For the past three years, I’ve been traveling throughout Europe. I left the United States in November of 2016, and have only returned to the US for a quick visit in June and, now, a longer one that has taken me from Florida to California with a stopover in Missouri.
It’s taken me weeks to readjust to a culture and country that no longer feel like mine.
To be fair, living in the United States has always felt a bit foreign to me. As a military brat, I spent large chunks of my childhood living in Germany, and every reentry into the U.S. was somewhat unsettling. My experiences were different from those of my classmates. My clothes were different. I spoke a different language, both literally and figuratively.
None of it felt like I was home.
Craig Storti, an expert in cross-cultural adaptation, says that “[t]he essence of home can be described in three key elements:
• familiar places,
• familiar people and routines,
• and predictable patterns of interaction.”
Little of what I felt when I returned “home” this time could be described as “familiar.” I was slightly startled whenever someone greeted me in English. I hesitated every time I had to throw something in the garbage and there weren’t four different recycling bins to choose from.
I couldn’t (and still can’t) comprehend why taking the train is so outrageously expensive. I won’t be here long enough to fully reintegrate back into life in the US; not long enough for the unfamiliar to become familiar. For populations like third-culture kids or digital nomads, travel is what’s familiar, not a place, nor people nor predictable patterns.
So, with all due respect to Mr. Storti, I won’t feel like I’m “home” again until I’m not.
If you’re returning “home” after having been away for an extended period of time, here are some of the symptoms of reverse culture shock you might experience:
• English as a Non-Foreign Language
When you live abroad, you get used to hearing everyone speak in another language. Whether you learn to speak that language or not, you probably incorporate a few words into your daily interactions.
If you’re used to being greeted in the language of your host country and either responding in the same language or smiling and nodding a return greeting, you might be taken aback the first time (or the first dozen times) it happens in English.
If you do speak the language of your host country, you might find yourself struggling to come up with the English words for common objects when you return home.
• Keep the Change
Things are done differently in other countries and it may take a while when you get back to readjust to those familiar routines that Storti mentioned. You don’t have to bring your own bags to the grocery store here in the United States as you do in Germany.
Although you should.
In many U.S. cities, you can just throw all of your garbage in one bin. You don’t have to wash it, break it down, and separate it into multiple bins.
Although you should.
You might not have access to the food you’ve become used to eating or the products you’ve become used to buying.
• We get it … you’ve been to Europe
In Europe, it’s common to pop over to France for lunch or fly to England for a hen party, and no one thinks twice about talking about it.
When you come back to the United States, you might begin to see your friends’ and family’s eyes glaze over when you start sentences with: “When I was in Paris …” or “In Spain, they ….”
People won’t be able to relate to these experiences unless they’ve had them themselves. They just won’t.
Get used to biting your tongue.
• While you were gone (a corollary)
While you’re out gallivanting around the globe, things are changing at home. Your friends and family are getting married, having babies, making career moves. So listen patiently while they talk about what’s happened in their lives while you were gone, and try not to let your eyes glaze over.
If they do, just blame it on jet lag.
About the author:
Beth Hoke rejoined the expat life after spending her childhood in Europe and the United States, then settling in Chicagoland to raise two daughters.
Now an empty nester, she is roaming Europe, armed with a TEFL certificate and an online position teaching English.
Beth has been traveling around Europe for more than three years. She’s filed posts for Dispatches Europe from at least seven countries including France, Italy, Germany, Serbia, Croatia, Turkey, and Portugal. And now the United States.