. Nothing worth having in this world comes easy but for those willing to do the work, your breakfast will never taste better. At home or abroad.

    Like

    • Je says:

      Interesting perspective BUT ad hominem attacks like your first sentence are uncalled for! So you are happy back in the states. Fine. But do not attack the person or the “easy life” you perceive in BKK. Stay on the point of the post…Americans are more isolated today with our technology than countries without it.

      Shame on you if you are an academic. Argue the point not personalities.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Someone Like Me says:

        But what countries don’t have technology today? I’ll admit, I haven’t been to Bangkok in almost 20 years, but I’m guessing it is relatively similar to other countries with regard to reliance on technology. I know that China, where I currently live, is more developed than many other Asian countries, but talk about technology! Woah!

        It’s not about technology. It’s about the differences in culture. There are low contact cultures and high contact cultures. One is not better than another, and a person can feel isolated in either.

        Like

  26. Je says:

    Yes! Americans are so lucky to live where they are born into a wonderful country…BUT we often live oblivious to that fact to the point we completely tune out to the present. Coming from Asia, I cal it “the time the music dies.”

    Liked by 1 person

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