Reverse Culture Shock

Traveling through Southeast Asia was both culturally and sensory awakening. The colours, the flavours, the noise, the sound. My senses as I sit in my cubicle now are flat. I’m not seeing anything, I’m not feeling anything, and the only thing I’m hearing is the shallow, droning hubbub of people’s mind-numbingly dull conversations in conjunction with the relentless clacking of fingers on the keyboard. The only thing I taste is the bitter aftertaste of black coffee. The only thing I’m smelling is someone’s questionable lunch having just been heated up.

And it makes me want to just scream.

It isn’t just that the conversations I’m hearing are shallow and ignorant, my anger is coming from something deeper. I know what I’m really feeling is fear, fear that I have not been back for very long and I’m already feeling the reverse culture shock seep in. With a snap of the fingers I am back to the cold, back to engaging in small talk around the coffee machine, back to brushing the snow off my car, back to pretending I am interested in everyone’s kids. And that’s okay. But there’s something deeper.

Everyone seemed interested in my travels when I was abroad, but when I came back excited to talk about my experiences I found most people either were completely uninterested, or were unable to understand the value I had gained and how much I had grown.

If you have ever been in this situation then you will know how lonely it is. When you realize that you have changed so much only to come home and realize that things are more or less the same. When writing your blog is one of your biggest passions and most of your friends do not read it. When the conversations that used to incite you become dull because you have experienced parts of the world you never knew existed and all you can think about is the places you haven’t been and the people you have yet to meet. I think it is a unique type of loneliness that can only be felt when coming home after traveling.

I feel like I have grown outside the puzzle and my piece no longer fits. I may have returned home, but my head and heart are still a million miles away.

28 thoughts on “Reverse Culture Shock

  1. I know what you mean about wishing those closest to you were more interested in reading your blog. And I’ve also experienced the come-down of returning from a great adventure to humdrum cubicle life. On the bright side, the experience of all the amazing places we’ve seen and things we’ve done will always be with us, so we can close our eyes and travel back to them whenever we want. And the photos help, too. :-)

  2. It is definitely a feeling of depression coming off of the high you get from travelling–if you ever get a craving for some Rocky Mountain exploring and come to Alberta, let me know! It’s not far from home but you aren’t in the office!

  3. This is a beautiful piece, and also one of my biggest fears (and sadly, the truth), as well. You write so eloquently and deeply- it’s so easy to relate! I felt the exact same way when I came back from my first trip… and perhaps some will never understand us, but we are who we are. Kudos to you for always staying true to yourself, always thinking outside the box, and for following your heart wherever it leads… whether you continuously plan more trips or embark on even bigger, longer travels. Thanks for always posting such great stuff! You have an amazing future ahead of you, no matter what you do. Rock on, Alli.

  4. You totally nailed this feeling. So depressing when you go home again – but so exciting to plan the next adventure too! And there are always people out there who understand – just maybe not friends from home… ;)

    • Hi Linda, very exciting planning the next adventures indeed. You’re right – maybe not everyone from home truly understands but people like you always will!

  5. Great post Alli! You captured perfectly what it feels like to come home after having so many transforming experiences while traveling and not being able to communicate these stories to the people around you…
    Rolf Potts’s book “Vagabonding” (my all-time favorite travel piece of travel writing!) has a pretty relevant final section called “Coming Home” that gives some great advice on how to deal with reverse culture shock. Rolf writes:
    “You’ll begin to feel a strange sensation of homesickness…for the road. Your old friends will offer absolutely no help in this regard. As exciting and life-changing as your travel experiences were, your friends will rarely be able to relate, because they don’t share the values that took you out on the road in the first place. You may have shared your soul with a fellow traveler you met in Zambia, but for some reason you’ll be unable to get your closest friends to break out of their standard conversation patterns and take an interest in your adventures.”
    “…Encounters such as these will make you realize why travel should always be a personally motivated undertaking. Try as you might, you simply can’t make the social rewards of travel match up to the private discoveries. In sharing your road experiences, then, remember to keep your stories short and save the best bits for yourself. “I swear I see what is better than to tell the best.” wrote Walt Whitman. “It is always to the the best untold.” Moreover, telling the story is not nearly as important as living the story.”

  6. Really nice post Alli, I’m feeling the same here!
    That’s so weird because I’ve already travelled a lot before, but this time I really feel that I’m not fitting with my co-workers and most of my friends anymore.

  7. We experienced the exact same thing when we came back from our year long RTW. People would ask us, “how was the trip?” and we’d say “good,” and then they would launch into a monologue about their own lives. Usually trivial, work drama etc…etc…people are inherently self-absorbed, especially the ones that never leave home and experience new cultures. Never mind that we’d just visited 25 new countries!! It got pretty funny actually, and eventually we just stopped talking about it. Alli, have you considered expat life? Yes, of course we still work, most expats have a whole different attitude towards life…

    • Hi Shelley, as Kurt mentioned above, “Telling the story is not nearly as important as living the story.” So true. A year long RTW is my dream, so awesome you guys have accomplished such a thing!

  8. I feel you on every bit of this post. What I find helps me the most? My blog. Its tough when your friends and family don’t read the posts (mine are guilty too), but you have plenty of avid readers that I’m sure enjoy your posts just as much as I do. Keep up the fantastic work, I always look forward to reading more!

  9. Hey Alli! I’ve been spending the last hour reading your blog – love it! It’s taking me back to all of our adventures. Can I just point out how you couldn’t have summed this feeling up any better? You come home and feel so enlightened and want to share what you learned and what you saw and you almost think you can make the world a better place by doing so… But then it’s all squashed when you have deadlines to meet at work and bills to pay and obligations to care about everyone’s daily drama. I’m trying to not let that take away from the experience I had and how much I feel like I have changed after that trip. In fact, I actually did quit my job that first Monday we got back because I couldn’t bear the thought of going back to something I hate. Next steps are still TBD, but I am confident it’ll all work out. In the meantime, I am thinking Vietnam 2014?? :)

    • Lilly! Thank you so very much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. So very proud of you for that huge step you took regarding your job . . . by talking to you about it, you definitely did the right thing. I am so ready for Vietnam. We were so close, yet so far! Can’t wait to go back to SE Asia . . .

  10. Thank you so much for explaining this. I could never understand why I suddenly felt so empty and bored of every day life after traveling. I didn’t know there was actually a name for this.

  11. Sounds all too familiar! I think reverse culture shock is way worse than culture shock. Actually, I don’t seem to get culture “shock” as much anymore, as I am seeking to be thrown out of my cultural element (and therefore hoping for and expecting it) when I travel… and I LOVE it! Coming home is always hard. Most people could quite frankly care less what you did in Laos or South Africa (and some people even want to criticize you and tell you that you’re crazy for traveling to these unsafe countries. True story. Just happened at my baby shower- completely unsolicited).. I tell you what though, it gets better. What I love is catching up with those I traveled with a year or more later and reminiscing. The memories become elations and seeds of happiness that grow in to a grand appreciation for having the opportunities that so few actually ever have. I used to get upset about all of the places I hadn’t been, anxious to experience them, but I’ve learned to be excited about looking forward to these travel goals. I may not get to Nepal, Bhutan, Sumatra, Samoa, Cook Islands, Chile, Palau & Yap for another 2…4….6 – 8 ??? years (who knows!) but I know I’ll get there eventually, and I love thinking about making these plans happen!

    • Hi Lindsay! Thank you ever so much for your comment. You are so right – we’ll get there eventually! I’m like you in that I LOVE being thrown out of my cultural element, having to adapt emotionally and mentally.

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