Once upon a time an 18-year-old girl named Sarah flew to South Africa.
She spent a month living with rangers in the staff village beside a very fancy resort with its own private game reserve. She was volunteering in the local community, so while she did occasionally get to see lions and zebras and elephants, she mostly spent her days turning old tires into a playground and eating white mush on the ground beside a bunch of local kids. From there she flew to Turkey where she drove down the coast and learned that the best adventures are the ones you don't plan on having. She saw buildings older than the country she was from and ate fish that had been caught just that morning.
Then it was off to Ethiopia where she taught English to a classroom of five-year-olds. They became her family and though she spent too many hours in the evenings alone in her empty room in the empty house above the empty school, she spent her days learning how to communicate without words and how to love without sharing any sort of history.
Next came Thailand where she washed elephants, fed gibbons, and cried over a broken tiger who'd been cruelly abused by the tourism industry. This is also where she learned how travelers make friends and soon found herself surrounded by a group of strangers that treated her as though they'd known her forever. For her last leg of the adventure she flew to India where she stayed with a local family and studied under an Ayurvedic medicine man. She discovered the power of the mind, opened her heart to magic and love, and learned that miracles aren't so uncommon after all.
Then she flew back to Danville, California.
The town felt smaller. The buildings all looked the same, the walls were all white, and the streets were too quiet. People said things that didn't make sense; did they really believe the world was that small? That simple? Her friends laughed at her newfound hippy ways and she found it hard to connect with anyone. The food was all too bland and when she told stories that started with "When I was in ____," everyone rolled their eyes. She was experiencing reverse culture shock, but she didn't know what that meant or how to handle it.
That girl was me long ago, but times have changed. I am now constantly moving between the U.S. and any other country and I have become a bit of a pro at handling the situation. Here are my tips for how to survive culture shock.
Be weary of grocery stores
Christmas Eve, 2011... I was alone in Ethiopia and trying not to be too sad about my first Christmas away from home. I decided I wanted hot chocolate. Apparently, that was no simple desire. After searching every café, restaurant, and market I found a single shop that had a single row of imported goods and on the bottom shelf, tucked between the peanut butter and Cheerios, was a small box of some brand of hot chocolate I didn't recognize. It was no Swiss Miss, but it had those tiny dehydrated marshmallows so it would do.
The other day I went to Target to get a hair tie and there were 30 different types of hair ties. Did I want neutral colors or rainbow colors? Elastic or elastic-free? Thin or think? Fabric or plastic? I honestly didn't know a person could have an opinion on which type of hair tie to use and I was flummoxed. I bought the cheapest and got the hell out of there.
This kind of experience is common for travelers. They get use to living on little, not having many choices, and just taking what Country X gives them. Honestly, I didn't just get used to it. I started to prefer it. We make so many unnecessary decisions in America that we are constantly stressing about things that really just don't matter. When you are born and raised in the US you are used to this, but be weary. Because the cereal isle of a grocery store will likely cause a panic attack after a long trip away from that kind of decision making.
Indulge, rest, and reflect
When you first come home, it's important to let yourself indulge. Eat all the frozen yogurt, watch hours of television, flush the toilet twice, take hour-long hot showers. I get it. Your body has been in shock for however long you've been traveling and it is thrilled to have all these minor luxuries back. So embrace them, indulge in them, but then pause.
Give yourself a chance to rest. Sleep for an entire day, ignore all your friends begging you to get coffee, turn off the television, put away your book, and just be still. Stillness is something travelers don't get a lot of, so it's important to refill your stores of still when you get home. Then you're ready for the next, and potentially most important, step of coping with reverse culture shock... reflect.
What did your trip mean to you? What did you learn from living with less? What did you miss most about home? What do you miss most now that you are home? What things are frustrating about being back? What changes occurred in you or your lifestyle that you want to hold on to now that you are back? These are the kinds of questions you need to ask yourself if you ever hope to find some sort of integration of your travel self and your home self.
Find the support you need
Don't be surprised if all of your friends piss you off. Don't be surprised if you suddenly find your family infuriating. It's natural and it won't last forever. It is just your hearts way of saying it needs support. It needs people who understand.
This can come in many forms. Maybe you have an ongoing Facebook conversation with some of your friends from travel, reminiscing about the things you did and sharing the struggle of leaving that world behind. Maybe you find groups in your hometown that share your wanderlust. Travelers aren't that hard to find if you know where to look; join expat groups, go to travel-themed events, or just stand in a hip coffee shop and tell everyone you just got back from Country X until someone yells, "I love Country X!". Maybe support comes in the form of therapy. I know, it took me awhile to accept it too, but reverse culture shock really is shock and your are going to be able to handle it a lot better if you can talk it out with someone who's only agenda is to listen and give you the tools you need to cope.
I've tried all three, and they've all been incredibly helpful. My friends from home and my family love me and they want to hear my stories of adventure, but they just don't understand what it feels like to have two lives that seem utterly separate from one another. How could they? Finding support in all of these places has helped me learn to love being home for its own reasons and not spend the entire time waiting to leave again.
Reverse culture shock can be a painful struggle, but let's face it, half of what we learn from travel comes when we get home and start reflecting on it all. So embrace the reverse culture shock and let it be an incredible teacher for you as you cope with the intense wanderlust cravings that come when you begin your travel withdraws.