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  • Writer's pictureW. Austin Gardner

Reverse Culture Shock

The idea that we experience reverse culture shock when we return "home" after a long residence abroad may surprise us. After all, we are returning to a culture with which we are familiar. But that culture has changed, and so have we more deeply than we know. Research shows that individuals who have adjusted most successfully to a new culture have the greatest difficulty in readapting to their old one (Brislin and Van Buren 1974).

In many ways readjusting to our native culture is like entering a new society. At first, there is the excitement of returning. We are back with loved ones-relatives, friends, and colleagues. We are the object of much attention, pride, and excitement, and people listen as we tell of our strange experiences. We go out for the hamburger and Dairy Queen that we have dreamed about while we were abroad. In short, we expect to pick up our lives where we left off.

After this initial excitement subsides, we begin the serious business of re-establishing ourselves in the local culture. It is now that we begin to experience irritation and frustration. Things that once seemed so natural now look extravagant and insensitive in a world of need. People seem so parochial. They soon lose interest in our stories and turn to more important topics of conversation-changes in the latest models of cars, local politics, neighborhood gossip, and sports. We even find it hard to relate to our friends and relatives because they will not listen, or they listen politely but do not seem to understand what we are trying to say. They keep asking ridiculous questions such as "Do people in Guatemala know what telephones are?"

Our frustration is intensified by the fact that all this is so unexpected. We have become strangers in our own culture! We are put into new roles that we did not expect. We are out-of-step with the lifestyles that once seemed so important but now seem so extravagant and self-centered.

Our initial response is defensive. We become angry and critical about local customs. Assuming an attitude of superiority, we withdraw from local events. Sometimes we wish we had not returned "home." We begin to realize that no place is home the way it used to be, that we are pilgrims here on earth.

Joseph Shenk (n.d.:5) describes this feeling:

"Vacuum" is a good word to describe the first six months we are home. We go from being the center of a lot of activity to being the center of nothing. We are on no committees. We have no community connections. At church, people are a bit afraid they might say something which will trigger a speech from us about injustice or something so conversations are kept as superficial as possible. Evenings are quiet unless we are being put on display somewhere.

"Slippage" is another good word. While overseas economically and technologically we have stagnated. Our vocabularies have shrunk. We do not have clothes or vehicles or appliances or homes to match our contemporaries. Since individual worth in the United States and Canada is largely measured by these things it is very possible that we will experience sobering moments of self-doubt. In that gasp of lostness, we mortgage everything in order to acquire those trappings of relevance which are so important here. Then we discover that we are locked into very tight economic parameters for the next score of years.

Our second response is to try to change the culture. About a year after getting back, we are in danger of being sullen, angry people. We cannot comprehend the wealth around us and are eager for any opportunity to tell the "natives" how poor the rest of the world is. But the people do not seem to want to listen. This only reinforces our frustration and leads us to seek the company of people from other cultures or other returnees.

In time, however, we readjust in one way or another to our original culture. Sometimes our modes of adjustment are destructive to ourselves and others. We become abusive or withdrawn or we leave our home communities.

Normally, however, we again find our place in the society. We learn enough about sports and local politics to participate in neighborhood conversations. We catch up on the latest music and styles of dress, so that we no longer stand out in a crowd. We discover that we can build meaningful lives again in our original culture. Above all, we discover that we are not the same persons who left this culture-that profound changes have taken place within us in our years abroad and that we will never fully fit back into our first "home."

In readjusting, it helps to look at our original society as a foreign community and to enter it the way we entered the culture abroad. Often we are more tolerant of people in other societies than in our own. We need to learn from the "natives," and identify ourselves with them as much as we can, without negating who we now are. We need to realize that they cannot fully understand us, for they have not experienced what we have. Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries

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