Coming [Back] to America: Reverse Culture Shock is Real Y'all
$20 salads and $15 Uber/Lyft rides — welcome back to San Francisco, Joma. It wasn’t just the overpriced salads (which I love to eat every day) and rides that cost 1500% more than what I was used to paying that threw me for a loop. The transition back “home” was much harder than my initial move to India over a year ago. How could this be? Shouldn’t this move be easier? This is my home. Most of my friends and family are here and I was born and raised here. So why do I feel like I don’t belong anymore?
I can’t say that I wasn’t warned about the challenges of repatriation, I was given books on the subject and had quickly skimmed through them. Some warned of the lack of connection with loved ones, of depression and feelings of isolation, that after returning, people might not want to hear your stories of living abroad. I had thought those must have been extreme cases of reverse culture shock, but I was wrong. So absolutely wrong.
The first few weeks were fine, I was distracted with finding a place to live before starting work again, moving into my apartment, and visiting friends and family. After getting settled though, I was caught off guard. I soon felt detached, overwhelmed, and like I was being sucked back into a world of superficiality and materialism. I questioned who I was and what the “F” I was doing here. I felt my friends and family had new expectations of me now that I was back in the U.S. The pressure to be someone to this person and someone else to another person was paralyzing and on top of that, I had to be here and there for this event and that one. These expectations (whether they were real or just fabricated in my over-analytical brain) made me want to withdraw from those that I cared about the most. On the verge of a mental breakdown, I screamed on the inside yet failed to acquiesce that it could be all related to my recent move back home.
Basic tasks in my new routine became a struggle. It was easier for me to take an Uber or Lyft every day rather than figure out the train schedule. Anxiety reared its ugly head and told me that I might miss that train so why bother even trying. I never had to worry about schedules in India because I had a driver or used Uber (which was like $1 a ride). The first time, it took me at least 45 minutes just to make my bed because I was used to housekeeping doing it for me. Boo-hoo, right? Being unable to perform the most basic tasks left me feeling pathetic and frustrated with myself. There was even a point where I was creeped out by how quiet it was here. I was used to the constant honking of cars, cows mooing and dogs barking at all hours of the night. Becoming accustomed to living a certain way in India had somewhat crippled me and I did not mentally prepare myself for the transition back. Not in the slightest.
I didn’t realize I was going through severe reverse culture shock until one night I started to cry for no apparent reason (I’m not one to cry easily). I felt an intense wave of grief come over me and I couldn’t stop crying. It felt as though someone had died. And maybe that was me. Figuratively, obviously. I couldn’t attribute this sadness to anything in particular but to the fact that I was going through a lot of change, including a break up of 6.5 years (we’ll save that for another day). I was starting all over again and my home no longer felt like home. Once it finally clicked, I knew I had to do something about it. These four steps helped me cope with the reverse culture shock:
1. Take it day by day and try not to dwell.
Don’t overwhelm yourself by thinking about all of the changes that are happening. Take it one day at a time. Don’t dwell on the past. Appreciate your experience but understand that you need to move forward in order to open yourself up to new experiences.
2. Keep in touch with the friends that you’ve made abroad or find others that have also lived abroad.
I stay connected with many of the people that I met in India. It’s always comforting to know that I have a special bond with these individuals because of our shared experience abroad. Additionally, finding others (outside of the people that I met in India) who had also lived abroad was huge for me. They reassured me that the reverse culture shock would eventually go away and it would just take time to re-adapt. Connecting with people who share a similar experience makes you feel less alone because they just get you.
3. Write down your thoughts.
It’s always beneficial to get anything that is bothering you out of your head and onto a piece of paper.
4. Create new experiences.
Start a new project, travel to cities that you’ve never been to before, or take up a new hobby. There are many ways to keep things exciting and new. I am starting a new project, taking yoga classes and will appease my travel bug by doing more weekend trips, checking out places I’ve never been and making a few international trips over the summer and fall.
It’s been about 3.5 months since I’ve been back and things have been improving as my “home” becomes familiar again. I still tend to walk on the left side of the sidewalk, reminded that I’m on the wrong side as I get dirty looks from people that I’m about to run into. (It’s a good thing I rarely drive here). I still say “veg” instead of vegetarian. I still take Ubers and Lyfts everywhere. It still takes me 30 minutes to make my bed because I continue to crawl into my king size duvet cover to make sure the corners are tucked properly. Not going to lie though, I do still find myself longing to live abroad again as I genuinely miss immersing myself in a place that I’ve never been before and being swept up by the newness.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many things that I love about being back in the U.S. There’s Costco and Whole Foods and then there are apps so that I don’t have to step foot in either one because I can’t stand humans with carts. There are lines in the roads that people follow which is fantastic for everyone’s safety. Traffic is a non-issue for me as India has conditioned me well to sit in traffic for 2 hours to only go three miles. Burritos are burritos here and sour cream is never substituted with mayonnaise. I’m also happy to report that I have adjusted to doing domestic tasks again. Most of them at least. I love folding laundry. Said no one ever. It’s the only domestic task that I will never grow to love.
Home is not just where you drop a pin in your ride-sharing app or where you live but a place of comfort and love that you can create anywhere. My plan is to rediscover San Francisco and the U.S., create and re-build personal relationships, and soon enough, I will hopefully feel at home again.