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#124 Reverse Culture Shock

January 2, 2012

by Danielopus who blogs at sobrelasdunas


The common person believes that the worst culture shock an EAW suffers is in the field. Wrong. True EAWs only fully grasp the meaning of their EAW status when they go home.

For days, weeks, months or years, the EAW dreams about that trip home: cheese and chocolate, comforts, cold weather, a good coffee, a nice shower, family and friends.  Unfortunately, once the plane hits the tarmac, the humble EAW will face a myriad of challenges and frustrations.

Those immigration agents who were so nice to you and your “mission order” in the Third World? Now they are now skeptical of your dirty, paranoid, just-came-back-from-a-warzone look. Your passport is filled with visas from countries that have 1) just been created, 2) disappeared while you were away, or 3) your (un)friendly agent didn’t know existed.  His hunch that you are an international drug dealer in disguise means that you spend your first 2 hours “home” trying to prove your innocence, your patriotism, and your nationality.

You finally get through immigration.  But there is no friendly driver holding a sign with your name. No organization vehicle with white flags. The local guys wanting to help you with your luggage are nowhere in sight. Not to mention that it’s damn cold. Your “Hawaianas”, shorts, t-shirt and sunglasses are not the best outfit anymore. You’ve dodged terrorist threats, tropical diseases, food poisoning, and marriage proposals, yet you now fear death by freezing.

You find a cab and lapse into a friendly banter with the taxi driver about his family and kids, health, work, life, weather, soccer. You realize he thinks you are a weirdo for talking so much. He drives like crazy, zig-zagging the streets to drop you off ASAP.

Arriving home to your parents’ house, they have prepared your old room by filling it up with all your toys from the 80s – that’s if you are lucky. You might just get the old living room couch. Worse, you might arrive back to the apartment you left 6 months ago and there is more dust than the one you just left in the Sahara desert, more garbage than in any Third World country street and less public services than in Haiti. You have forgotten to pay for water, gas, Internet, TV, and telephone. You have to clean your own clothes, prepare your own food, and worst of all, make your own bed. Oh no, it’s like slavery, capitalist style.

You rush to recover your personal cell phone and compulsively call all of your friends, but their tight personal agendas mean you won’t be seeing anyone until next summer. In the meantime, you learn via Facebook about all the parties, weddings, and birthdays, you were not invited to because you were supposed to be in the middle of nowhere. Well, at least your family hasn’t let you down. You are excited about the big dinner your mother or grandmother is organizing for your great return, with real, home cooked home town food. Unfortunately they’ve chosen an exotic [country you just returned from]n restaurant to celebrate.  Argh! Well it doesn’t matter anyway, considering that 2 weeks after arriving home you are still feeling terrible from whatever you picked up ‘back there’. All those Western doctors with their laboratory tests and fancy high tech can’t seem to figure out what is wrong with you. You keep telling them that it’s malaria plus [common parasite ‘over there’ that is unknown to Western doctors] but they refuse to give you medication until they are sure.

You’ve spent the last year locked inside a huge summer house/bunker, with guards outside and big fences protecting you from the hostile external environment. You are used to asking permission to buy a telephone card and always going everywhere accompanied. Now you have to face terrifying daily chores like taking out the garbage, getting groceries, walking to the subway, buying the newspaper almost 2 blocks away without any security! No Motorola handset, no Thuraya satellite phone, no white flags. You are totally alone!

Ah, but at least there is work to fall back on. As always, for security reasons you wait till the sun rises to go out, but strangely you are the first one at work (so weird, there is nobody at the office at 7 am). You turn on the fan and the air conditioning even when it’s 0°C both in and outside. You put a couple of water bottles in the freezer for later. Then you realize you are on the 10th floor of NY, London, Paris or Geneva.

Prices are something else you do not understand. Why does a beer cost 8 dollars? Or a ticket for a movie 15 Euros? You keep calculating how many houses you could rent back there for the same ridiculous price you are now paying for 200 square feet, or how many kids you could feed with the money spent on your welcome back party. You hear everyone complain about the cost of living, but you seem to be the only one concerned about all the uneaten food going straight to the garbage because it was rather… meh.

“Enlightened” by your “experience,” you saw “reality,” you saw “people dying,” you are familiar with such abstract stuff as “war,” “refugees,” “jet lag,” and “NATIVES”… Everybody expects you to share all that, but they don’t want details. They want the funny stereotypes about other cultures and countries. So the more cynic and superficial your approach, the bigger the applause.

On the other hand, you are truly frightened about your friends’ REAL problems — like their new smart phone that cannot download a specific application for playing X game online, or the time it took them last Wednesday to get to work because of the street demonstration led by the association of retired people, or that the gas price is going up and up so much they have already considered the option of using a bike (haha, joking! they would never actually ride a bike), or that they just fired their last housemaid because she was lazy, or worst of all, that their hairdresser just canceled their absolutely urgent appointment.

It strikes you. This is why a real EAW will go back to the field. As soon as possible. Because something has changed. The place they used to call home is no longer the cozy, comfortable, easy-going, friendly and cheap place it was.

Welcome back!

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Rich McClear permalink
    January 2, 2012 12:26 pm

    Boy is this spot on.

    I got back on December 19. It is the third time I have come back “to stay” in the last 20 years. Twice I have gone back. OK, now I am on medicare with grandchildren but no one is taking any bets on me staying in the States, although I insist I will. BTW, I am from Alaska so the part in this post about the weather…. Then is the chaos of my house and the fact that I no longer have ironed underwear and t shirts.

    The first time I came back was just in time for the 1994 congressional elections and I was shocked at how nasty. polarized and personal it was. I think it is worse now, but I am still assimilating. The second time I came back was November 2001. OK, it was post 9/11 America and everyone was jumpy but it was Thanksgiving that really shocked me. I always celebrated it abroad, giving thanks and having local friends together. I got back and it was all about “black Friday” and football. Not much reflection or real giving thanks. Big box stores really got to me in 2001. Abroad I was used to buying everything from someone in the neighborhood who I knew by name, and not from a name plate on their shirt. They knew me too. I probably knew their kids.

    This time I am trying reentry over Christmas. Cynicism, for me, starts with reentry. Stay tuned.

  2. Rich McClear permalink
    January 3, 2012 2:25 pm

    I just had one of those reverse culture shock moments. I went out for a coffee this morning. I asked for a macchiato. I have been fortunate to be posted to places with good coffee, mostly Turkish, but also espresso. Anyway, the lady asked what flavor macchiato. I said “you know, coffee.” No, I had to make a choice and settled on a caramel. (Caramel coffee?) She asked me what size. Well, I am used to two sizes, really small cups and small cups (nothing as large as a mug.) It was morning so I asked for a large. She said “two shots?” Well, large means two shots, doesn’t it? So I said “Sure”. I am glad I did because I got a 20 ounce cup, more than a pound of macchiato. I asked “How big is this cup” “20 oz, a medium is 16 and a small is 12.” A small is 12 ounces? I mean I am used to a large being something like 6 if that. I never thought coffee drinks were for gulping, I thought they were for sipping. I am going to have some trouble re-entering this time.

  3. Peter Lorber permalink
    January 3, 2012 4:54 pm

    I was with MSF. The author of “Hope in Hell” about MSF contacted me to share some stories to put in his book. He used one of my episodes to title a chapter after it… “the new fridge syndrome.” That phenomenon (and the chapter) are about what you’ve described so nicely. In my case, it was about sitting at the family thanksgiving table after one particularly hairy job in one of the -stans. The inevitable, reluctant question arose: “So, what was it like there?” By then I should have known better, my first re-entry “big-box store shock” had come years before, in the form of standing shock-still in a SoCal produce section, counting types of apples. Yet here I was, still falling for it, seduced by the invitation to unload. But you never seem to find the balance between too blunt without sounding like you’re sensationalizing, versus too flip or jokey without trivializing and dishonoring some horrible reality. After a moment of relating a couple honest reflections, my mother said, “Well. So have I told you about the new fridge we bought?”

  4. Carol permalink
    January 4, 2012 1:27 pm

    So true, have been back just over a year and find it really difficult to navigate the toilet roll aisle of any large supermarket. When for the past 9 years I only had to decide between the hard-almost-like-greaseproof-paper roll or the thin-tissue-type-roll, I now find myself confronted with shelves of blue, green, pink, peach, white, softer, stronger, longer, quilted choices. Then is it better to buy the 2, 4, 9, 12 or 36 pack, is the value range best because its cheaper, or is that false economy and should I go for one of the more expensive brands because they may in the long run be better value….it takes hours to decide, during which time I’ve convinced myself the security cameras have honed in on my suspicious loitering so much so I cant even bring myself to walk down the washing powder aisle. Do I want my clothes to smell of ocean breeze, lemon fresh, tropical forest, rose, lavander, washed in powder, liquid, tablet….etc etc

  5. January 6, 2012 8:19 am

    Wow. This is getting a bit close to the bone.

  6. January 11, 2012 12:35 am

    “Your friends’ REAL problems” – so, so true!!! I didn’t even do aid work (just taught English o/s for six years and travelled a lot) and I still found it very hard to fit back in – would be even harder if you’ve been off seeing some really difficult parts of the world. Love this post and have linked it up to my reverse culture shock resources page at so thanks for writing it!

  7. January 11, 2012 2:10 pm

    I dunno guys…I’m back in Africa after a month off for Christmas. Yes, I was cold when I got off the plane – I borrowed a sweater. I’ve learned my lesson on the coffee – just get an double espresso and don’t mind if it’s a bit burned. Honestly, I miss winter citrus from Spain and high speed Internet access. I got hooked on Angry Birds and put on about 15 pounds (not happy about that though).

    Ain’t it the truth that – no matter where you are in the world – you’ll adjust as long as you’ve got good company and something to keep your mind busy.

    The music on my street outside is blasting and I’m soaking my clothes to wash and hang tomorrow. A roach just crawled across my floor and I’m waiting for the power to come back on so I can go do my own dishes. Maybe I would miss it here if I had a maid, security, and a driver…as it is I got into a crazy taxi with 4 people in the back and rebuffed 4 requests for my “contacts.”

    Does that make me a bad ExPat? This is my third post: 1 conflict; 1 post conflict; and now, 1 poor as dirt. I’m so ready to be home again and feel the soft embrace of plush quilted, scented TP and a long hot shower. I’ll miss the relaxed way I approach my appearance and how cheap everything is – but, at this moment I’d happily trade all of that in for a block of cheese, good wine, and great friends.

  8. January 11, 2012 7:19 pm

    Hi guys, I wrote this post after 2 years of a nomadic life with MSF, but honestly I do not believe a having trouble buying toilet paper or choosing a coffee are REAL REVERSE CULTURAL SHOCK elements… This is a little bit deeper… It is about the huge difference between reality in some parts of the world and “back home”… It is more about the price of the coffee in a starbucks compared to the farmers way of living than the number of options in the size of the cup…
    In the other hand, sometimes we are very dramatic when we come back of mission and
    I wanted to make a little fun of ourselves: when you come back, we feel so “concerned” about the world “REAL” problems, and we forget that we were lucky to have a different perspective of things. People can not always feel sad because of the food crises in the horn of Africa… They have their own problems…
    I also thing, many people in the humanitarian sector/business, are escaping from something back home, so of course, they hate coming back… What do you think guys?

    PS: by the way, saying “after one particularly hairy job in one of the -stans” (see comment from Peter Lorber) is the most unsensitive thing I have read in this blog and qualify also as a REVERSE CULTURAL SHOCK for me… Specially coming from somebody that actually works for MSF…

    • January 11, 2012 8:36 pm

      Hey danielopus – I wouldn’t worry so much about it. I do understand where you are coming from. One time, about a month after my 2 year post in Iraq, I was walking down the street in my home city – a truck was unloading something heavy and it made a huge bang when it hit the pavement. I hit the deck and covered my head in front of about 300 people. Not my finest moment I’ll tell you. Once in Tanzania I laughed awkwardly when my counterpart joked that what they eat we feed to our cattle. He was right and I knew it and I was ashamed.

      We joke about showers and cheese like it’s a badge of honor, but you’re right coming home can be hard, especially if you don’t have a good support system in place. But, I don’t think it’s hard to come home because we’re running from something back home. I think we leave and come home and leave again because it’s how we express a particular brand of the human condition.

      It’s 2AM here and I’m still up so I’ll overshare a quote I love – for me it’s at once a universal and “the problems of privilege” type of quote:

      “You can’t want to be happy, because that’s too easy and too boring. You can’t want only love, because that’s impossible. What do you want? You want to justify your life, to live it as intensely as possible. That is at the same time a trap and a source of ecstasy.” The Witch of Portobello, By Pauolo Coelho.

      In the end – this kind of life is just another way to earn a living and occupy our restless minds until we’re 6-feet under. The work being done in war zones and refugee camps is no more important or criminal than any other. That’s why no one at home cares about all the experiences and craziness of living on the edge of the world, they are busy living their own restless and unrequited lives – just trying to find a little love and peace in their small pocket of the planet.

      Enjoy your life and home and be grateful not guilty – know that people all over the world would trade with you in a second and know that neither of you had anything to do with the fortunes of the other. If all else fails I like to turn to cigarettes and booze. ;)

  9. Peter Lorber permalink
    January 11, 2012 8:17 pm

    Hello Danielopus, I’m sure returning expats (most of them anyway) will read my note and recognize it’s intended to be a humorous anecdote with which most can identify. As being “unsensitive” [sic], I’m not sure which part you misunderstood. I wouldn’t have thought it necessary to explain what “hairy” means (it’s not a racial epithet, if that’s what you thought). It’s used widely in English to mean stressful or risky. If you’re referring to “one of the -stans,” it neatly sums up the context without naming a specific country (and thereby potentially offending someone’s misplaced hair-trigger sensitivity). cheers!

  10. Danielopus permalink
    January 18, 2012 4:08 am

    Hi Peter, I still believe that the line between funny and cynical and arrogant is very slim, and You have to admit that we (I include myself) sometimes fall in that… I think This world is full of clichés and that probably most of them have something of reality. for ” one of the stans” you could just say the region or continent you where in because it does really sound like “For me they are all the same”…Sorry!

  11. drtimberlick permalink
    February 9, 2012 12:48 pm

    Came home after 2 years in West Africa. Felt like a nobody, after being treated like “royalty” by the people in my community for two years. I didn’t have all the amenities of an aid worker, but related to a lot of the same reverse-culture-shock moments. The most vivid of which was being at a grocery store (which was shocking enough, as it was!), picking up a six-pack of IBC cream soda and having the bottles fall directly out of the bottom and shatter on the floor. I stood there for awhile not knowing what to do. “I need a broom made of sticks and a flimsy black plastic bag, please!!” My heart was racing a million times a minute. Finally, an employee found me and started to clean it up. I tried to help. They told me to back off. It was more like, “please miss, I’ve got it”. I felt like I should have to pay for it (it’s their livelihood after all, no?). Turns out they took the responsibility and I was so out of sorts that I just left the store without buying a single thing. Just happy to be back in the air and away from SO MANY CHOICES. And agonized about breaking products in a store, still thinking the proprietor desperately needed the business.

    …I left again for Asia a couple months later. Can’t do it, folks.

  12. Night wanderer permalink
    April 14, 2012 9:28 am

    OMG, it’s so true. Although having my camp-base in Italy I’ve never had troubles with coffee: an espresso was,is and will always be just the same in my country. I guess I should consider myself lucky.

    I mean, I know the troubles with grocery shopping, prices and all the readjusting to the “normal” life are superficial, but it’s all the little things making up for that reverse shock, like keep expecting donkeys come from around a corner or greeting everyperson you meet in the street because thyat’s what you’ve been doing so far.

    I actually learned my lesson after my first R&R: no more welcome back parties on the day you get back, especially after a 20 hours flight; announce your arrival well before so that true friends can clear their schedule just for you; always pack woolen socks, sweater and a hat even when going to the equator and, above all, when you are back home, procrastination, lot of procrastination.

    I also get a full check up for parasites and all other nasty stuff before leaving the country, and bring the necessary prescriptions along with me, just in case.


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