Coming Home Hurts: Reverse Culture Shock and Reintegration


Coming home hurts. My heart sinks for a few seconds the moment landing gear hits home soil, and I always have to take a breath with my eyes closed, to place myself back into American shoes (and that’s not as simple as one might expect). This feeling is a symptom of feeling foreign in a place you know as home. This might not be the case for everyone, but for me it’s damn hard to come back into a cultural sphere I didn’t realise I had lost familiarity with. Re-adapting to your own culture is incredibly difficult, because you expect to feel comfortable, and people expect that of you, but you can’t help noticing all the minute differences in your own culture - something you thought you understood so well. On top of that, if you’re away for long enough, sometimes your mother tongue can be the enemy. These things create a damp haze that haunts a homecoming, but they don’t have to.

With tear-stained cheeks and the bittersweet taste of memories on my tongue, I came home for the first time. I mean, truly came home. I made my way from the gate to baggage claim in a total daze, reality was not meshing with my brain and all I wanted was to sleep in my bed. My bed which was now almost ten thousand miles away. My feet carried me along with everyone else through the sliding doors to American soil. With a grin on his face, my dad came up and took my bag from me, giving me a hug. I felt an overwhelming gratitude that he was alone, that my mother couldn’t see my exhaustion because I knew that to see the look on my face would hurt her. It was very clear that I did not want to be home. I wasn’t ready. But that gratitude came crashing down around me as I heard my name called by voices I hadn’t heard in almost a year. In a moment, I was surrounded by excitement and joy and the energetic hugs of my old friends, as if nothing had changed. Echoes of sharp, loud accents rang in my ears, and my old world came spinning at me in a blur. I was of course happy to feel loved, and to know that my friends and family missed me enough to be there in that moment, and I was terrified to hurt them with my panic and exhaustion. The roads we drove home on were wider, and stores I’d forgotten about lined the streets. Travelling on the right side of the road again surprised me, road signs were a different colour now. This is the shock of new places, those immediate details you don’t quite notice usually - but it’s a strange thing when the details you took for granted are now the things you are discovering. It’s almost like a sensory overload.

Culture shock is a delicate thing. Not only does it apply to the intense discovery of details, but (because culture includes a myriad of elements) it applies to how you fit into that culture. Our identity is a product of our environment (perhaps you disagree, but you must admit that I’m at least a little bit right), and this means that when we change our environment, we must adapt. This challenge is a welcome one in my opinion, to adapt is to grow and learn, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. This article isn’t really to help you adjust to the places you visit, but to adjust to your old home. It’s one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I want you to know that you aren’t alone, that you will find your place again.

I was living in South Africa for a year, on high school foreign exchange (this is an experience from my youth, so bear that in mind as you judge my stories). Some of you, as you’ve lived away from home have stayed in regular contact with those from your old life, but I was too caught up in my new life and I loved it. I sent my mother a selfie every week or so just so she knew I was still alive, and other than the occasional parental credit card swipe that was all they got from me. Not all of you will be quite so extreme, and that will make your mother happy. But when you fully embrace a new place you embrace not only the language and the experience, but the people too, and that can make it hard to keep up with everything. Whatever your case, or your degree of reverse culture shock, I’m here for you. So, without further ado, these are some things I have compiled that might help you re-integrate.

  1. Treat everything you do as if it were a new experience.

  2. Bring elements of the life you’ve grown used to into your old world.

  3. Don’t be afraid to try new things, branch out, and meet new people.

  4. Let yourself feel things.

  5. Embrace your new life, and loosen your grip on memory.

Treating everything as if it is a new experience

The novelty of your hometown loses its lustre very quickly, and seeing things differently is perhaps the most challenging thing you can do for yourself. It is too easy to fall into the trap of comfort. It’s too easy to think negatively when those thoughts come easiest to us. There is some strange perverse comfort in sadness, like the caress of a gentle night breeze, but we should be careful not to fall victim to it. Go, explore your city, this is no different from a small town in some other faraway country. Just because you grew up here does not mean that there is nothing to see or do. There are nuances of culture no matter where we are, especially in those places we have become accustomed to - and having these new understandings of the world is your superpower now. You are able to look for these nuances, these small gems that your family is blind to, that your friends can’t ever notice. Embrace that. I know it’s hard, but half the effort is changing your approach, and that’s one step in the right direction.

Bring your favourite customs into your new-old life

Maybe the food is different - scratch that, I know the food is different - and you may not have the space to practise your newfound yogi skills, but you can damn well try. The world is tiny, and you should know that by now. The only limit you have is the one you put on yourself, think about it: if no one made any effort to spread culture, Adele would be out of a job. Be like Adele, spread the beauty of culture - you have it in you, I know you do. Embrace globalisation and don’t be afraid to bring your favourite cultural artefacts into the lives of your childhood pals.

Try new things, spread your wings, make new friend(lings)

Okay, I started the rhyming and had to keep going. Point is: who the hell cares if you are exactly like your old self - anyone who does, shouldn’t. When you live in a new place you make an effort to try things you never have before, you talk to people you may not normally, and you make connections you don’t expect, so do the same thing when you get home. If you approach everything like a new experience, you will make new discoveries every day, and that makes reintegration less hellish. One of my very best friends is someone I met because I made the choice to branch out and away from friends who I felt no longer very connected with. I do not regret doing so, but something I do wish I had done differently was make more of an effort to communicate with my old friends. I suppose the most important thing to remember here is that the people in your life who love you may be willing to help you and give you support, but you have to make an effort to understand where they are also coming from. In their minds, you have not changed, and to deal with your newness is a feat in itself; try to imagine where they may be coming from and be open: communication is a pretty damn solid solution to most things. No one is a mind reader, especially when they haven’t seen you in some time - cut a pal some slack. That said though, do not be afraid to talk to new people.

Let those emotions flow

Too often we suppress ourselves. It’s truly a tragedy, and not just because ‘bottling it up’ means emotional constipation. Refusing to give your emotions space to exist is the opposite of productive: you are sad, you are uncomfortable, and you feel limited, so why compound those things? Healing is a process, don’t tell me you haven’t heard that. What you feel is valid - I don’t care how cheesy that sounds, it’s true - and you shouldn’t ignore your new reaction to the world around you. You would not ignore these feelings if you were in a new place, and you should embrace home as a new place, because in some way it is. My point is, if you feel like crying because you miss your far-away life, then you have every right to do so, and you should. Feeling like you aren’t in the right place is okay, and you are allowed to feel like an outsider, even if no one else understands why you might. (Honestly, this is the same no matter where you are.. If you are sitting in a hostel and feel homesick or upset, then take the day off and have a good cry - no one will remember and no one will judge you).

Let the memories live in memory

This, for me, was the hardest thing to really move on from. The past is the past, and no matter how golden it is, you are not there and you can’t go back. Living in memories is the most wasteful thing, but it’s damn near impossible. Living in the moment is all fine and dandy until the moment you live in feels thick and suffocating, but you have to focus on the good. It’s like that old saying: don’t cry because it’s over (though the ‘smile because it happened’ is not so helpful here). Experiences always have an end, but that does not mean they no longer have an impact. Embrace that impact, and approach where you are now as a new experience: you are home, but you are home with new eyes, a new sense of adventure, and new information, make the most of it! Explore like you never have, hold onto that spark of discovery hovering in your soul, I know you have it, so use it.

So yes, coming home does hurt. It hurts a lot. But you don’t have to let it get to you too much. You have seen a multiplicity of cultures, and you are a child of your parents as much as you are the child of the wind that carried you away in the first place. Don’t let yourself fall too far into the haze of reverse culture shock, but no matter what happens, you will make it out. Adapting is what you do best, it got you into this mess and it will get you out - just give yourself a little understanding.