On Re-Entry and Reverse Culture Shock: Returning to the USA After 3.5 Years Abroad

On Re-Entry and Reverse Culture Shock: Returning to the United States After 13 Months in Asia

It’s 7am and the sun is rising. There’s a heavenly glow spread upon the rock cliffs that overlook the Gulf of Thailand. I scaled that jagged scarp last night just to get here. Waves crash and a hazy vapor of saltwater rises from the water. The blurry-eyed party-goers sway their bodies in unison; deep house music has been pulsating throughout the entire island for a solid 18 hours now.

The sun is isolated in a cloudless sky. It welcomes us to the day yet, still, nobody has slept. We’re on a secluded island where, at this hour of the morning, nothing else in the world matters. Looking out over the deck, with a beer in my hand, the mist casts a euphoric haze over the broad blue sea. It feels like a dream. In front of me, underwear-clad twenty-somethings, who have obviously given up on inhibitions, splash each other like children. Their faces are a mirror for complete abandon. This is the best time of their life.

Hell, at this very moment, in this place, at this time, it’s the best time of mine.

Koh Rong, Cambodia

Koh Rong, Cambodia

The song changes on my iPod and my mind snaps back to reality so hard it makes my heart sink. It’s January. I’m in North Carolina. It’s two degrees outside and I can barely move my toes. What is this place? Why am I here?

The trees have lost their luster and the mountains here look sad. Overweight bearded men in flannel flock to Walmart for rifles and fishing bait. My whole body yearns for the tropical rainforests of Vietnam. I want to go swimming in the waterfalls of Laos and get lost in the streets of Hong Kong. Why aren’t I speaking Chinese to the waiters anymore?

In fact, where are all the Asian people?

My return to the United States, after almost four years abroad, hit me harder than I thought it would. I pictured myself in John Paul II’s papal robe, kissing the ground of my motherland. I would raise my arms towards the sky and shed a tear of joy. I would be home.

In reality, my return consisted of a failed attempt at connecting to wifi and an uninspiring ride on the New York subway. The flickering yellow lights could barely illuminate the bad graffiti scribbled across the faded walls.

Drab.

Traditional Chinese architecture in Xi'an, China

Traditional Chinese architecture in Xi’an, China

After 13 months in Asia, I think it would be fair to say that my perspective has changed. I’ve been hiking in the mountains of Southwestern China. I’ve been skinny dipping in the phosphorescent waters of Cambodia. I’ve tripped on mushrooms in Thailand. I have run with elephants and been attacked by monkeys. I have been eating the most delicious bowls of noodles for 400 days straight.

Hell, I’ve been living out of a backpack for 45 months.

My reality has become so vastly different to everyone else’s, I’m not even sure people will understand me when I speak. I want to talk about Buddhism. Can we discuss cultural differences? Let’s talk about love and life-changing experiences. Let’s talk about changing the world!

Or we could talk about the color of your nails.

My desire to conversate over frivolous matters has been abandoned and the scope of my life has been minimized; I can’t even fathom the idea of owning more than what I can fit in my bag yet, somehow, my sister has managed to fill an entire apartment. What necessity is there for so much stuff?

I went out for dinner with a friend and fellow traveler recently who so kindly paid the price of my meal. In traveling for four years I’ve learned to value my dollar and be frugal. It came as a shock when I didn’t have to work hard for that plate of food and then appreciate every bite.

And walking into a supermarket, I can barely handle a simple decision like which of the 14 brands of lunch meat I should buy. Asia doesn’t have these choices. There is milk. There is bread. There is toothpaste. You simply buy the thing that you need. Last week, I almost had a panic attack in the shampoo aisle of a BI-LO. I just want the one that cleans my hair!

I have changed immensely since I left home four years ago, but somehow, nobody seems to notice. The things that matter about a person, on a real world, global scale, mean nothing in the comfort of your steady job and comfortable home.

I have literally hitch-hiked half-way across a country because I had no other way to get there.

And the things that matter in the comfort of your steady job and comfortable home mean nothing on a real world, global scale. Really, I’m sorry that a can of cherry cola ruined your rug, but what about the Philippines?

Hot air ballooning over Vang Vieng, Laos

Hot air ballooning over Vang Vieng, Laos

Perhaps this is a necessity. Just like too much work is a bad thing, is there also something as too much travel? I hadn’t expected reverse culture shock to hit me quite like this. I’ve seen remote parts of the world and hustled and haggled my way through them. What difficulties could I possibly face in returning home?

Like all things in life, finding a balance is essential. Maybe now is just my time to sit back and reflect on how awesome the rest of the world really is.

Have you ever gone though reverse culture shock? What was your experience like? Tell us about it in the comments below!


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25 Responses to On Re-Entry and Reverse Culture Shock: Returning to the USA After 3.5 Years Abroad

  1. DANI January 12, 2014 at 5:37 am #

    Where to start. I remember when I returned home from l living in Mexico when I was 15 and cried the first time I saw a grocery store. Even more recently a day ago when I returned home from Spain , Mallorca is the only place that makes me cry when I leave. I envisioned the same thing , kissing the motherland and jumping on my boyfriend at the airport. Instead when I saw my bottle of wine crushed in my bag ruining everything I owned , my first thought was the only thing that mattered to me, my photographs. My hard drive was to sticky to take out and I just bailed the whole ride home like a baby. Then I stopped and realized the clothes were replacable, the camera lenses where too , and I was really excited to see my cat. I covered my boys in kisses and then found out a miracle had happened. A jar of honey has someone opened and ruined some presents as well but I had traveled home safe. Thats all my mother wanted. Me. She didnt care about the presents. My hardrive dripping wet, and photographs were amazingly fine.

    • Jeremy Foster January 13, 2014 at 7:09 pm #

      It’s really important to keep things in perspective, Dani. Sometimes it’s just hard. Sounds like you know just what I mean.

  2. The CounterIntuitive January 12, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

    Definitely a case of reverse culture shock! Don’t worry buddy, with time you’ll feel more comfortable – just don’t expect to want more than 1 brand of lunch meat again…

    “I have changed immensely since I left home four years ago, but somehow, nobody seems to notice”

    Sadly, most people are unable to notice the details in themselves, let alone another person. Another factor could well be that they haven’t change much and so assume no one else has.

    • Jeremy Foster January 13, 2014 at 7:13 pm #

      Good point, Andonis. And like you’ve said, it’s gotten easier over time. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. My perspective is different, and it’s definitely not congruent with a large portion of the population’s.

      Self-introspection is important and it’s too bad that more people can’t be a catalyst for change in their lives. The whole reason I left in the first place was to encourage change. And, now that I’ve found it, things are even more different than I could have anticipated.

  3. Charli & Ben January 13, 2014 at 1:31 am #

    Great piece Jeremy. I sympathise with your musings although I’m still on the road I flew home for a month during the summer and felt very similar on arrival into my home town. While my perspective on life has changed, my priorities have been re-ordered, hell I’ve ever lost weight and changed my habitual daily routines…the one thing that will always remain constant are my family and I know they’ll keep me grounded when and if I return home for good in the future.

    • Jeremy Foster January 13, 2014 at 7:15 pm #

      It’s important to have something that keeps you grounded. I haven’t connected with my family in a long time, so I’ve found other ways to keep me grounded. Now that I’m back home with them, though, it’s a joy to reconnect, though the way I do so is very different.

  4. Linda Bibb January 15, 2014 at 12:40 pm #

    We’ve been back in the US for two months and our families are thrilled to have us here. It’s so good to reconnect.

    They haven’t changed, but I have. I am appalled at how much money people waste on crap. And now, after doing most of our shopping at the local market, I’m having a hard time coping with what I used to eat at fast food restaurants and all the processed foods they sell in the grocery store. Never would’ve seen that coming.

  5. Cayleigh-May Forbes January 16, 2014 at 4:55 am #

    I like this post. I’ve had a few homes in my life and every time, it’s as difficult going back as it was to leave. I tend just to return for visits then find a new watering hole.

    It sounds like you’ve had an awesome four years. Are you back in the states for a long time? Wonder where you’ll be four years from now? I bet your cocktail skills would go down well in Cape Town or Beirut or Oslo or, well, anywhere.

    I haven’t been to New York yet. I bet I’d be buzzing off that same graffiti you found drab.

    • Jeremy Foster January 16, 2014 at 2:30 pm #

      No particular plans in mind as far as location goes, but I do have lots of plans for the next five years! I’ve been working in bars around Australasia and I plan to add more to my repertoire!

      It’s been an incredible four years and returning home was quite the shock. But it fades. New York is a great city–I hope you make it some day!

  6. Stephanie January 16, 2014 at 5:38 am #

    Very interesting post. My worst feeling of reverse culture shock came upon me when I was standing in the cereal aisle of a mega-superstore after travelling in Africa. I just couldn’t believe how much *stuff* there was to choose from. I felt completely untethered and a little bit ill. Reverse culture shock fades, which is both a good thing because it’s an uncomfortable feeling, and a terrible thing, because before long a stained carpet really does seem like a personal tragedy – despite the fact that I’d seen kids with their bellies swollen from hunger. I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of “really living” while travelling, and then feeling like life is mundane and pointless when at home. The trick is to find a way to “really live” no matter where you are – easier said than done! It’s an ongoing process!

    • Hered Besod January 16, 2014 at 6:19 am #

      Please stop stereotyping a whole continent (Africa). There are plenty of Walmart type stores in Africa. Enough of this rubbish. Learn about a continent beyond the sensational media.There is a great diversity of living conditions in Africa as there everywhere.There are skyscrapers, cinemas, companies all around the continent. Don’t go to a village in Africa and tell all your friends you have been to Africa and stand as an expert on it. Go to Skyscrapercity.com and look at at images of Africa cities in South Africa, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Cape Verde and the few oters that are there. On YouTube, there are videos showing the other side of the continent. The truth hurts but Africa has a lot of prosperity as I and millions of other Africans have experienced.

      Here are some Youtube links:

      • Stephanie January 16, 2014 at 9:19 am #

        This is a very fair comment. I meant no offense with my comment, but you’re right – talking about “Africa” as though it were one homogeneous place is both unfair and completely ridiculous. I’ve spent time in both Johannesburg and Nairobi, and those are huge, bustling, vibrant cities. I should have been much more specific in my comment, which was about time that I spent in a village in Malawi. In my mind, when I talk about “Africa”, I’m thinking of my own personal experiences in that continent – much like someone talking about “Asia” or “Europe” is talking about his or hers. But you’re right…I did unintentionally reduce Africa to a small village in Malawi in my comment. Thanks for calling me out – I deserved it!

        • Hered Besod January 17, 2014 at 8:39 am #

          Thanks for enlightening me on the context of your first post. Have a wonderful day.

    • Jeremy Foster January 16, 2014 at 2:33 pm #

      I think you nailed it, Stephanie! Indeed, it’s good that the feeling fades, and it’s starting to, but I also don’t want it to. I want to hold onto what I’ve amassed in the last few years.

      And you’re right–it feels mundane at home. But perhaps this is what I need to keep me grounded. For now, at least.

  7. eemusings (NZMuse) January 16, 2014 at 3:07 pm #

    Visiting the US after Europe and Asia was definitely a big change of pace for us – and coming home to little old NZ was too, with everything so small and expensive and I can’t emphasise it enough, SMALL.

    • Jeremy Foster January 18, 2014 at 9:06 am #

      I can imagine! New Zealand is lovely but, as you said, small. It’s quite a difference!

  8. Asia January 23, 2014 at 8:20 pm #

    Reading this article was like re-living my travels over this past year. I’m glad to know you’ve had such an incredible journey too. Glad to have been a part of it. Good luck.

  9. grasya June 13, 2014 at 3:31 am #

    i always felt this weird culture shock whenever I go back home from a long term trip.. but im beginning to manage this reverse culture shock everytime i go back.. guess the 1st time is really very difficult

    • Jeremy Foster June 18, 2014 at 2:07 pm #

      It is really difficult, and only after six months have I finally started to get over it. After experiencing it the firs time, you are more prepared for the second. I hope the next time isn’t quite as severe!

  10. Maura September 12, 2014 at 8:55 am #

    What I remember most about coming home is waking up and not knowing where I was and having a panic attack because my bestie wasn’t with me (we had been traveling together). Years later- I still feel like a stranger in a strange land…

  11. Izy Berry - The Wrong Way Home December 5, 2014 at 9:30 pm #

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read on the matter. It’s something I really struggle with… I want to find somewhere to base myself and I miss the regularity of having friends you can meet next weekend, but I also find living in one place a challenge, boring… and completely lacking of stimulation. I’m hoping I just haven’t found the right ‘place’ yet!

    • Jeremy Foster December 11, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

      It’s a tough thing to deal with, especially for those who are constantly seeking new surroundings. I still struggle with it!

  12. kel January 27, 2015 at 8:23 pm #

    Hi, your blog just changed my life. I stumbled upon it accidentally. I was a bartender for 22 years, and decided 3 years ago to leave the U.S. and travel. Lived in Honduras, Panama, and came back to North Carolina 6 months ago. I am DYING to get back out there and soon…I have money saved, but would love to bartend on a beach, anywhere but here…Anwhere jump out at you in terms of a sure bet for me to land a gig? I dont expect to get rich, I have savings, but the thought of not earning a lil sumthin would freak me out.
    I think I might be in love with you after just a few posts I’ve read… 😉

  13. Jeremy Foster February 1, 2015 at 3:08 pm #

    Hey Kel! I went to Australia and bartended on a beach in Melbourne. That could be a great spot for you to go. Especially if you already have a little savings, you’ll be in a much better position to land on your feet. Shoot me an email if you have any questions! 🙂

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