Coming Home Crazy—the apt title of Bill Holms’ witty, irreverent, yet insightful book on returning from China—describes how many feel after returning from China, even after only a short period. My wife and I had taught in China a mere three months before leaving on 45 minute’s notice in the wake of the June 4th, 1989, Tiananmen tragedy. Even with a week in Hong Kong and another in Japan with understanding friends, it still took us six months to adjust back to American culture. Why couldn’t we feel at home when we had the same jobs, the same house, the same church and the same friends as before leaving? The simple answer was: we were not the same.
Our reactions to our home culture were classic. Americans were overweight (we had lost 20 pounds each— although they have now come back with a vengeance); everything was too big and too overdone—from scores of cereals in the store to lavish furnishings in the simplest home. It all seemed a bit obscene and very unfair that we had so much and our new Chinese friends so little.
To make matters worse, most conversations about this life-changing experience lasted about 30 seconds: “Were you in any danger?” “No, we felt very safe.” “Great, glad you’re back. So long.” There were actually many opportunities over the months, and even years, to speak in detail which helped a great deal. Nevertheless, Americans on the run, without having a scheduled event to focus attention, don’t have much time for spontaneous, in-depth conversation. Still, we were bursting at the seams with stories and excitement over new friends as well as frustration over the Chinese government’s recent brutality in Tiananmen Square.
Our values had changed. For the first time in our lives, every day we had been meeting people who wanted to talk about ultimate issues, questions of faith. We had gotten along just fine living from the contents of six suitcases— one third of that being books. Now, we were considering a possible career change and down-sizing our house. We were ready to talk and we wondered how others could be so uninterested in half the world’s population. Didn’t they understand how little the rest of the world had? Why weren’t our neighbors interested in eternal values?
Of course, our expectations were unrealistic. It is hard to relate to another person’s experience with the same understanding or enthusiasm. But what seems so obvious now, was a source of frustration then. We were expecting and had prepared for culture shock, but no one even hinted at the often more traumatic experience of reverse culture shock. Even so, everyone will go through it, just as surely as everyone goes through an initial culture shock—even when prepared for it. However, knowing about it can lessen its intensity, and actively processing the experience can both shorten the unpleasant phase and maximize the benefits. Like all tough times, it is a prime time for spiritual growth and character development. It should be embraced.
Included here are the three main things to know about reverse culture shock: the symptoms, the causes, and what helps in coping and learning. Not all of the items will apply to every case, but each is common. Ironically, the more effective a person’s adjustment to the foreign culture and the more positive the experience, the more intense the adjustment back. Some individuals may need special care. Experiences that take us out of our comfort zones can unleash dragons within, both psychological and spiritual, calling for professional counseling in some cases. Some may have returned from situations involving intense spiritual warfare in which cases healing prayer may be more appropriate. Seek the blessing and ministry of your church. If you are not asked to share your experience, take the initiative in calling the pastor or other church leaders. Above all, spend much time in prayer, especially in thanksgiving.
Note: Special thanks to Ardath Smith, counselor to returning teachers for English Language Institute, for many valuable insights.
What you should know about reverse culture shock
- Sense of injustice at abundance
- Discomfort in old routines
- Priorities of others seem wrong
- Feeling that no one, or too few, understand you
- No one cares about your experience beyond surface niceties
- Shock that things cost so much (cheaper to live in China)
- Heightened spiritual focus while abroad
- Feeling of accomplishment; doing something important and valued
- Celebrity status—in many settings you stand out just by looking different and everyone is curious; now you are anonymous
- You were the expert, even if only on American daily life
- Changed values (spiritually, materially, culturally—you have moved from a relational culture to a more task oriented one)
- Slower pace abroad—A dizzying array of new tasks, like driving in fast traffic, using a computer, shopping with debit card
- A supportive network of friends, family and church
- Talking—in varied formats from informal to small group to lecture/sermon
- Teaching others what you have learned (takes work)
- Being patient—it will take a minimum of 2-3 months to adjust (up to 6 is not unusual)
- Having a plan, staying engaged, having some structure in your life
- Maintaining spiritual focus; reading and studying Scripture, praying
- Meeting (or at least phoning or emailing) with others who have had similar experiences
- Prayer from those who know you
- Healing prayer and/or counseling in special cases
- Reading Peter Jordan’s book (see below) before even leaving for China— definitely before coming back
- Being conscious of the need for Christ to increase and yourself to decrease (we often unconsciously want to be front and center with our new knowledge and experience)
- Keeping your expectations of others low; what you want to share and others want to hear may be very different
- Recognizing that having to give time to stressful activities like finding a house or job or deciding on a school will add to the shock and adjustment time
- Not making life-changing decisions until you have had time to adjust
- Recalling and using your cross-cultural training to deal with reverse culture shock
- Adopting the stance of observer, not of a judge; thinking about what you see
- Being realistic about what you can change in your home culture— but do not give up the beneficial perspective you have gained— that of seeing your country through Chinese eyes
- Remembering that culture shock faded with time—reverse culture shock will also.
Peter Jordan. Re-Entry: Making the Transition from Missions to Life at Home. Seattle, WA: YWAM Publishing, 1992. Very readable, Christian perspective.
Elisabeth Marx. Breaking Through Culture Shock: What You Need to Succeed in International Business. London: Cambridge University Press/Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 1999. ISBN 1-85788-220-2. A current treatment of culture shock for those who want a helpful resource on the front end. As the title shows, the primary audience is business, but much applies to professionals in any field.
The Peace Corps web site has good, manageable treatments of Reverse Culture Shock. http://www.peacecorps.gov/rpcv/careertrack/REENT/rentwha.html
Marcia D. Miller. “Reflections on Reentry after Teaching in China.” Occasional Papers in Intercultural Learning, No. 14 (December 1988). An excellent account of adjustment after an intensive, isolated, one-year teaching stint.