Writing, Music, and Three More Essentials That Have Helped With Reverse Culture Shock

Mt. Cook with Hooker Lake in the foreground, May 2017.

During my previous blog post, I talked about experiencing reverse culture shock, even in the minute details.

I still have flashbacks to driving on the left side of the road and was startled yesterday when the van in which I was riding crossed lanes to turn left. I drove on the left side of the road for 16 months and should have expected difficulty in driving on the right side again, but I felt that after four months of being in the U.S., I should have been used to it by now.

But what makes reverse culture shock such…a shock…is that it’s not expected

The need to adjust to the culture in which I grew up was not expected. The confusion in grocery stores was not expected. The anxiety over someone moving his or her leg up and down and shaking the floor like an earthquake was not expected.

There’s no five-step plan for going through reverse culture shock.

But here are five things that have helped me:

  1. Consistent and honest journal writing. I returned home with ten journals filled with accounts of my travels. And then, all of a sudden, I stopped writing down what happened every day. Part of me thought I didn’t need to because I was back in the familiar. But after a while, I became anxious because I was trying to process a lot of information without writing anything down. Once I began journaling again, having honest conversations in writing about what was happening, I felt better.
  2. Listening to music. Often, when I feel tense, it means I haven’t listened to music in a long time (which usually is an hour or two). It’s been strange: there have been times when I forget about listening to music. But when I remember, I turn up Coldplay or shuffle my 173 hours worth of music on my laptop, and the tension starts fading. Listening to artists I heard overseas, such as Skipinnish (from Oban, Scotland) or nomad (from Christchurch, New Zealand), helps as well.
  3. Finding community. When I was teaching, I found instant community at the schools with students and staff. While traveling, I made instant friends in hostels, on the farms on which I worked, and in the communities where I lived. Seeking community long-term requires more than instantaneous connections. Finding my place here takes time and work…but it will be some of the most rewarding work I’ll ever undertake.
  4. Sorting through my pictures. I brought back over 27,000 photos from my 16 months of travel and need to attach keywords to them while I still remember where I took them and what was happening. This winter, I’ve missed Mt. Cook. I’m reminded of the way it smelled, its climate, Kiwi food, the snow, the mist. Looking at the pictures of Mt. Cook helps me process my trip and remember.
  5. Remembering daily routines and activities enjoyed while traveling, and continuing to enjoy them. Hiking, writing, photography, working outdoors, doing satisfying work, and going out to dinner were part of my daily and weekly routines. When I stopped participating in them upon returning home, I was thrown off balance. For example, my knees and ankles started aching because I wasn’t hiking every two or three days like I had while traveling. I started walking up and down the driveway to the farm, an automatic one mile, and that helped.

I understand now why I met so many long-time travelers: it’s hard to stay in one place. We’re made to move around, to experience new things. History is filled with people doing this. And now, I am re-acclimating, and frustration comes because I didn’t expect the necessity of growing accustomed to my own hometown again.

The reverse culture shocks have been fading (although I still never know when one will crop up), and using these five strategies have helped me work with the surprises and settle back in to Indiana.

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