Expat Returning Home? You May Face These Side Effects

We’ve been talking a lot the past few weeks about what it feels like to return home after spending significant time in another culture.

As an expat, you may find your return surprisingly difficult – mostly because reverse culture shock is unexpected.

In fact, you may become homesick for your host country.

Curious about what other side effects you may face?

In his book, The Art of Coming Home, Craig Storti outlines four mental and emotional side effects of returning home.

Marginality

Your experience living in another culture has changed who you are. Your identity has changed, your perspective has changed. You see things through a different lens.

You may find there’s a strain between your society and this new identity. You may feel like you don’t fit in in your own culture.

You are “home,” but your home doesn’t feel entirely comfortable anymore.

Criticality

Upon returning home, the values and norms you’ve adapted to abroad may make you more judgmental about your home country and society.

You may feel frustrated with the routines back home – or even unfamiliar with them. 

You might find yourself displacing this frustration on other people, becoming impatient and unpleasant.

In recalling your life abroad, you may romanticize your time there and find your home unpleasant in comparison.

This is normal.

Assessing the differences between your host country and your home country and feeling these frustrations is a typical reaction in returning home.

Exhaustion

Readjusting to a culture you’ve been apart from for a long time is just as exhausting as the initial adjustment to your host country

You have to relearn and consciously perform routines, customs, basic functions, or logistical tasks that were once done by rote, making the experience overwhelming.

Your own culture will hit you like a wave.

Just keep swimming.

Withdrawal

You may feel so disillusioned about your home culture that you start to withdraw from it and resist readapting to it, avoiding contact with your own society. 

This can provoke feelings of self-doubt or even depression.

You might want to escape. 

Reversing Reverse Culture Shock

Knowing all the effects of reverse culture shock can help you be prepared for them upon your return and build an action plan.

Luckily, you have one in your back pocket.

You are by now familiar with the steps it takes to feel at home in a culture.

After all, you adapted to a foreign one not too long ago.

And while it may seem silly, you must now apply them to your own culture and country in order to reintegrate back in.

Next week, we’ll talk about those steps in the context of returning home.

Homesick for Your Host Country: How Reverse Culture Shock Manifests

You expect coming home to be euphoric.

And it is…for a minute.

But after that minute is over, in euphoria’s place is a feeling of unease, discomfort, and even sadness.

What you’re feeling is reverse culture shock, and it’s even stronger than the culture shock you experienced in your home country.

As described by the Founder of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions Dean Foster on expatica:

“[Reverse culture shock] is far more subtle, and therefore, more difficult to manage than outbound shock precisely because it is unexpected and unanticipated.”

Foster explains that the “patterns of behavior and thought” that an expat has developed to fit into his or her host country have now become part of them.

The change is gradual and not necessarily always conscious.

So, upon returning home, the expat is shocked to find the changes within themselves. 

Their home culture may have changed as well. It can seem a bit off, making it appear uncanny or surreal, like a funhouse mirror.

Readjusting to both the changes within oneself and within one’s home culture can feel like a double-whammy.

Another Thing: No One Cares…

What’s more, as an expat, you’re often excited and bursting to share your experience abroad, particularly if this was your first experience.

You are expecting a curious audience of family and friends awaiting your arrival.

You have great expectations.

But what you more often find is that no one cares.

Your family and friends have been living their own lives while you’ve been off living yours.

They are wrapped up in the day-to-day back home; not so much concerned with the many “monkey moments” you had in a world they’ve never visited.

You may get an odd question here or there out of courtesy – not much more than an open-ended “so, how was it?” or a “did you have a good time?” – but no one is sitting on the edge of their seat, waiting attentively for your tale of life abroad.

All of this might make you feel a number of things: annoyed with your family and friends, alienated from your home country, and homesick for your host country.

Your relationships may have changed back home too, having lost out on some experiences (weddings, births, or other family/friend events, for instance) while you were away.

What can you do to reduce the shock of all these changes and feelings?

Find Your People

One, you can find your people.

Other expats who are experiencing the same reverse culture shock as you often hold support groups either online or in person in major cities. You don’t even have to be from the same host country; you have a shared experience of returning from a foreign land and feeling these same effects.

Moreover, those with this shared experience are more likely to be that rapt audience you were searching for. Curiosity about the world is built-in, so you’ll be able to share your experiences and swap stories about life abroad without feeling like your audience is uninterested or disconnected.

As for homesickness, you might find ways to embrace your change in personality and continue in the lifestyle you’ve developed abroad at home. 

Cook up some of your favorite meals from your host country, continue with your language lessons, stay connected to your host country friends – keep in touch this other part of who you are.

You’ve enriched your life with this experience abroad, and even though you may not be encouraged to unload your memoir on everyone in your life, you should nurture it and let it continue to be a quiet new branch of your personal baobab.

Culture Shock: Confronting a Foreign Cultural Code

Imagine you’re flying into JFK in New York.

Recovering from jet lag, you disembark the plane, groggy and buzzing but still excited.

After all, you’re now in the Big Apple. The City that Never Sleeps.

You’re ready to explore and uncover every local gem and hidden hole-in-the-wall New York City has to offer.

You pull out your map, prepared to navigate New York’s famous subway system.

But instead, you find you’ve packed a map of the London Underground.

This is a bit what culture shock is like.

Culture Shock

Your map, in the above scenario, is your cultural code.

Although it’s easy to get around New York City when you know the way and have the directions at your fingertips, trying to use that map any other place is pretty pointless.

When first arriving in another country and culture, you’ll be confronted with this hard truth: you have stored internally the entirely wrong map.

This results in culture shock.

While you may only at first recognize the negative effects, culture shock is positive in some ways.

For one, you now KNOW you have the wrong map.

This knowledge will allow you to internally and externally develop a more accurate map for reality.

After experiencing culture shock, you will be able to anticipate the need to adjust. And the more you adjust, the less of a shock it will be for you when you realize there’s a street you never knew about or a bridge you must cross.

You’ll eventually learn the cultural code to the point that the shock wears off. 

But…

Reverse Culture Shock

Imagine you’re flying into London Heathrow after having lived in New York for two years. It’s the first time you’ve returned home.

Recovering from jet lag, you disembark the plane, groggy and buzzing but still excited.

After all, you’re now home sweet home again in the City of Fog.

But you realize, suddenly, everything seems foggier.

You’re ready to return to all the familiar places, and although you remember them on sight, you cannot seem to get into the rhythm.

Your internal map is still set to New York time. Your feet keep searching for the streets of downtown Manhattan.

You find that though your memory is trying to reload your map of London, it’s still got New York on the mind.

This is called reverse culture shock.

It’s even more off-putting than culture shock, because you DO know your own cultural code; you’re just finding it difficult to remember or relearn it.

This type of culture shock can hit you hardest.

We’ll talk more about why reverse culture shock can be so powerful next week.

Making Friends: Following the Cultural Rules of Relationship-Building

Is it easy to make friends in your culture?

In the category of “making friends” in the 2020 Expat Insider survey, conducted annually by InterNations, Switzerland ranks at the bottom end of the list at 53. 

Only Japan, Norway, Sweden, Kuwait, and Denmark offer tougher friend-making odds. 

The Local describes making friendships in these countries quite aptly:

“The way to their hearts can sometimes feel as long, dark and cold as the Nordic winters.”

And considering the Swiss concept of friendship and aversion to small talk with strangers, it’s easy to see why this would be the case.

An outsider might find it difficult to gain the trust and loyalty of lifelong friendship from the Swiss…particularly, as an expat, who is more likely to leave the country at some point.

So, how do you build friendships in countries where it’s notoriously hard and where your expat status makes it more likely that your time is fleeting?

Take Your Cue from Locals

Differing concepts of friendship can be a struggle, but some cross-cultural understanding will help ease the transition.

An American in Switzerland should be considerate of differences in communicational comfort.

Because the most important thing to keep in mind in countries that have a more restrictive definition of friendship is to hold back, as your own cultural approach will come across as overbearing.

Refrain from small talk with strangers in grocery stories. When with colleagues, speak in generalities and don’t get too personal too quickly.

And on the other side of the pond, a Swiss expat in America should brace oneself for discomfort when it comes to communication and friendship.

You might choose either to be open to adapting to the norm of small talk and practice sharing your personal life, bit by bit, or you might accept being viewed as closed and reserved by your American colleagues.

If your goal is to make friends and integrate, the first choice will obviously gain you more ground in a culture that’s more sociable than your own.

And remember: when you’re a foreigner, making friends is more than just socializing; a local friend can greatly aid you in understanding and navigating the culture.

Speaking in Generalities

As with everything, these generalities are not inclusive of every American and every Swiss.

You’ll find some Americans to be private and reserved and some Swiss to be more open to friendship.

You must always take stereotypes with a grain of salt and know that each and every person is an individual case.

Regardless, an awareness of your host culture’s general approach to human-to-human contact will help you avoid overstepping the common social boundaries that the culture deems agreeable.

10 Cultural Universals: The Dignity of Food (tips from Anthony Bourdain)

Anthony Bourdain said it best:

“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that food is one of the 10 Cultural Universals. Along with shelter, clothing, and transport, food is a fundamental part of culture that celebrates it in a big way.

Through food and travel, Anthony Bourdain deeply inspired those of us who are interested in exploring, learning about, and understanding other cultures. He saw the power and dignity of food and how, among so many other things, a meal brings all of humanity together.

In deep respect and honor of Bourdain’s tragic passing just a couple weeks ago, I’ve compiled and condensed some of his greatest words of wisdom regarding food, culture, travel, and life.

#1: “I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters or working for organized crime ‘associates,’ food, for me, has always been an adventure.”

Food, just like life, should be an adventure.

While traveling or living abroad, you may face a meal that’ll make your stomach turn. But sometimes, you must take risks. Sometimes, you must grit your teeth and take that first bite.

Rejecting someone else’s food can feel like a personal rejection – or even a cultural rejection.

Accepting it, even if it’s not to your liking, shows your hosts that you care enough to make the effort and that you respect what they’ve created.

#2: “I’m not afraid to look like an idiot.”

Perhaps one of the most useful tips for travelers or soon-to-be expats is to be not afraid to play the fool.

My book, I am the Monkey, stresses this theme. It’s humbling to remember you are the odd-one-out looking in, not the other way around.

As the monkey, you must learn to be comfortable dropping your guard.

This goes for learning how to eat properly in other cultures too.

Never used chopsticks? Go on, give it a try. Sure, you’ll look clumsy at first, but soon enough, you’ll be capable.

The point is – you must not let feeling foolish get in the way of learning.

If you do, anxiety will be your roadblock to success across cultures.

Follow Bourdain’s advice and don’t be afraid to look like an idiot. In fact, embrace it.

#3: “I don’t have to agree with you to like you or respect you.”

Food is unique to the culture in which it was created, which is a beautiful thing.

Sometimes, the dish is not always pretty. But, more often than not, it’s the one aspect of a culture that can make all of us drop our pretenses, if we’re willing, and just appreciate each other, human to human.

And “dropping our pretenses” doesn’t mean we must stop talking, stop learning.

While sharing a meal, keep the conversation alive, like a pro:

“I don’t go in asking hard-news questions, but incredibly enough, again and again, just by sitting down with people over food and giving them a platform where I can listen to them, they say extraordinary things that can be very political in their implications.” – Bourdain

Keep talking. But more so, listen.

Sharing a meal with someone already demonstrates that you like and respect them, even if you don’t agree with their intrinsic beliefs.

Whenever you’re abroad, take a deep dive into your host’s food culture. Share a meal with locals.

You may just find that food is more than filling; it’s a teacher of compassion.

“Food may not be the answer to world peace, but it’s a start.” – Bourdain

 

Step 5 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Taking Action by Learning & Sharing

Whether you’re an expat in a foreign country or working with expats in your own, integration requires action.

Successfully managing or working across cultures necessitates planning; not just business planning, but planning for how to react to those all-too-painful monkey moments.

When relocating abroad, your company will likely provide some type of pre-departure cross-cultural skills training. Such guidance can help significantly in adjusting to a new culture. However, cross-cultural training is not guaranteed, nor is it guaranteed to be effective.

Instead, most successful managers take cross-cultural integration into their own hands, navigating the steps of Awareness, Accepting, Adapting, Adopting, and Taking Action, with the last step being the most hands-on.

Taking action involves two action-packed tasks: Learning and Sharing.

We’ll discuss both briefly in this post and cover them in more detail over the next several weeks.

Learning

When you look at all the intricate details of a culture, you might grow overwhelmed with just how much there is to learn. The task seems nearly impossible and seeing it as such can be a setback to integration.

Instead, break down learning into the following three steps so that it seems a little less daunting:

  • Learn Language – Communication is essential to integration, so language learning should be high on your to-do list.
  • Learn Religion – Learning about religion will help you better understand the values and norms of a culture.
  • Learn History – The same goes for learning a country’s history. Some knowledge of your host country’s past will help place some of the local’s traditions and habits in historical context.

Sharing

You shouldn’t try and integrate on your own; in fact, doing so is counterintuitive. The whole point of integrating into a foreign culture is to make connections. That’s where sharing comes in!

  • Seeking Friends – Making friends with the locals will not only take some of the stress off your initial culture shock, but it will also aid in cross-cultural understanding.
  • Sharing Food – Sharing in each other’s food culture is a great way to ease into deeper-rooted cultural differences.
  • Looking for your Zookeeper – Every monkey needs a zookeeper. The best zookeeper is one who may know enough about your culture to help you integrate into their own. They will be your veritable tour guide in this foreign land, as it is their home.

Tune in over the next several weeks, as we’ll discuss learning and sharing in more detail and offer advice on how best to approach each.