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Reverse Culture Shock


Having been back in Australia for a few months now, we have well and truly entered the stage of transition that follows the initial happy honeymoon phase—and have plunged down on the reverse culture shock curve (see also this link).

This is the stage where lots of things are irritating, like . . .

The number of mosquitoes and sand flies that bit us on holidays.

December and January are hot, not cold as we have become accustomed to.

Complaining Australians (ironically it’s easy to fit right in on this one due to reverse culture shock).

Wealthy Australians posting their incredible and expensive, but unwanted, Christmas gifts on Facebook Marketplace.

The way hardly any languages are taught at primary school level—and that the level is so minimal. How is Australia going to engage meaningfully with the rest of the world with only enough language to read a restaurant menu and little more?

It’s a time of irritation, sometimes masking grief—it can help to identify what the grief is underneath the frustration.

Lunar New Year is not celebrated as a public holiday, but Australia Day is—what’s with that? There are so many Australians from Asian backgrounds. For us, Lunar New Year has become a time of memories, friends, and cultural activities. We became used to it being a time when the whole country stops for a holiday. But now, because we are white and in Australia, our phones are not filled with celebratory messages and photos nor are we welcomed into the celebration. Here it’s a celebration for the Asians in the community, or those who want to view Asian culture from the vantage point of spectators from another ethnicity.  We have become invisible Asians, and our white ethnicity is painfully isolating us from being connected to this part of our history.

It’s a reminder of our loss that is ambiguous. It’s a reminder of how we were part of community there—but here we are starting again without being known as we have changed to become.

It’s a time of wondering what the cultural rules are. “Cultural rules” just means the expected or normal cultural ways of being in a place. There are cultural rules for navigating social situations, shopping, using public transport, and so on. Relating to actual laws is included but many cultural rules are assumed and not discussed. People learn them as children or by watching and being influenced in society. Some of these Aussie cultural rules we remember; some we don’t.

Some cultural rules have changed. It seems there is not universal agreement about something as simple as how to greet another person after COVID. Our children are very unfamiliar with playground cultural rules. How to play with other children was very different in a collective society where our children were the minority. Here kids like different topics, have different interests, and different morals. It’s a time of wondering what the cultural rules are and not always liking what we see. Plus, our adjustment feels lonely because often people assume we, and our kids, should like it “back home.” Our challenges are unknown to others as we weather them.

One of my favorite questions throughout our time in Asia was first part of our training in Australia, “Which cultural rules should apply?” It’s been a very important question to think about on so many occasions overseas within a diverse mix of cultures. Not just which rules should but which rules do apply, and why do they apply? Did we operate as we did in our international church because the people with the most power—perhaps the leaders or those who have been around the longest—make the decisions? Do we even know how church would look or feel in the countries of the students who come along to worship with us? Have we considered if our ways to organize activities are alienating or insulting to those who are joining?

To ground this in a specific example—what dress code is followed by the leaders who speak during the service? Do women wear singlet tops—which in Australia on a hot summer’s day would be quite acceptable in many churches. Do men wear shorts? Both would be visual blocks for many brothers and sisters from around the world. Do we even know that we need to think about the question?

Another tangible example might be in the area of hospitality. If someone is to have a meal in another person’s home, who gives honor to whom? Is it more honoring to be the host or the hosted? If I host, do my preferences about shoes on or off determine what we do in my apartment, or does the comfort of the guest come above my preferred way?

Re-entering Australia this question still rings in my ears, and in the bottom of the reverse culture shock curve it comes with a level of frustration. Why do recycling bins only get emptied every fortnight and not every week? Who sets the cultural rule for how close we stand in a conversation at school drop off? Why is Facebook used that way? Why do Aldi check-out people pressure customers to exit so quickly? Why are the elderly not taken to parks in groups? Why don’t people feel free to sing or dance outside? Why do Australians cut each other—including their leaders—down?

This is the beauty and the struggle of returning to our passport country, having the opportunity to wrestle with these questions.

Just because our neighbors do it one way doesn’t mean we have to. Just because the kids in the playground play that game which makes people feel strange, doesn’t mean everyone has to.

Because we have seen so many other ways to do life, we don’t—and can’t—fit back into the cultural norms we might have fit before we left. We have changed as we have met person after person and heard their stories. Our worldview is no longer what it was—although parts of it are the same.

It takes energy to go through this wrestling. It’s not a new feeling—we have done it to some degree each time we have gone between our two countries. We realize how much we belong in both yet neither.

But now we are back with no plan to return overseas—and so the need to reintegrate is more important. We are not treading water and having one-off catch-ups until the next reunion some years later. We are transplanted and our roots have yet to go deep—but there is an internal fight about where we want them to go, and how deep.

This is the journey of re-entry at the bottom of the reverse culture shock curve. I wonder if there’s a parallel for people coming out of their experience of COVID—when their lives have been changed by what they have gone through.

For me, remembering what helped in culture shock when we first went overseas helps now. God is so very gentle and kind with us. His love is deeper than we can fathom. He is good. He is present. He is stable.

He is unsurprised by the changes we have faced. He is patient with us in our irritation—and not surprised by that either. He invites us to express it to him. It may not always feel safe to speak about our uncertain steps back into Australian society to other Australians, but God is safe, every time.

He made the world, keeps it, holds it. He loves those we have left behind including those we never got to farewell properly, because COVID disrupted community so much. He knows each grief no matter how ambiguous.

Jesus has been through his own experience of cross-cultural transitions—as a refugee in Egypt, returning to Nazareth, encountering Romans as a Jewish man, and in his humanity embracing the ultimate divide to be divine and human. There are daily decisions like exercise and routine that help to get through—but resting in Jesus is the ultimate pathway through reverse culture shock—all the way to the bottom of the curve and up again.

Image credit: Ben Low via Flickr.

Marie Nash

Marie Nash (pseudonym) and her family lived in Asia and served among the diverse expat community for a number of years before returning to Australia last year. View Full Bio


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